De Sales vs. Luther on Freedom and Religious Devotion

One of the major tenets of the Wittenberg Reforms implemented by Martin Luther in the early 1520s was his insistence on the equality of all men before God. A recognition of the “priesthood of all believers” was essential, according to Luther, to ensure proper respect for the rights of each individual person in regards to their religious experience. To him, there was no essential difference between the clergy and the laity, therefore the ordained and the non-ordained should each be free to do the things which had formerly been reserved to one vocational state or the other. In Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, Alister McGrath refers to this Lutheran agenda as the “democratization of faith,” and asserts that it was “one of the greatest themes of the Reformation” (p. 52). Specifically, this program supported things like the opportunity for clergy to marry and laypeople to interpret the Bible free from ecclesial authority. If we really believe that God created us with the same dignified human nature and potential for beatitude, it seems that Luther had a point when he insisted that our activities be interchangeable. The hierarchy and differentiation of roles in the Church seemed to him to be a separation of the holy from the unholy; the privileged from the underprivileged.

One generation later came another Catholic cleric who also saw a problem in the separate way clergy and non-clergy were viewed. St. Francis de Sales, whose birthday we celebrate on August 21, addressed the issue in a much different way than Luther had before him. Instead of focusing on equality of “rights,” Francis focused on equality of “calling.” The Cross of Christ was powerful enough to justify all of us, agreed both De Sales and Luther, but Francis recognized that the process of justification would look differently for different people. Francis knew that everyone, ordained or otherwise, was called to a life of devotion. Their mode and activity of life, however, would differ based on their particular talents, positions, and vocational states. As St. Francis wrote in his Introduction to the Devout Life:

“[T]he practice of devotion must be adapted to the capabilities, the engagements, and the duties of each individual. It would not do were the bishop to adopt a Carthusian solitude, or if the father of a family refused like the Capuchins to save money; if the artisan spent his whole time in Church like the professed religious, or the latter were to expose himself to all manner of society in his neighbor’s behalf as the Bishop must do. Such devotion would be inconsistent and ridiculous.”

Individual “rights,” for Francis, were only important in as much as they were oriented towards the goal of holiness. Restrictions pertaining to particular vocations were seen not so much as negative roadblocks which frustrated people’s lives and limited their potential, but instead as positive guardrails keeping them on the path they have chosen; the path God had prepared for their salvation. Francis was much less concerned with whether or not a person had a “right” to do something, and much more concerned with whether in prudence they ought to be doing it.

For Francis, freedom did not always mean removing restrictions; sometimes it meant creating them. Equality for him was not an exercise in inclusivity which removes all distinctions among individuals, as it was for Luther in his time and, through the influences of Protestantism and Modernism (notice the interrelation of these two movements), has proven to be in our own society. While Luther sought to eliminate differences among people, De Sales sought to harness them in order that each person may fulfill the role God has tasked them with faithfully and fruitfully. As St. Paul put it, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

St. Francis de Sales taught and fought against an individualism that exalted the preferences of each person, as opposed to their obligations to their families, communities, and, most importantly, to almighty God. He emphasized the primary duty of obedience to God, shared by all of us as His sons and daughters, which not only gives cohesion and mission to individual lives but also provides an objective direction for all of society, so sorely needed in the subjectivism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, to an even greater degree, that of the twenty-first century.

Without recognizing authority, hierarchy, and differentiated roles, communities cannot function in a positive way. Luther himself began to learn this (the hard way) when he returned to Wittenburg from his 9 month stint at the Wartburg Castle, his temporary hiding place in the aftermath of the Diet of Worms, to find that two of his colleagues had each begun to implement reforms of their own which differed from his. He would later be disgusted by the horrible Peasants Revolt of 1525, a natural consequence of his own proposal that individuals should interpret Scripture independently. Regarding the debate between the followers of Luther and those of Zwingli regarding the Real Presence in the Eucharist, McGrath states:

“[T]he question was not simply whether Luther or Zwingli was right: it was whether the emerging Protestant movement possessed the means to resolve such questions of biblical interpretation. If the Bible had ultimate authority, who had the right to interpret the Bible? … An authentic rule or principle had to be proposed that stood above Scripture—the very idea of which was ultimately anathema to Protestantism. The three leading reformers—Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, all recognized the importance of the questions; significantly, each offered a different answer” (p. 70).

The genius of St. Francis de Sales is that he was able to maintain the subjective and the objective in harmonious union. We are all called to the same goals, and to follow the same authority, though we do so by pursuing individual goals and by being obedient to the authorities required of us pertaining to our particular positions. His message is direly needed today, in a modern society permeated with the rhetoric of individualism which assumes, as a corollary to its message of self-affirmation, a sort of copy-cat mandate that whatever is done by one becomes an authorization, and even an obligation, for all. The wisdom of St. Francis de Sales reminds us that we are all justified in our actions only when they participate with goodness and truth, and the lives of others, in their virtues or vices, do not automatically serve as licenses or mandates for our own.

