The French prelate, theologian, and preacher François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon (1651-1715) is best known for his advocacy of quietism.
Born on Aug. 6, 1651, François Fénelon was educated by the Jesuits. He became a priest at the famous Seminary of St-Sulpice and spent 3 years preaching to Protestants. He became an ardent disciple and friend of Jacques Bossuet. Fénelon produced his Treatise on the Existence of God as well as his Treatise on the Education of Young Girls at this time. Both were highly successful.
In 1688 Fénelon met Madame Guyon, who claimed to have mystical experiences and to have the secret of loving God. She had been imprisoned by the archbishop of Paris in a convent because he feared that she was in error. Fénelon believed in her stoutly; he visited her infrequently but corresponded with her voluminously. He was suffering at this time from an intense aridity of mind in regard to God. Intellectually he could prove God's existence, but emotionally he felt little or nothing toward God. Guyon seemed to him to have discovered or received the secret of such "feeling" in her childlike surrender to God and the simplicity of her approach to divine things.
About this time there was a controversy in the French Church about a heresy called quietism, a teaching according to which progress in virtue and in the love of God was achieved by submitting to God's action and grace. Its opponents maintained that quietists made no positive effort at being virtuous, that they depended passively on God's grace, and even neglected basic rules of Christian virtue and behavior. Fénelon was involved in this unpleasant controversy through his association with Guyon. She used to visit, on Fénelon's suggestion, a school for girls run by Madame de Maintenon. The latter disliked Guyon and reported her to the authorities. Guyon also submitted her doctrine for approval to Bossuet on Fénelon's suggestion. Bossuet, although fundamentally ignorant of theology, attacked both Guyon and Fénelon in 1697.
Hate now replaced friendship for Fénelon in Bossuet's mind. He saw him as a rival in public speaking and as the nation's foremost theologian and religious counselor. He sought to have Fénelon discredited. The teaching of Fénelon and Guyon was condemned by Pope Innocent XII on the insistence of Louis XIV under Bossuet's constant prodding. Fénelon submitted and then set out to outline his teaching on Catholic mysticism on a scale never before attempted.
In February 1695 Fénelon was made archbishop of Cambrai and from then until his death he spent his time in writing, teaching, and preaching. He was appointed tutor to Louis XIV's eldest grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne. For the duke he composed his Dialogues and Telemachus, together with other minor works. His ideas on politics were based on the universal brotherhood of man, an unpopular idea in the 18th century. He proved himself a first-rate literary judge in his Letter to the French Academy in 1714. He spent his last years writing against Jansenism. In his writings he explained the love of God and the simplicity of heart required in man in order to be able to practice that love. Fénelon died on Jan. 7, 1715.
Further Reading on François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon
Katherine Day Little's biography, François de Fénelon: A Study of a Personality (1951), is recommended. A popularly written account, sympathetic to Fénelon, is Michael de la Bedoyere, The Archbishop and the Lady: The Story of Fénelon and Madame Guyon (1956). Thomas Merton wrote a useful introduction to Fénelon's Letters of Love and Counsel, edited by John McEwen (1964). Fénelon's works are discussed in W. D. Howarth, Life and Letters in France: The Seventeenth Century (1965), and Philip John Yarrow, The Seventeenth Century, 1600-1715 (1967).