Can one be devout and wicked at the same time? The answer of St Francis de Sales

by Cristiana de Magistris

One day, when St Francis de Sales was speaking with Giampietro Camus, the bishop of Belley, (an admirer and spiritual son of his, on whom he had also conferred the episcopal ordination), the saint had this to say: “Be careful not to deceive yourself, because one can be very devout and, at the same time, very wicked.”

“Those,” replied the bishop of Belley, “are not the devout, but hypocrites”. 

“No,” the saint continued, “I am speaking of true devotion.” Not knowing how to solve the riddle, Bishop Camus asked for an explanation. The saint said:

“Devotion, of itself and by its nature, is only a moral and acquired virtue, not divine and infused, otherwise it would be a theological virtue, which is not the case. […] Now you know well that all moral virtues, even faith and hope, which are theological virtues, are compatible with mortal sin, in which case they are completely disfigured and dead, because they lack the charity that is their form, their soul and their life. And since one can have faith to the point of moving mountains without having charity, one can be a true prophet and a wicked man at the same time, as were Saul, Balaam and Caiaphas; one can work miracles, as Judas is believed to have done and, in spite of this, be as bad as he; one can distribute all one’s possessions to the poor and endure martyrdom without having charity; so much more easily is it possible to be very devout and at the same time very wicked, since by its nature devotion is a virtue much less worthy than those of which we have spoken. It should not therefore seem strange to you if I have said that one can be very devout and very wicked at the same time, since one can have faith, mercy, patience and constancy up to the aforementioned degrees and, together with all this, be corroded and destroyed by many deadly sins, such as pride, envy, hatred, intemperance and the like.”

“Then of what sort is the true devotee?” asked the bishop of Belley. 

“I repeat to you,” the saint replied, “that with these vices one can be truly devout and have true devotion, even though it be dead.” 

“But is dead devotion true devotion?” asked Bishop Camus. 

“Yes, it is true devotion,” was the surprising reply of the saint, “just as a dead body is truly a body, although it is devoid of a soul.” 

“But this true body is not a true man!” the bishop of Belley rejoined. 

“Of course,” replied the saint, “it is not a whole and perfect man, but the body of a true but dead man. Thus devotion without charity is a true but dead devotion […]. Charity makes man good, and devotion makes him devout. With the loss of charity, he loses the former quality rather than the latter; this is why I said that one can be devout and wicked.” Indeed, he had said, “very devout” and “very wicked”.

This statement could sound surprising on the lips of the saint who had set a plethora of souls on the path of the devout life, through most enlightened spiritual direction, and had dedicated to it an entire volume of his writings, which has remained immortal among the works of Christian spirituality. In the first chapter of the Philothea, or Introduction to the Devout Life — as if to setting the tone for his teaching — that the bishop of Geneva warns against dead devotion. And he gives the explanation for this: “Every one,” he writes, “paints devotion according to his own desires and fancies. One who is given to fasting, esteems himself very devout provided he fasts, although his heart is full of rancour; and while he scruples to dip the tip of his tongue in wine, or even in water, out of temperance, he does not hesitate to plunge it into his neighbour’s blood by slander and calumny. Another esteems himself devout because he says a great number of prayers every day, though afterwards his tongue indulges in all sorts of disagreeable, domineering, injurious speeches […]”. And the series of examples goes on to reach the pitiless conclusion: “Thus many people cover themselves with external practices which belong to devotion, and the world thinks that they are really devout and spiritual people, while in truth they are nothing but images and shadows of devotion.”

