The Hidden Holiness of Charles Gobinet

In October 1646, the French crown placed a failing University of Paris college, the Collège du Plessis, under the administration of the illustrious Collège de la Sorbonne, newly enriched by  Cardinal Richelieu. The old Plessis, facing financial difficulties and near total collapse, needed complete reorganization and new leadership if it were to survive. Appointed principal of the newly-formed Collège du Plessis-Sorbonne was Charles Gobinet (1613-1690), a priest, a theologian, and an educator with a servant’s heart. Spending the remainder of his life—the next 43 years—at this post, he not only renewed his own college but bequeathed to the Church spiritual and educational writings to which young men and women would turn for generations.

Gobinet proved himself an able administrator. He brought order to Plessis-Sorbonne, and he placed it on such a solid financial footing that it lasted until its suppression during the French Revolution. Over his lifetime, he saved up enough of his personal funds to endow three new scholarships for poor boys at the college. As a clear indication that the college had dramatically improved its standing, we find among its students during Gobinet’s tenure the future educational theorist and historian Charles Rollin (1661-1741) and the famed future writer and theologian, Archbishop François Fénelon (1651-1715).

More importantly, Gobinet developed and put into action a strong vision of what a Catholic education should be. Late in life, he set out this vision in his Instruction on the Manner of Studying Well (Instruction de la manière de bien étudier, Paris, 1690). His priorities were clear: “The science [or knowledge] of salvation is the first and the principal science which it is needful to study.” And yet there was no question for him that “all the sciences come from God.” Indeed, he explained, “all the sciences that man can acquire are participations in the science of God.” Study—which was nothing less than seeking after the truth—was a virtue that, pursued rightly, would lead to other virtues and ultimately to God himself. In these principles, Gobinet was no innovator. He was expounding a long tradition in a way fitting to his own generation, a generation that saw hints of a wholesale rejection of Catholic education and even of Christianity itself.

In the Instruction on the Manner of Studying Well, Gobinet reflected on the intimate connections between study, prayer, and the moral life. A life of prayer and virtue was necessary to pursue studies with their proper end, God himself. This high purpose elevated and clarified the meaning of each discipline. Most of his course of studies followed standard Renaissance humanist models. Additional emphasis on systematic instruction in Catholic doctrine enabled the student to study with the right ends. Then Latin and Greek grammar, composition, and eloquence, along with the rest of the humanities curriculum (literature, logic, ethics, natural philosophy, and metaphysics), could foster a deeply Christian intellectual life.

In Gobinet’s view, the teacher was a steward not of isolated intellects, but of human persons with eternal souls. His disapproval of reading lascivious ancient literature, potentially opening him to accusations of prudish moralism, stemmed from his emphasis on spiritual formation and the final end of education. He believed that there was no sufficient reason to teach and read poetry designed to incite lust. As authorities to back up his argument, he cited the classical writers Plato, Aristotle, Quintilian, Plutarch, and—with purposeful irony—licentious Ovid, who had playfully declared that even his own poems rendered a man impure. Gobinet had no notion of prohibiting classical authors in general, and he made them essential to his curriculum. But if the Christian moral life of students mattered, then discrimination among ancient authors seemed to be basic good sense.

Gobinet’s particular genius in educating young Catholics lay in his ability to steer a path between the extremes of laxism and rigorism. During the second half of the seventeenth century, the Church in France was plagued by battles over whether to emphasize the lightness of Christ’s burden or the narrowness of the road that leads to life. With rigorist tendencies—and not exclusively among the Jansenists—winning the day, the Church needed careful men like Gobinet who saw the good insights of rigorism without falling into its errors. As a doctor of the Sorbonne, he condemned Jansenist doctrines every single time they came up for a vote. Simultaneously, Gobinet kept himself free from ties to the Jesuits, in a time when Jesuits were being painted as moral laxists who doled out cheap grace to unrepentant sinners.

Instead of diving into the rancorous theological polemics of his age, the theologian Gobinet chose the humbler pastoral path of helping the young to seek holiness. His model was neither Jesuit nor Jansenist. Rather, it was much more akin to the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), for whom gentleness and douceur—sweetness—were watchwords. The discourse of French spirituality having shifted toward rigor and away from douceur by Gobinet’s time, the latter was not as explicitly gentle as the Doctor of Charity. Yet hints of Gobinet’s Salesian leanings showed up in his highly popular Instruction for Youth in Christian Piety (Instruction de la jeunesse en la piété chrétienne), first published in 1655. In that work, he advised reading de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, as well as Luis de Grenada’s Sinner’s Guide, a book praised by de Sales. Rooted in the gentle spiritual wisdom of earlier decades, Gobinet avoided being swept away in the tide of rigorism. Even if he were stricter than the average Jesuit of his day, he rejected rigorist approaches that demanded an enormous degree of interior preparedness before receiving confession and Holy Communion.

Gobinet further showed his Salesian roots in his dedication to spiritually forming lay men and women. He believed that all young people needed the same deep interior piety, regardless of what state of life they would ultimately enter—whether they would be priests, religious, or married persons. An essential part of the educator’s role was to help young people to seek God’s will for their lives, to discern their calling. Like many other spiritual writers in his time, he explicitly wrote that people were “called” by God’s grace to the lay state in the world. Let no one claim that Catholic notions of lay vocation did not develop until the twentieth century.

The influence of Gobinet’s writings, especially the Instruction for Youth in Christian Piety, was long lasting. Several dozen French editions of that work were published between 1655 and 1851. It was regarded highly enough to be among the Catholic titles translated into English and printed in London during the brief reign of King James II, “for his household and chapel.”  By the early eighteenth century, it was available in Spanish, German, and Dutch. It was put into Polish in 1829, and Franciscans in Jerusalem published an Arabic translation in 1879.

Despite the former wide diffusion of this work, today Charles Gobinet is almost wholly forgotten.  His writings and his spirituality lacked the noble simplicity or poetic beauty needed to make them truly perennial. Gobinet was no St. Francis de Sales, no Bousset, no Fénelon, no Brother Lawrence. Yet Gobinet taught and wrote what the Church needed in his day. He and teachers like him helped to keep innumerable Catholics from falling into the worst excesses of rigorism, because they could go where Jesuits—perceived as dangerous laxists—could not.

To the Catholic educator today, Gobinet is a model of the humble worker in the vineyard. As he noted in the Instruction for Youth in Christian Piety, his writings flowed out of his daily experience at the Collège du Plessis-Sorbonne. His writings endured as long as they did, because they fulfilled real, observed needs of the young. Moreover, his works show us an inkling of how he poured out himself in his love for his students, in his desire that they become what God willed them to be. Gobinet is among the chorus of witnesses who remind us that, whether we teach history, classical literature, catechism, or neuroscience, we fail if our goal is anything short of the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

In his final moments, Gobinet remained a student and a teacher of Christian douceur. The priest attending his deathbed quoted Hebrews 10:31 as an exhortation to final perseverance: “How terrible it is to fall into the hands of the living God!” Gobinet responded with the serenity of the saints: “How sweet it is to fall into the hands of a God who died on a cross for us!”

Christopher J. Lane

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Christopher J. Lane is Assistant Professor of History at Christendom College. His current research, for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Notre Dame, focuses on the history of vocational discernment and of lay vocation in early modern France.

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