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.”

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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.

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