The Catholicity of the Church

By St. Francis de Sales.


That great Father, Vincent of Lerins, in his most useful Memorial, says that he must before all things have a great care to believe "that which has been believed by all [always and everywhere]" ... (1) such as the jugglers and tinkers; for the rest of the world calls us Catholic; and if we add Roman, it is only to inform people of the See of that Bishop who is general and visible Pastor of the Church. And already in the time of S. Ambrose to be Roman in communion was the same thing as being Catholic.

But as for your church, it is called everywhere Huguenot, Calvinist, Heretical, Pretended, Protestant, New, or Sacramentarian. Your church was not before these names, and these names were not before your church, because they are proper to it. Nobody calls you Catholics, you scarcely dare to do so yourselves. I am well aware that amongst you your churches call themselves Reformed, but just as much right to that name have the Lutherans, and Ubiquitarians, Anabaptists, Trinitarians, and other offshoots of Luther, and they will never yield it to you. The name of religion is common to the Church of the Jews and of the Christians, in the Old Law and in the New; the name of Catholic is proper to the Church of Our Lord; the name of Reformed is a blasphemy against Our Lord, who has so perfectly formed and sanctified his Church in his blood, that it must never take other form than of his all lovely Spouse, of pillar and ground of truth. One may reform the nations in particular, but not the Church or religion. She was rightly formed, change of formation is called heresy or irreligion. The tint of Our Savior’s blood is too fair and too bright to require new colors.

Your church, then, calling itself Reformed, gives up its part in the form which the Savior had established. But I cannot refrain from telling you what Beza, Luther, and Peter Martyr think on this. Peter Martyr calls you Lutherans, and says you are brothers to them; you are then Lutherans; Luther calls you Zwinglians (2) and Sacramentarians; Beza calls the Lutherans Consubstantiators and Chymists, and yet he puts them in the number of Reformed churches. See then the new names which the reformers acknowledge for one another. Your church, therefore, not having even the name of Catholic, you cannot with a good conscience say the Apostles’ Creed; if you do, you judge yourselves, who, confessing the Church Catholic and universal, obstinately keep to your own, which most certainly is not such. If S. Augustine were living now, he would remain in our Church, which from immemorial time is in possession of the name of Catholic.





The Church to be Catholic must be universal in time, and to be universal in time it must be ancient; antiquity then is a property of the Chruch. And in relation to heresies it must be more ancient than any of them, and must precede all, because, as Tertullian excellently says: (3) "Error is a corruption of truth, truth then must precede." The good seed is sown first, the enemy who oversows cockle comes afterwards. Moses was before Abiron, Dathan, and Core; the Angels were before the devils; Lucifer stood in the light before he fell into the eternal darkness; the privation must follow the form. S. John says of heretics (I Ep. xix. 19): They went out from us; they were then within before they went out; the going out is heresy, the being within is fidelity; the Church then precedes heresy. So the coat of Our Lord was made whole before it was divided. And although Ismael was before Isaac, that does not signify that error was before truth, but that the true shadow, Judaism, was before the body, Christianity, as S. Paul says (Gal. iv.)

Tell us now, I pray you, – quite the time and place when and where our Church first appeared after the Gospel? – the author and doctor who called it together. I will use the very words of a doctor and martyr of our age, (4) and they are worthy of close attention.

"You own to us, and would not dare to do otherwise, that for a time the Roman Church was holy, Catholic, Apostolic. Certainly then, when it deserved those holy praises of the Apostle (Rom. i. xv. xvi.): Your faith is spoken of in the whole world... I make a commemoration of your always... I know that when I come to you I shall come in the abundance of the blessing of the gospel of Christ... All the Churches of Christ salute you... For your obedience is published in every place; then, when S. Paul, in prison free, sowed the Gospel; when S. Peter was governing the Church assembled in Babylon; when Clement, so highly praised by the Apostle, was stationed at the rudder; when the profane Caesars, like Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Antoninus, were massacring the Bishops of Rome; yea and then also when Damasus, Siricius, Anastasius, and Innocent were holding the Apostolic helm: this on the testimony of Calvin himself, for he freely confesses that at that time they had not yet strayed from the Evangelic doctrine. Well then, when was it that Rome lost this widely renowned faith? When did it cease to be what it had been? – at what time? – under what bishop? – by what means? – by what force? – by what steps did the strange religion take possession of the City and of the whole world? – what protest, what troubles, what lamentations did it evoke? How? – was everybody asleep throughout the whole world, while Rome, Rome I say, was forging new Sacraments, new Sacrifices, and new doctrines? Is there not to be found one single historian, either Greek or Latin, friend or stranger, to publish or leave behind some traces of his commentaries and memoirs on so great a matter?"