St. Francis de Sales is an example for us of how to work with the desire of the masses, which may on its own have a tendency towards irreligion and lawlessness, and redirect it in a constructive way. Seventeenth-century Christians desired an experience of their own worth and importance. They needed to feel that they were in control of, and responsible for, their own faith and worship. Christians, then as now, wanted their individual identity to count. Luther gave that to them in one way, St. Francis de Sales gave it in another. The former did it by encouraging people to define their own identity and relationship to God, the latter did it by encouraging people to accept their identity from God, and to live out their relationship with him accordingly.

 Editor’s note: The image above entitled “St. Francis de Sales hearing confession of a nobleman” was painted by Valentin Metzinger in 1753.

Dusty Gates


Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

  • Fred

    People are a fickle lot, one need look no further than scattered beliefs within the Catholic church, even amongst our bishops and cardinals. We have Catholics who turn their back on killing babies in the uterus while others turn a blind eye to social justice. I’m reminded that there were also strong divisions during the first council of Jerusalem, as well as at Nicaea and Trent. I wonder how proud Luther would be today if he could drive around and see all the churches that have unrecognizable names as a result of his reformation endeavors. I believe there is uniquely human quality that divides which we all recognize; namely the sin of pride. To be sure the church isn’t free from fault because human beings are involved, but I question peoples motives who believe that they now have a better interpretation of the bible than the 1500-2000 years of tradition passed down by those who have dedicated their lives to preserving that history. I read a lot but still can’t grasp everything and appreciate being able to dialog with those who have dedicated their lives to understanding the bible as well as those traditions. When I study apologetics I’m also appreciative to learn more and understanding the root of most of those traditions in the gospels. Ultimately it’s about loving Jesus Christ and if people can be drawn to him in whatever church they attend then that’s a wonderful thing. Thanks Dusty.

    • DE-173

      “We have Catholics who turn their back on killing babies in the uterus while others turn a blind eye to social justice.”

      The former is true, the latter is not. Abortion is a clear and unambiguous evil.

      What has been peddled as “social justice” is often little more than a thinly veiled advocacy of a burdensome and unsustainable welfare superstate that has not only not produced good fruit, it has resulted in widespread moral squalor and a dependent political constituency.

      • Fred

        I know, I was struggling to highlight contrast … and I also struggle plenty with being pithy as you can see. I actually have distress using the expression social justice because of just the points you raise. I appreciate your usual brevity in making your points (I know, not always – particularly when raw emotions are stirred).

    • JP

      I think you have a very poor understanding of the RCC, and an even poorer understanding of what came in the aftermath of Luther’s revolt. There is a world of difference between most Protestant sects and the RCC.And I would like you to name Catholic priest or Bishop that says abortion on demand and artificial birth control are okay.

      • Fred

        Of course there is, and it only gets more divergent with time. As I noted below I already struggle with brevity so no desire to get into treatise here other than to point to root pride. Probably nobody would state support for abortion when confronted, but many never discuss and chose to only homilize what they (or their parish) feel comfortable with while ignoring other uncomfortable truths.

      • Fred

        You know that there is no RCC, only a Roman rite for those who are in communion with the pope.

    • Catholic pilgrim

      What’s your point? The only time that all the Church members were perfectly united was that day at the upper room of the first Pentecost. Since then (because of men), divisions have come & heresies (stubborn lies against God) have spread, but the true Church of Christ stands & remains one: the holy Catholic & apostolic Church. The Catholic Church is the very Bride of Christ & also (like in Holy Matrimony where two Flesh become one, as Jesus said in St. Matthew’s Gospel) Christ’s very own Mystical Body. It’s not just about “being drawn to whatever church” you want. There’s a level of objectivity that must not be ignored.

  • montanajack1948

    I acknowledge that modernity has its hand full with unfettered and subjective individualism, and that it’s a burdensome task for any one of us to somehow define our own identity particularly in the absence of community. I’m not sure, however, that the instruction to “accept our identity from God” helps a whole lot. Is our God-given identity revealed to us by our place/status/role in society or by certain authority figures, or do we still have to figure it out for ourselves (through prayer, reflection, spiritual guidance, self-examination, etc.)? I’m not being argumentative; I’d just like clarification of what the difference, in practice, would be.

