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by Pascal P. Parente


Citing Pius XII's encyclical Mystici Corporis and condemned Quietist works, this article written by Pascal P. Parente in 1944 examines the errors of quietism, whose basic principle holds that Christian perfection can only result from a completely passive spiritual life.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review


24 – 30

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American Ecclesiastical Review, Baltimore, MD, January 1944

The recent Encyclical Mystici Corporis of our Holy Father Pope Pius XII condemns false mysticism and quietism. These two errors form but one erroneous system. Quietism is the effect of a false mysticism.

In explaining the nature of higher mystic unions, particularly of the transforming union, the mystics have fallen at times into gross exaggerations. It was either because they were unable to describe with proper terms the sublimity of the mystic union, or because "like the astronomers, they speak the language of appearances"1 and seem to confuse the divine and the human nature. Our Saints and other orthodox mystics, as a rule, explain and correct any such exaggerations into which they have fallen. Thus, they speak of thinking by the eternal thoughts of God, loving by His infinite love, willing by His will. Orthodox mystics insist on the personal identity of the soul and its difference from the Godhead in the mystic union and the Beatific Vision. False mystics, on the contrary, are convinced of their absorption and transformation into the divine substance and claim divine attributes and operations.

Catholic theologians have often expressed the desire for a statement of the Ecclesiastical Magisterium on mystical subjects. The Encyclical Mystici Corporis offers a very clear and definite rule of conduct in all discussions regarding the nature of any mystic union when it says: "Let all agree uncompromisingly on this, if they would not err from truth and from the orthodox teaching of the Church: to reject every kind of mystic union, by which the faithful would in any way pass beyond the sphere of creatures and rashly enter the divine, even to the extent of one single attribute of the eternal Godhead being predicated of them as their own."2 This golden rule protects the mystic writer from false mysticism and pantheism.

Quietism (from the Latin word quies, repose, inactivity) is the result of false mysticism. It is a theoretical and practical negation of asceticism. The basic principle of quietism is that Christian perfection is found only in a complete passivity of the soul. This passivity applies not only to mental prayer but to spiritual life in general. Any human effort or activity interferes with God's action. "Let God act" is the guiding principle of the quietists, meaning: Let God alone do everything. Early in life, a person, they say, should make an act of complete passivity. When this has been done, no other act of virtue is required, no resistance to temptation is necessary. Their perfection consists essentially of self-annihilation, mystical death, and absorption into the divine substance. Their part in the work of salvation and sanctification is limited to the passive exposure of their soul to the action of the Holy Spirit who does every thing in consequence of our union with Christ.

Quietistic tendencies are ever present. The same Encyclical Mystici Corporis condemns quietism and warns against its danger, adding thus one new condemnation to the long list of proscriptions of the same error: "Just as false and dangerous is the error of those who try to deduce from the mysterious union of all with Christ a certain unhealthy quietism. They would attribute the whole spiritual life of Christians and their progress in virtue exclusively to the action of the divine Spirit, setting aside and neglecting the corresponding work and collaboration which we must contribute to this action."3

The seventeenth century was the Christian century most afflicted with quietistic and semi-quietistic doctrines. We shall mention here the most famous quietistic writers of that period and their best known works.

The Capuchin Benedict Fytche, d. 1610, was the author of the Regula Perfectionis; seu breve totius vitae spiritualis compendium. This work was printed in 1625, and had many editions. It was condemned by the Holy See in 1689, together with about eighty other works of the same nature. The quietistic character of this book appears manifest in the full title of its English translation: The Rule of Perfection, "containing a brief and conspicuous abridgement of all the whole spiritual life, reduced to only this point, of the Will of God" (Rouen, 1609).

The secular priest Antonio de Rolas wrote a book entitled Vita dello Spirito "ove s'impara a far orazione, ed unirsi con Dio." (Madrid, 1620.) As it was often the case with quietistic works, the false doctrines were presented in a clever manner, as the great secret of the Saints of God, hence the book was approved by several bishops before it was condemned in 1689. In this quietistic work, the author recommends to all persons alike a mental prayer without acts, except preparatory ones.

Father John Falconi of the Order of Mercy, who died in Madrid in 1638, and for a time after his death was honored as Venerable, wrote a Lettre a une fille spirituelle; Letire a un Religieux, etc. His writings were condemned in 1688.

Pratique facile pour clever l'ame a la contemplation, by Francis Malaval, a layman of Marseilles, 1664. This work was soon attacked by Fr. Paolo Segneri, S.J. in his book Sette Principii, 1680, and was finally put on the Index in 1688.