And, in good truth, it would be a strange hap if historians, who have been so curious to note the most trifling changes in cities and peoples had forgotten the most noteworthy of all those which can occur, that is, the change of religion in the most important city and province of the world, which are Rome and Italy.

I ask you, gentlemen, whether you know when our Church began the pretended error. Tell us frankly; for it is certain that, as S. Jerome says, (5) "to have reduced heresy to its origin is to have refuted it." Let us trace back the course of history up to the foot of the cross; let us look on this side and on that, we shall never see that this Catholic Church has at any time changed its aspect — it is ever itself, in doctrine and in Sacraments.

We have no need against you, on this important point, of other witnesses than the eyes of our fathers and grandfathers to say when your pretended Church began. In the year 1517 Luther commenced his Tragedy: in ‘34 and ‘35 they composed an act in these parts; Zwingle and Calvin were the chief players in it. Would you have me detail by list with what fortune and deeds, by what force and violence, this reformation gained possession of Berne, Geneva, Lausanne, and other towns – what troubles and woes it brought forth? You will not find pleasure in this account; we see it, we feel it. In a word, your Church is not yet eighty years old; its author is Calvin; its result the misery of our age. Or if you would make it older, tell us where it was before that time. Beware of saying it existed but was invisible; — for if it were not seen who can say that it existed? Besides, Luther contradicts you, who confesses that in the beginning he was quite alone.

Now, if Tertullian already in his time bears witness that Catholics refuted the errors of heretics by their posteriority and novelty, when the Church was only in her youth — "we are wont," says he (6), "to prescribe against heretics, for brevity’s sake, on the argument of posteriority" — how much more right have we now? And if one of the Churches must be the true, this title falls to ours which is most ancient; and to your novelty the infamous name of heresy.




Although the Church might be ancient, yet it would not be universal in time if it had failed at any period. The heresy of Nicolaites is ancient but not universal, for it only lasted a very little while. And as a whirlwind which seems ready to displace the sea then suddenly is lost in itself, or as a mushroom, which is born of some noxious vapor in a night, appears and in a day is gone, — so every heresy, ancient as it may be, has at last disappeared, but the Church endures perpetually. (7)

I will say to you, as I have said above: show me a decade of years since Our Lord ascended into heaven in which decade our Church has not existed. The reason why you find yourselves unable to say when our Church began is that it has always existed. And if you would care to make yourselves honestly clear about this, Sanders in his Visible Monarchy, and Gilbert Genebrard in his Chronology would furnish you light enough, and particularly the learned Caesar Baronius in his Annals. But if you are not willing all at once to abandon the books of your masters, and have not your eyes blinded with too excessive a passion, you will, if you look closely into the Centuries of Magdebourg, see everywhere nothing but the actions of Catholics; for, says very well a learned man of our age, if they had not collected these there they would have left one thousand five hundred years without history. I will say something on this point afterwards.

Now, as to your Church, — let us suppose its lie to be truth, that it was in the time of the Apostles; it will not on that account be the Catholic Church, for the Catholic Church must be universal in time: she must the always continue. But, tell me, where was your Church a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago? Point it out you cannot, for it did not exist: therefore it is not the true Church. It existed, some one will perhaps say to me, but unknown. Goodness of God! Who cannot say the same? — Adamite, Anabaptist, everybody will take up this argument. I have already shown that the Church militant is not invisible; I have shown that she is universal in time; I will show you that she cannot be unknown.