Among the most common sins that invalidate true devotion are those of speech, which the saint considered extremely harmful for one’s neighbour and dangerous for the one who commits them. One sins with words above all by judging others. The saint said, in this regard, that the soul of one’s neighbour is like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God commands not be touched — under penalty of severe punishment — since He has reserved judgement for himself. One of the most common sins is precisely that of rash judgement. For the sake of avoiding this disorder the saint gave an excellent rule: if an action of one’s neighbour can have a hundred faces, one must always look at the best of these. If one cannot excuse an action, one can still excuse its intention, and if one cannot even excuse the intention, one must at least blame the violence of the temptation, or ignorance, or the human weakness from which no human being is exempt. The saint also maintained that, normally, making rash judgments is the “occupation of the idle”, who, instead of thinking about themselves, spend their time considering the actions of others, and experience teaches that those who are curious to find out about the lives of others are very negligent in correcting their own. “Charity is afraid of evil,” the saint wrote, “what would it be if it were to go looking for it!”

St Francis de Sales also considered slander as a most pernicious sin, and worse than sins of thought or deed. Sins of thought, in fact, are harmful only to those who commit them, and do not give scandal or bad example, while sins of speech poison the hearts of others, sometimes in an irreparable way. Sins of action, if they are grave, are subject to public punishment, while sins of speech rarely are, which contributes to their being more commonly committed. Finally, sins of speech, especially slander and calumny, are rarely repaired, and even when they are, they always leave sad and indelible effects on their hearers. This is why he wrote to one of his spiritual daughters: “I implore you never to speak evil of your neighbour, nor to say things that could offend him even in the smallest things”.

The saint was so careful to preserve the reputation of others that he was circumspect even in the most legitimate jokes. Once when people were laughing in his presence about at a man with a big hump, the saint immediately said that the works of God are perfect and that that hunchback had a perfect hump! To his close friend, Cardinal de Bérulle, who had not shown the greatest self-restraint in writing against the Carmelites of France, the saint wrote: “I would like your gentleness and your humility to keep always and in everything their superiority with regard to your adversaries,” and therefore exhorted him to delete from his writing that “somewhat disturbing detail”.

Even in the defence of the truth, the saint affirmed the primacy of charity. On his prestigious mission in Chablais, the holy bishop converted a good 70,000 Calvinists, but he stated that disputes should not be brought into preaching, not even under the pretext of confirming the faithful in the truth of the Catholic Church, and he gave this wise reason: “In these arduous debates, the human intellect — on account of the corruption of nature — is so inclined towards evil that, in it, opposition overpowers understanding, so that it takes up the serpent in the place of bread”. In his sermons, therefore, as well as in his exchanges with Protestants he avoided disputes, but enveloped his speech in the highest charity, since “he who preaches with love”, he said, “preaches against the heretic enough, even if he does not say one word of dispute against him”.

Ten years after the death of the saint, the bishop of Belley, to whom St Francis de Sales had opened his heart, was elegantly reprimanded by St Jane Frances de Chantal and called to a closer following of his teacher and father. “You who so tenderly love the spirit of this blessed man,” de Chantal writes, “imitate him in his patience, capable of enduring everything, and in that charitable prudence of his that made him careful not to say or write anything that could be hurtful either in general or in particular… and not to discredit any person at all, no matter how petty and insignificant he may be.” This is one of the most complete summaries of the charity of the bishop of Geneva.

Charity, especially in words, is certainly one of the most unmistakable hallmarks of true and living devotion. At the end of his life, St John the Apostle was no longer able to stand and had himself carried to church in order to preach, yet he repeated none but these words: “Little children, love one another”. Tired of always hearing the same words, the faithful asked him the reason for it: “This is the great precept of the Lord: do this and you will have done enough.”

Modernity seems to have lost sight of this supreme charity, which is the soul of true devotion. Even a superficial glance at the Catholic media — which is unfortunately overflowing with innuendo, suspicion, judgment, slander, fake news and so on — often finds itself before a topsy-turvy Gospel: enemies are loved while friends are hated, and it is very difficult to say about them what was said of the first Christians: “Look how they love one another!”

This year, which is the fourth centenary of his death, may the great bishop of Geneva, teacher of true devotion, obtain for us the true evangelical spirit, since in the evening of our lives we will all be judged on charity.