Father of modern Quietism is the Spanish priest Michel de Molinos who lived for twenty years in Rome, where in 1675 he published his principal work, the Guida Spirituale. One of the latest English translations of this condemned work is that by K. Lyttelton, The Spiritual Guide, 1888. Molinos was very clever in presenting his quietistic doctrines, by using words and expressions consecrated by custom, but giving them a new meaning. It is not surprising, therefore, that praise and admiration for his work were expressed by some Cardinals and Inquisitors of the Holy Office. One of those Cardinals, on becoming Pope Innocent XI, offered Molinos living quarters in the Vatican.

Dominican and Jesuit theologians protested against the new doctrine of Molinos, noting how under his influence entire religious communities were disregarding long established ascetical exercises, vocal prayer, confession, etc., in order to waste their time in quietistic inactivity or Molinistic contemplation. At the outset, Molinos' protectors turned against the accusers, and one of them, the Jesuit Fr. Paolo Segneri, narrowly escaped being condemned to death. Molinos' hypocrisy did not last very long however. His doctrine was examined and condemned by the same Pope Innocent XI in 1687. Sixty-eight condemned propositions, taken out of his writings, express his Quietism.4 There were errors other than doctrinal in the charges brought against Molinos. He was convicted after a trial which lasted for two years. He confessed his immorality, and was condemned to life imprisonment. Nine years later, he died, reconciled with the Church.

About the same time, the works on Mysticism written by the Oratorian Pietro Matteo Petrucci, bishop of Iesi and later Cardinal, 1686, were proscribed by the Inquisition because affected by quietism. Petrucci submitted at once and resigned his bishopric in 1688.

Other quietists of this period were Joseph Beccarelli of Milan who retracted, and the Barnabite Francis Lacombe, who was Mme. Guyon's director. His work Orationis mentalis analysis was condemned in 1688.

The first of the sixty-eight condemned propositions of Michael Molinos expresses the fundamental idea of Quietism: "Man must annihilate his powers, and this is the inward way."5 If a person wishes to be active, he assumes a divine prerogative and offends God, who wants to act alone; hence every action, even in prayer, is an imperfection. "Let God act" means, therefore, remain passive and let God do everything. By such inactivity, the soul goes back to its origin, the divine nature into which it is then transformed (Prop. 5), in such a manner that the two are one, and so God lives and reigns in us (ibid.).

Quietistic passivity requires not only that no positively good actions of any kind be performed but also that no resistance be offered to temptations of any sort (Props. 35, 37, 38, 41, 42). Nothing must be asked from God; neither preparation nor thanksgiving are necessary for Holy Communion; no examination of conscience is advisable in the passive quietistic state (Props. 9, 15). The soul reaches a point where even the petitions of the Lord's prayer become objectionable (Prop. 34). Confession, theology, philosophy, are not for those who belong to the "inward way" (Prop. 59), because through their acquired contemplation they have reached a state of perfection where no sin is possible (Prop. 57). Having attained true deification and impeccability, the soul is not obliged to internal obedience to any superior, except God (Prop. 65).

Quietism found a fervent apostle in the French woman Mme. Guyon de la Mothe (1648-1717) whose writings amount to forty volumes, all of them condemned in 1689. Her principal works are: Moyen court et tres facile de faire oraison, (Grenoble, 1685); Les torrents spirituels; Opuscules; Sa Vie. The last one appeared in an English translation by J. T. Allen, in 1898, as Autobiography of Mme Guyon, (2 vols). Also in English, there had previously appeared: A Short Method of Prayer and Spiritual torrents, translated by Marston, 1875. Francis La Combe and Fenelon became her directors, but she succeeded in making them her own disciples after filling them with her notions. Mme. Guyon was not a woman of culture nor was she endowed with good judgment. Her writings prove that she was satisfied with any argument even when obviously false. But she had winning manners and knew how to make partisans. Preaching of God and prayer all the time, she made piety fashionable among the ladies of the court in France. Her piety, however, was pure quietism, abandonment carried to the extreme, namely to annihilation and spiritual death.

She demands obedience from Fenelon, who was her director: "Your littleness," she writes, "must extend itself to the point of believing and practising what God causes to be said to you by me" (Letter 108). She promises Fenelon the rank of a general in the great army of mystics, called "Michelins" or soldiers of St. Michael, who will establish the reign of true prayer on earth. In this mystical army that she intended to build there were offices of all sorts, a novice master, an almoner, a jailer, a street porter, a flower-girl, a portress, a female sacristan, etc. She has been defined, "half saint, half lunatic," entirely quietistic, but with some concessions towards activity. She marks the transition from pure quietism to semi-quietism.