    • Fred

      It’s funny isn’t it, but with all the electronic media and instant access to information I think it could be argued that we as a society are less connected today than in the past in inter-personal ways, and it would appear also in our collective relationship with Jesus Christ. I don’t know if the cross has been any harder to bear in the past than it is now because as he told us, it will always be difficult to follow him. Unfortunately, we live in times with an ever oppressive central governance who delights in turning the screws down on religious liberty (or on the ones they don’t favor) while offending the sensibilities of natural law and morality. Playing on your words I could say that maybe our place/status/role can become more clear in response to the actions of certain authority figures who wish to lord over us but whom we find to be immoral. It can also be said that we’ve had a hand to play in watching things get to where they are by being private and/or timid in our own faith and mission. I don’t have all the answers Jack, but I know what offends me which has helped me to wake up from my slumber and to try and figure out what small things I can do try and turn things around.

      • montanajack1948

        Thanks, Fred.

  • DE-173

    Luther was a maniac, trodding through the glass shop as a bovine.

  • Catholic pilgrim

    For any Lutherans out there, I’m gonna keep it simple: Martin Luther LEFT the Church founded by Christ (not the other way around). The Church did not leave Luther, Luther left the Church. Individual Lutherans can very truly belong to Christ, but Lutheranism is ultimately (at its deepest core) based on solely man. May God have mercy on Martin Luther’s soul but what a bloody mess (religious wars in Europe, Iconoclasm, etc.), tragedy & division did Luther’s Protestations & evil actions cause. As Father Joseph Esper wrote on his book on Anti-Christs of History, Luther was not the Anti-Christ, but he did possess the spirit of the Anti-Christ. Hopefully, he repented at his deathbed; we should pray for him. St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us. St. Francis de Sales, pray for Lutherans & their conversion.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    “Cardinal Georges d’Amboise, nearing death retired to the convent of the Celestines at Lyons. Comparing his own illustrious life with that of a simple monk, Brother John, who waited upon him in his sickness, he said
    often to him, “Ah, Brother John, would that I had been Brother John.”
    -Digby, MORES CATHOLICI Vol. 4, Pg. 449

    The church needed his dazzling mind, diplomacy and even his complex aristocratic connections and he gave himself completely. He came ‘this close’ to being Pope,yet there are many times that ‘the Brother John’ that the cardinal would have loved to have been – surfaced and cast a glow on his life. But he did what was asked of him without reserve.

  • Amatorem Veritatis

    Ah yes…brother Martin…the gift that keeps on giving. One hopes that Luther came to realize his error(s) and offered a perfect act of contrition before his passing. As an ex-Lutheran, I sometimes muse that Luther was a post-modern relativist some 400 years before it became fashionable. The “democratization of Christianity” made possible what a very, very wise Vicar of Christ coined as “the dictatorship of relativism”, and all the deadly pathologies that it spawned. Assuming brother Martin did in fact repent his many sins, he must have had a long term lease on his special room in Purgatory. Just sayin!

    • DE-173

      Welcome home, AV.

  • Lochain

    ” (Cardinal Martini) criticised the Vatican’s position on birth control, and questioned the official stance on issues such as priestly celibacy, embryo donation and euthanasia – calling for “greater pastoral attention” for the terminally ill who say “in all lucidity” that they no longer want care that serves no purpose beyond the artificial prolonging of life. He even questioned the Church’s teaching on abortion, suggesting that legalisation had been a “positive” development in that it could “reduce or eliminate” illegal procedures.”
    This was taken from an obituary in the (London) Daily Telegraph and there was no contradiction from any official source, indeed no contradiction at all. I often heard in his life time that Cardinal Martini did support contraception and since most methods of modern contraception involve the use of abortifacients, it is but a small step to accepting legalised abortion. Certainly, I have been told by one priest that he supported abortion and, last time I heard of him, he was flourishing in a large and affluent parish. The sadness is that true, teaching for the health of our souls is very hard to come by in these times. I fear that we live in times akin to pre-Reformation times in the 16th century.

    • gaeliclass

      yes and you may recall Pope Benedict’s words when he accepted the Seat of Peter..’pray for me that I do not run from the wolves’..

  • Brian Greaves

    I find it ironic(sic) that the freedom espoused by Luther and the other ‘reformers’ seems to have worked in the opposite way. The by-word for severe control and repression of joyful human activities is summed up in the terms of ‘Lutherism’ and ‘Calvanism’ and ‘Puritanism’ and ‘Presbyterianism’ and the like, all coming from the ‘reformers’. The legacy of Cromwell and Queen Victoria gave the English that unenviable reputation of humourless staidness, but contributed to the ruthlessness and blood-thirstyness required for empire building. And the new reformist agenda of the socialist-rationalists have in many ways forced a new straight-laced behaviour of constraint on us, and removed many of our accustomed freedoms … all contrary to the media banners of supposed freedoms they display.