St. Francis de Sales and the Visible Church

(written 1/24/20)


st francis de sales catholic controversy

Those Apostles being gathered together in Jerusalem with the little company of the disciples and the most glorious Mother of the Savior formed the true Church. And of what kind? Visible without doubt, yea so visible that the Holy Spirit came to water those holy plants and seed-plots of Christianity.

–St. Francis de Sales, “On the Mission of the Church”, chap. V

The Church: The Scriptures, the sacraments, the family bound together by divine love. We take for granted that this institution is an end in itself. We don’t belong to the Catholic Church because we get free exercise classes, or free meals–though we enjoy a nice church dinner every now and again. We belong to the Catholic Church because we believe we find salvation in Her.

The life of the visible Church itself gives us a reason to believe in Christ and His revelation of God. Jesus of Nazareth founded this institution which has stunning marks of holiness—that is, the courage of the Apostles and martyrs, the beautiful lives of the saints, the universality of our Church’s ceremonies, the unique staying power of this two-thousand-year-old enterprise.

Our Church certainly seems to have supernatural integrity. She also seems to have managerial problems. Pretty severe ones. Severe enough that the unified whole seems to break down.

On the one hand, the evidently holy stuff: Christ, His Scriptures, His sacraments, the ancient saints. On the other hand, the evidently messed-up stuff: Extended sex-abuse cover-ups, lack of accountability, internecine strife ad nauseam, bishops shutting down peoples’ blogs and squelching free speech, etc.

No need to wonder how Protestantism started. We can see it clearly from where we find ourselves. The impetus to break down the whole that is the visible Church that carries invisible graces. Let’s keep the ‘pure’ stuff, and jettison the ‘worldly’ stuff. Let’s keep Scripture and jettison so-called ‘tradition.’ Let’s keep our ‘pure’ local group and jettison communion with compromised Rome. Let’s keep the doctrines I agree with and jettison the ones that I don’t. The pope runs an institution rife with corruption; therefore, I have the right to appoint myself my own personal pope.

We can see how it started, Protestantism. But: Now it’s 500 years later, and we can also see clearly that it doesn’t really work. St. Francis de Sales put it like this:

It does not follow that if a body is everywhere diseased, that it is therefore dead. Thus, widespread failure of faith does not mean that faith has failed in the Church, or that the Church is dead. (chapter X.)

Being “half-Catholic” doesn’t work, or trying to be Christian without Christ’s Church. The Church he founded is simply one, unbreakable thing. All the holy stuff has tons of perfectly human and messed-up aspects to it. And all the ‘worldly’ parts partake so intimately of the holiness that you actually can’t just chuck anything, without ultimately sinking the whole ship. As soon as anyone says to him- or herself, “Well, this solemn teaching; or this pope; or this Ecumenical Council just isn’t for me”—you wind up actually having nothing left. Because you don’t have Catholicism anymore.

They got through it, five centuries ago, the Catholics. They belonged to a holy Church with a lot of problems, but they did not become Protestants. St. Francis de Sales helped a lot of them. They had enough faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We can, too.


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