Pure quietism like that of Molinos is fostered by Pantheism and Theosophism. It is an heretical system, based on false principles, leading to fatal consequences for morality. It is entirely opposed to Scripture and Tradition, wherein a Christian is urgently exhorted to work out his salvation by cooperating with the grace of God which is offered to all. Activity, efforts, endeavour, are demanded everywhere in the Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testament. The Decalogue, the performance of spiritual and corporal works of mercy enjoined by Christ as a necessary practice of a living charity, the precept of praying without intermission, the necessity for a Christian of denying himself, of taking up his cross daily and of following Christ in the practice of virtue, the necessity of hearing the Church and fulfilling her precepts,-all this means inward and outward activity, cooperation with God, not supine indolence and passivity.

The Protestant doctrine of justification without good works is fundamentally quietistic, with the difference that where a quietist makes an act of complete indifference or passivity, a Protestant makes an act of faith. Both expect God to do everything else with regard to their sanctification. For this reason, Protestants have rejected in part or entirely the Sacramental system. The necessity and utility of good works had been denied by Master Eckhart (1260-1327). His influence on Protestant thought, and the affinity of his doctrine with Protestant ideas, are well known. He affirms that the outward act is not commanded by God, because it is neither good nor supernatural, and that God loves the soul not the exterior act.6 The doctrine about sin of early Lutherans and of Michael Molinos can be found in Master Eckhart's 14th and 15th condemned propositions, (Denz. 514, 515). Master Eckhardt's principles were based on false mysticism and on quietism. He did not only admit a transformation and absorption of the just man into the divine substance, but also a perfect identity in nature and operation with God, including the creation of heaven and earth and the generation of the Word, (Ibid., 510, 513).

Before leaving modern quietism, we must mention one of its common and well known variations, namely semi-quietism. Introduced by Mme. Guyon, it found its noblest victim, for a time, in the Archbishop of Cambray, Francois de Salignac Fenelon.7 Here, too, we have the fundamental idea of waiting for divine action. When a practical resolution must be made, no action will be taken until we are urged thereto by God. The soul will wait doing nothing at all until the Spirit of God sets it in motion. This is acting by impulsion or fancy. The other idea which is characteristic of semi-quietism is the idea of "pure love." According to Fenelon, pure love is a perfect charity that excludes all fear, all hope, all thought of self-interest or advantage. It is an exaggerated disinterested love. It is exaggerated because it is carried so far that one becomes indifferent with regard to his own eternal salvation. Hope, like faith, remains with us in this life. Charity does not exclude hope but increases it. Even though the doctrine of "pure love" does not go to the absurd and immoral extremes of quietism, inactivity and passivity are encouraged by the fact that one becomes indifferent regarding his eternal salvation and depends exclusively — and for everything, on the action of the Holy Spirit.

Fenelon's doctrine was attacked by Bossuet and subsequently condemned as erroneous by Pope Innocent XII in 1699. The seventeenth century is, thus, characterized by quietism and semi-quietism till its very end. Fenelon humbly and nobly submitted to the condemnation of his doctrine and retracted. The doctrine of "pure love," however, has preserved its appeal, as something heroic in the spiritual life, to simple souls who do not stop to consider its fatal consequences and implications.

The quietists of the seventeenth century have only continued and enlarged quietistic doctrines disseminated in earlier centuries. The Alumbrados of Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were quietists professing doctrines received from the Pantheistic Brethren and Sisters of the free Spirit. According to these early quietists, perfection consists in complete absorption in God. The human will becomes identical with the divine. There is, then, no need for Sacraments, for law, for worship, and the person can indulge in carnal desires without staining the soul. The Beguines and the Beghards, condemned in the Council of Vienne (1311-12), and the Fraticelli, condemned a few years later (1318) by Pope John XXII, professed quietistic doctrines with regard to Christian perfection.

At the very beginning of Christianity, Antinomian Gnostics emancipated the soul of the "spiritual," who had acquired intuitive knowledge, from all obligations of moral law. The Messalians or Euchites (the "praying ones"), had only one duty, to pray. Prayer, according to them, makes a person entirely free. Passions and evil inclinations are no more. This was a kind of quietism.

The tendency of quietism has always been to reduce Christian duties and obligations to a minimum; the quietists of the seventeenth century reduced them to practically nothing.

End Notes

  1. ". . . comme les astronomes, ils parlent le langage des apparences." Aug. Poulain, Des Graces D'Oraison, Paris, Victor Petaux, 1906, c. XIX, no. 14.
  2. Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, June 29, 1943, (94.)
  3. Ibid., 101.
  4. Denzinger, 1221-1288.
  5. Denz., 1221: Oportet hominem suns potentias annihilare, et haec est via interna.
  6. Denzinger, 516, 517, 519.
  7. His semi-quietistic doctrine of pure love is found in his booklet entitled "Explications des Inaximes des Saints sur la vie interieure," Paris, 1697.

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