The universality of the Church does not require that all provinces or missions receive the Gospel at once, it is enough that they do so one after another; in such sort, however, that the Church is always seen, and is always known as that which has existed throughout the whole world or the greater part thereof; so that one may be able to say: Come let us go up into the mountain of the Lord. (Is. ii. 3). For the Church shall be as the sun, says the Psalm, and the sun is not always shining equally in all countries: enough if by the end of the year there is no one who can hide from its heat. (Ps. xviii.) So will it suffice that by the end of the world Our Lord’s prediction be fulfilled, that it behoves that penance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke. ult.).

Now the Church in the time of the Apostles everywhere spread forth its branches, covered with the fruits of the Gospel, as S. Paul testifies (Rom. i.) S. Irenaeus says the same of his time, (9) speaking of the Roman or papal Church, to which he will have all the rest of the Church subject on account of its superior authority.

Prosper speaks of our Church, not yours, when he says: (10) "In the pastoral honor, Rome, see of S. Peter, is head of the universe, which she has not reduced to her dominion by war and arms, but has acquired by religion." You see clearly that he speaks of the Church, that he acknowledged the Pope of Rome as its head. In the time of S. Gregory there were Catholics everywhere, as may be seen by the Epistles which he wrote to the bishops of almost all nations. In the time of Gratian, Valentinian and Justinian, there were everywhere Roman Catholics, as may be seen by their laws. S. Bernard says the same of his time; and you know well that it was so in the time of Godfrey de Bouillon. Since then, the same Church has come to our age, ever Roman and papal. So that even if our Church now were much less that it is, it would not cease to be most Catholic, because it is the same Roman Church, which has been ,and which has possessed all the provinces of the nations, and peoples without number: — but, it is still now extended over the whole world; in Transyvlania, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, and throughout all Germany; in France, in Italy, in Sclavonia, in Candia, in Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Malta, Corsica, in Greece, in Armenia, in Syria, and everywhere.

Shall I add to the list the Eastern and Western Indies? He who would have a compendium of these must attend a general Chapter or assembly of the Religious of S. Francis, called Observantines. He would see Religious arrive from every quarter of the world, Old and New, under the obedience of a simple, lowly, insignificant man: so that these alone would be enough for the Church to fulfil that part of the prophecy of Malachy (i.): In every place there is sacrifice... to my name.

On the contrary, gentleman, the pretenders pass not the Alps on our side, nor the Pyrenees on the side of Spain; Greece knows you not; the other three parts of the world do not know who you are, and have never heard of Christians without sacrifice, without altar, without head, without cross, as you are; in Germany your comrades the Lutherans, Brentians, Anabaptists, Trinitarians, eat into your portion; in England the Puritans, in France the Libertines; — how then can you be so obstinate, and continue thus apart from the rest of the world, as did the Luciferians and Donatists? I will say to you, as S. Augustine said to one of your fellows: (11) "Be good enough, I beseech you, to enlighten us on this point; — how it can be that Our Lord has lost his Church throughout the world, and has began to have none save in you alone." Surely you reduce Our Lord to too great a poverty, says S. Jerome. (12) But if you say your church was already Catholic, in the time of the Apostle, show us that it existed at that time, for all the sects will say the will you graft this little scion of pretended religion on that holy and ancient stock? Make your church touch by a perpetual continuation the primitive Church, for if they touch not, how can the one draw sap from the other. But this you will never do, unless you submit to the obedience of the Catholic [Church], you will never be, I say, with those who shall sing (Apoc. v. 9): Thou has redeemed us in thy blood, from every tribe and tongue, and people and natoin, and hast made us a kingdom to our God.




Perhaps you will say, at last, that after a time your church will spread its wings, and will become Catholic by process of time; but this is talking in the air. For if an Augustine, a Chrysostom, an Ambrose, a Cyprian, a Gregory, and that great multitude of excellent pastors, have not been able to manage well enough to prevent the Church from tumbling over soon after their time, how [shall] Calvin, Luther, and the rest [do so]? What likelihood is there that it should grow stronger now, under the charge of your minsters, who neither in sanctity nor in doctrine are comparable with those? If the Church in its spring, summer, and autumn has not been fruitful, how would you have one gather fruits from it in winter? If in its youth it has made no progress, how far would you have it run in its old age?

