Quietism (Latin quies, quietus, passivity) in the broadest sense is the doctrine which declares that man's highest perfection consists in a sort of psychical self-annihilation and a consequent absorption of the soul into the Divine Essence even during the present life. In the state of "quietude" the mind is wholly inactive; it no longer thinks or wills on its own account, but remains passive while God acts within it. Quietism is thus generally speaking a sort of false or exaggerated mysticism, which under the guise of the loftiest spirituality contains erroneous notions which, if consistently followed, would prove fatal to morality. It is fostered by Pantheism and similar theories, and it involves peculiar notions concerning the Divine cooperation in human acts.
In a narrower sense Quietism designates the mystical element in the teaching of various sects which have sprung up within the Church, only to be cast out as heretical. In some of these the Quietistic teaching has been the conspicuous error, in others it has been a mere corollary of more fundamental erroneous doctrine. Quietism finally, in the strictest acceptation of the term, is the doctrine put forth and defended in the seventeenth century by Molinos and Petrucci. Out of their teaching developed the less radical form known as Semiquietism, whose principle advocates were Fénelon and Madame Guyon. All these varieties of Quietism insist with more or less emphasis on interior passivity as the essential condition of perfection; and all have been proscribed in very explicit terms by the Church.
In its essential features Quietism is a characteristic of the religions of India. Both Pantheistic Brahmanism and Buddhism aim at a sort of self-annihilation, a state of indifference in which the soul enjoys an imperturbable tranquillity. And the means of bringing this about is the recognition of one's identity with Brahma, the all-god, or, for the Buddhist, the quenching of desire and the consequent attainment of Nirvana, incompletely in the present life, but completely after death. Among the Greeks the Quietistic tendency is represented by the Stoics. Along with Pantheism, which characterizes their theory of the world, they present in their apatheia an ideal which recalls the indifference aimed at by the Oriental mystics. The wise man is he who has become independent and free from all desire. According to some of the Stoics, the sage may indulge in the lowest kind of sensuality, so far as the body is concerned, without incurring the least defilement of his soul. The Neoplatonists (q.v.) held that the One gives rise to the Nous or Intellect, this to the world-soul, and this again to individual souls. These, in consequence of their union with matter, have forgotten their Divine origin. Hence the fundamental principle of morality is the return of the soul to its source. The supreme destiny of man and his highest happiness consists in rising to the contemplation of the One, not by thought but by ecstasy (ekstasis).
The origin of these Quietistic tendencies is not hard to discover. However strongly the Pantheistic conception of the world may appeal to the philosophic minded, it cannot do away with the obvious data of experience. To say that the soul is part of the Divine being or an emanation from God enhances, apparently, the dignity of man; but there still remains the fact that passion, desire, and moral evil make human life anything but Divine. Hence the craving for deliverance and peace which can be obtained only by some sort of withdrawal from action and from dependence on external things and by a consequent immersion, more or less complete, in the Divine being. These aberrations of Mysticism continued even after the preaching of Christianity had revealed to mankind the truth concerning God, the moral order, and human destiny. Gnosticism, especially the Antinomian School, looked for salvation in a sort of intuitive knowledge of the Divine which emancipated the "spiritual" from the obligation of the moral law. The same Quietistic tendency appears in the teaching of the Euchites or Messalians, who maintained that prayer frees the body from passion and the soul from evil inclination, so that sacraments and penitential works are useless. They were condemned at the Synod of Side in Pamphilia (383) and at Ephesus (431). The Bogomili of the later Middle Ages were probably their lineal descendants.
Medieval Quietism is further represented in the vagaries of Hesychasm, according to which the supreme aim of life on earth is the contemplation of the uncreated light whereby man is intimately united with God. The means for attaining to such contemplation are prayer, complete repose of body and will, and a process of auto-suggestion. Among the errors of the Beguines and Beghards condemned by the Council of Vienne (1311-12) are the propositions: that man in the present life can attain such a degree of perfection as to become utterly impeccable; that the "perfect" have no need to fast or pray, but may freely grant the body whatsoever it craves; that they are not subject to any human authority or bound by the precepts of the Church (see Denzinger-Bannwart, 471 sqq.). Similar exaggerations on the part of the Fraticelli led to their condemnation by John XXII in 1317 (Denzinger-Bannwart, 484 sqq.). The same pope in 1329 proscribed among the errors of Meister Eckhart the assertions that (prop. 10) we are totally transformed into God just as in the sacrament the bread is changed into the Body of Christ; that (14) since God wills that I should have sinned I do not wish that I had not sinned; that (18) we should bring forth the fruit, not of external actions, which do not make us good, but of internal actions which are wrought by the Father abiding within us (Denzinger-Bannwart, 501, sqq).
Quite in accord with their Pantheistic principles, the Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit (thirteenth to fifteenth century) held that they who have reached perfection, i.e. complete absorption in God, have no need of external worship, of sacraments, or of prayer; they owe no obedience to any law, since their will is identical with God's will; and they may indulge their carnal desires to any extent without staining the soul. This is also substantially the teaching of the Illuminati (Alumbrados), a sect that disturbed Spain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
It was the Spaniards Michael de Molinos who developed Quietism in the strictest sense of the term. From his writings, especially from his "Dux spiritualis" (Rome, 1675), sixty-eight propositions were extracted and condemned by Innocent XI in 1687 (Denzinger-Bannwart, 1221 sqq.). The key-note of the system is contained in the first proposition: man must annihilate his powers and this is the inward way (via interna); in fact, the desire to do anything actively is offensive to God and hence one must abandon oneself entirely to God and thereafter remain as a lifeless body (prop. 2). By doing nothing the soul annihilates itself and returns to its source, the essence of God, in which it is transformed and divinized, and then God abides in it (5). In this inward way, the soul has not to think either of reward or of punishment, of heaven or hell, of death or eternity. It must not concern itself about its own state, its defects, or its progress in virtue; having once resigned its will to God it must let Him work out His will without any action of the soul itself (7-13). He who has thus committed himself entirely to God must not ask anything of God, or render thanks to Him; must take no account of temptations nor offer any active resistance; "and if nature be stirred one must permit its stirring because it is nature" (14-17). In prayer one must not use images or discursive thought, but must remain in "obscure faith" and in quiet, forgetting every distinct thought of the Divine attributes, abiding in God's presence to adore, love and serve Him, but without producing any acts because with these God is not pleased. Whatever thoughts arise during prayer, even though they be impure or against faith, if they are not voluntarily encouraged nor voluntarily expelled but are suffered with indifference and resignation, do not hinder the prayer of faith but rather enhance its perfection. He who desires sensible devotion is seeking not God but himself; indeed every sensible effect experienced in the spiritual life is abominable, filthy, unclean (18-20).
No preparation is required before Communion nor thanksgiving after other than that the soul remain in its usual state of passive resignation; and the soul must not endeavour to arouse in itself feelings of devotion. Interior souls resign themselves, in silence, to God; and the more thorough their resignation the more do they realize that they are unable to recite even the "Pater Noster". They should elicit no acts of love for the Blessed Virgin or the saints or the Humanity of Christ, because, as these are all sensible objects, love for them is also sensible. External works are not necessary to sanctification, and penitential works, i.e. voluntary mortification should be cast off as a grievous and useless burden (32-40). God permits the demon to use "violence" with certain perfect souls even to the point of making them perform carnal actions either alone or with other persons. When these onsets occur, one must make no effort but let the demon have his way. Scruples and doubts must be set aside. In particular, these things are not to be mentioned in confession, because by not confessing them the soul overcomes the demon, acquires a "treasure of peace", and attains to closer union with God (41-52). The "inward way" has nothing to do with confession, confessors, cases of conscience, theology, or philosophy. Indeed, God sometimes makes it impossible for souls who are advanced in perfection to go to confession, and supplies them with as much grace as they would receive in the Sacrament of Penance. The inward way leads on to a state in which passion is extinguished, sin is no more, sense is deadened, and the soul, willing only what God wills, enjoys an imperturbable peace: this is the mystic death. They who pursue this path must obey their superiors outwardly; even the vow of obedience taken by religious extends only to outward actions, only God and the director enter into the soul's interior. To say that the soul in its interior life should be governed by the bishop is a new and very ridiculous doctrine; for on the hidden things the Church passes no judgment (55-68).
From this summary it is readily seen why the Church condemned Quietism. Nevertheless, these doctrines had found adherents even in the higher ranks of the clergy, such as the Oratorian, Pietro Matteo Petrucci (1636-1701), who was made Bishop of Jesi (1681), and raised to the cardinalate (1686). His works on Mysticism and the spiritual life were criticized by the Jesuit Paolo Segneri, and a controversy ensued which resulted in an examination of the whole question by the Inquisition, and the proscription of fifty-four propositions taken from eight of Petrucci's writings (1688). He submitted at once, resigned his bishopric in 1696, and was appointed by Innocent XII Apostolic visitor. Other leaders of the Quietist movement were: Joseph Beccarelli of Milan, who retracted before the Inquisition at Venice in 1710; François Malaval, a blind layman of Marseilles (1627-1719); and especially the Barnabite François Lacombe, the director of Mme. Guyon, whose views were embraced by Fénelon.