But I say further; your church is not only not Catholic, but never has been, not having the power nor the faculty of producing children, but only of stealing the offspring of others, as the partridge does. And yet it is certainly one of the properties of the Church to be fertile; it is for that, amongst other reasons, that she is called Dove. And if her Spouse, when he would bless a man, makes his wife fruitful, like a fruitful vine on the sides of his house (Ps. cxxvii.), and makes the barren woman to dwell in a house, the joyful mother of many children (Ps. cxii.), ought he not himself have a bride who should be fruitful, yea, according to the holy Word (Is. liv.), this desolate one should have many children, this new Jerusalem should be most populous, and have a great generation. The Gentiles shall walk in thy light, says the Prophet (Ib. lx.), and kings in the glory of thy rising. Lift up thy eyes round about and see; all these are gathered together, they are come to thee: thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise up at thy side: and (liii.): because his soul hath laboured ... therefore will I distribute to him very many. Now this fertility and these great nations of the Church come principally by preaching, as S. Paul says (I Cor. iv. 15): In the Gospel I have begotten you. The preaching, then, of the Church ought to be as a flame: Thy word is fiery, O Lord (Ps. cxviii. 140). And what is more active, lively, penetrating, and more quick to alter and give its form to other matters than fire?

Such was the preaching of S. Augustine in England, of S. Boniface in Germany, of S. Patrick in Ireland, of Willibrord in Frisia, of Cyril in Bohemia, of Adalbert in Poland, of Stephen in Hungary, of S. Vincent Ferrer and John Capistran; such the preaching of (13) .... Francis Xavier, and a thousand others, who have overturned idolatry by holy preaching; and all were Roman Catholics.

On the contrary, your ministers haven to yet converted any province from paganism, nor any country. To divide Christendom, to create factions there, to tear in pieces the robe of Our Lord, is the effect of their preachings. Christian doctrine is as a gentle rain, which makes unfruitful soil to bring forth; theirs rather resembles hail, which beats down and destroys the harvests, and makes barren the most fertile lands. Take notice of what S. Jude says: Woe to them who ... have perished in the gainsaying of Core (Core was a schismatic); these are spots in their banquets, feasting together without fear, feeding themselves, clouds without water which are carried about by the wind: — they have the exterior of the Scriptures, but they have not the interior moisture of the Spirit: — unfruitful tree of the autumn, — which have not the leaves of the letter nor the fruit of the inner meaning; twice dead — dead to charity by schism, and to faith by heresy; plucked up by the roots, unable any more to bear fruit; — raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own confusion — of disputes, contests and violent changes; wandering stars, — which can serve as guides to no one, and have no firmness of faith but change about it in every direction. What wonder then that your preaching is sterile? You have but the bark without the sap, and how would you have it germinate? You have only the sheath without the sword, the letter without the meaning; no wonder you cannot uproot idolatry. So S. Paul, (14) speaking of those who separate from the Church, protests that they shall advance no further. If then your church can in no way style itself Catholic up to this present, still less can you hope it may do so afterwards, since its preaching is so feeble, and its preachers have never undertaken, as Tertullian says, (15) the business or commission "of converting the heathens, but only of perverting our own." Oh what a church, then which is neither one, nor holy, nor Catholic, and, which is worse, can have no reasonable hope whatever that it will ever become so.


 1. There is an hiatus in the MS. Here. In the earlier part of the broken sentence the Saint has apparently been saying that Catholics are called Romans by the lower orders. [Tr.]

2. This word and one or two other names in this sentence cannot be certainly made out. The argument is not effected. [Tr.]

3. De Praesc. xxix.

4. Campion, Decem Rationes, 7.

5. Adv. Lucif. 28.

6. De Praesc. xxx. Seqq.

7. Here occurs a passage on the perpetuity of the Church, which has already appeared, in somewhat fuller form, in Part I. chaps. ix., x. The reader is referred to these chapters and to the Preface. [Tr.]

8. This passage on the universality of the Church is the same as Part I. c. xi.; see previous note. [Tr.]

9. iii. 3.

10. De Igratis. 40.

11. Contra Don.

12. Contra Lucif.

13. There are four or five words here in the MS. Which we fail to make out. There is some indication of the names of (S.) Louis Bertrand, and Anchieta, the others appear to be Henrye and Lorier. [Tr.]

14. 2 Tim. iii. 9.

15. De Praesc. xlii.