The doctrine contained in Fénelon's "Explication de Maximes des Saints" was suggested by the teachings of Molinos, but was less extreme in its principles and less dangerous in its application; it is usually designated as Semiquietism. The controversy between Bossuet and Fénelon has already been noticed. The latter submitted his book to the Holy See for examination, with the result that twenty-three propositions extracted from it were condemned by Innocent XII in 1699 (Denzinger-Bannwart, 1327 sqq.). According to Fénelon, there is an habitual state of the love of God which is wholly pure and disinterested, without fear of punishment or desire of reward. In this state the soul loves God for His own sake not to gain merit, perfection, or happiness by loving Him; this is the contemplative or unitive life (props. 1, 2). In the state of holy indifference, the soul has no longer any voluntary deliberate desire in its own behalf except on those occasions in which it does not faithfully cooperate with all the grace vouchsafed to it. In that state we seek nothing for ourselves, all for God; we desire salvation, not as our deliverance or reward or supreme interest, but simply as something that God is pleased to will and that He would have us desire for His sake (4-6). The self-abandonment which Christ in the Gospel requires of us is simply the renunciation of our own interest, and the extreme trials that demand the exercise of this renunciation are temptations whereby God would purify our love, without holding out to us any hope even in regard to our eternal welfare. In such trials the soul, by a reflex conviction that does not reach its innermost depths, may have the invincible persuasion that it is justly reprobated by God. In this involuntary despair it accomplishes the absolute sacrifice of its own interest in regard to eternity and loses all interested hope; but in its higher and most inward acts it never loses perfect hope which is the disinterested desire of obtaining the Divine promises (7-12). While meditation consists in discursive acts, there is a state of contemplation so sublime and perfect that it becomes habitual, i.e. whenever the soul prays, its prayer is contemplative, not discursive, and it needs not to return to methodical meditation (15-16). In the passive state the soul exercises all the virtues without adverting to the fact that they are virtues; its only thought is to do what God wills; it desires even love, not as its own perfection and happiness, but simply in so far as love is what God asks of us (18-19). In confession the transformed soul should detest its sins and seek forgiveness not as its own purification and deliverance but as something that God wills and that He would have us will for His glory (20). Though this doctrine of pure love is the evangelical perfection recognized in the whole course of tradition, the earlier directors of souls exhorted the multitude of the just only to practices of interested love proportioned to the graces bestowed on them. Pure love alone constitutes the whole interior life and is the one principle and motive of all actions that are deliberate and meritorious (22-23).
While these condemnations showed the determined attitude of the Church against Quietism both in its extreme and in its moderate form, Protestantism contained certain elements which the Quietist might have consistently adopted. The doctrine of justification by faith alone, i.e. without good works, accorded very well with Quietistic passivity. In the "invisible Church" as proposed by the Reformers, the Quietist would have found a congenial refuge from the control of ecclesiastical authority. And the attempt to make the religous life an affair of the individual soul in its direct dealings with God was no less Protestant than it was Quietistic. In particular, the rejection, in part or in whole, of the sacramental system, would lead the devout Protestant to a Quietist attitude. As a matter of fact, traces of Quietism are found in early Methodism and Quakerism (the "inward light"). But in its later developments Protestantism has come to lay emphasis on the active, rather than the inert, contemplative life. Whereas Luther maintained that faith without work suffices for salvation, his successors at the present day attach little importance to dogmatic belief, but insist much on "religion as a life", i.e. as action. The Catholic teaching avoids such extremes. The soul indeed, assisted by Divine grace can reach a high degree of contemplation, of detachment from created things and of spiritual union with God. But such perfection, far from leading to Quietistic passivity and Subjectivism, implies rather a more earnest endeavour to labour for God's glory, a more thorough obedience to lawful authority and above all a more complete subjugation of sensuous impulse and tendency.
APA citation. (1911). Quietism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12608c.htm
MLA citation. "Quietism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12608c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Paul T. Crowley. Dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima and Fr. Clarence F. Galli.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.