“The Franciscan Intellectual Tradition is a philosophical and theological expression of understanding the Catholic faith. As a philosophy and theology, this tradition is one of several major interpretations of this faith. In the history of the western Catholic Church, two other major traditions have enriched the Catholic faith: the Dominican Intellectual Tradition, centered on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Augustinian Intellectual Tradition, centered on the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. All three traditions have continually received the blessing of popes and scholars. They have also intersected with each other and have been self-consciously aware of their differences. None of them, however, can claim to be the ‘better’ intellectual tradition. Since they are philosophical and theological interpretations of the Catholic Faith, all three respect the fundamental teachings of Scripture, Tradition, and magisterium.”
– Kenan B. Osborne, O.F.M, The Franciscan Intellectual Tradition: Tracing Its Origins and Identifying its Central Components –
If you are not born into the Catholic Faith, discovering her is an exciting journey. Rather than a Christian sect committed to propositional truth claims about a generic theistic worldview with Jesus added on top of a mountain of denominations, Catholicism is a way of life. When a person becomes Catholic they are entering into the Mystical Body of Christ so as to participate in the sacramental life of the Church. This sacramental integration of faith and works opens your eyes to a much larger and richer world picture – a truly Catholic world picture. This more robust Catholicity being realized includes the important truth embodied in the creedal necessity of believing in the communion of the saints.
When I was a Protestant there was never much appreciation for the saints in Church history. All that was ever focused on was whether or not individuals throughout a generalized Christian history upheld key aspects of the Calvinist theology I was committed to at the time. For example, the life of St. Justin Martyr was not studied; rather, his theology was examined to see if it was in line with Calvinism. The life of St. Augustine was not important; rather, finding snippets of “proto-reformation” theology is why he was worth studying. The importance of St. Thomas Aquinas was ignored and often spurned since he was supposedly the progenitor of the split between theology and philosophy. Moreover, I had never heard of the great Saints of Auschwitz, Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, because they fell outside the framework of “biblically centered” American evangelicalism. The Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer might have been important for his courageous battle against the Nazis, but Catholic saints were not worth considering in any serious way. Finally, the councils and creeds were studied, but the life of the Church and her divinely instituted authority was strictly demarcated from the living faith that provided the inspiration for the councils and creeds in the first place.
All of this changed when I encountered the fullness of truth in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
When I became Catholic, the lives of the saints, the councils, the creeds, and Church history became a living faith that I was now participating in. The manner in which the Gospel informed the actions of the saints during their lives on earth became just as important as their theology and philosophy; after all, they were lives lived for Christ that motivated their intellect and will to create great literary works espousing the power of Christian truth.
The first saint that grabbed a hold of my heart and mind was St. Francis de Sales. His book, The Catholic Controversy, spoke to me in such a way that no other apologetic treatise could ever compare. This collection of pamphlets defending and explaining the Catholic faith within the context of the hostile territory of Calvinist Geneva is a profound work in controversial theology. The genius of this masterpiece isn’t simply due to the fact that it thoroughly and emphatically demonstrates Calvinism to be false; it was that St. Francis put his life on the line to bring Geneva back to the Mystical Body of Christ that made the difference on my journey. It wasn’t only that he was answering so many of the questions I was wrestling with in my investigations; it was that he treated the Protestant/Catholic divide in a way that does not ecumenically trivialize the seriousness of the dispute. St. Francis wasn’t arguing to show how great a scholar he was or how witty he could be with the pen; he was speaking to the people as if they were lost sheep being deceived by wolves. The Gentlemen Doctor spoke out of love for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church He gave to the world for the salvation of souls. This resonated with me more than any of the anti-Catholic screeds I had encountered during my Protestant days.
Along this journey I also discovered St. Thomas Aquinas and Thomism. When I began reading Thomistic theology and philosophy I felt that my mind had only then encountered a philosophy worthy of the Christian mantle. Being a student of philosophy, I had felt cheated that I was never offered a single class on the philosophy of St. Thomas or other medieval scholars. The history of philosophy in most philosophy departments goes from the Ancients and skips over everything else right to Rene Descartes, as if nothing happened in between those many centuries. If the Middle Ages were mentioned, they were usually dismissed by flippantly mentioning the mysterious myth of debating angels dancing on the head of a pin. After reading Edward Feser’s, The Last Superstition, and Brother Benignus’s, Nature, Knowledge, and God, I decided to read as much Thomism as I could get my hands on. My library of Thomistic philosophy and theology grew quickly and I could not get enough of the Neo-Scholastics passionately fulfilling the decree of Aeterni Patris.
However, as much as I love St. Thomas and the followers of this Dominican inheritance, something was always missing from the equation. My mind was stimulated in ways that were previously unimaginable to me, but my heart was not set ablaze as it had been when reading St. Francis. This is not to say anything negative about the Angelic Doctor, but only to identify a relational aspect missing with this great saint. While Thomism is intellectually exciting, there was something about it that left my heart seeking more in a Catholic theology and philosophy.
I needed a tradition that seized control of my entire being – heart, mind, soul, and strength. This is where the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition comes into the picture.
A friend of mine suggested that I read John Milbank, which pushed me to eventually study the Radical Orthodoxy movement. Milbank and his cohorts have very little good to say about the Franciscans, especially Bl. John Duns Scotus. According to RO theologians, Scotus is the pivotal player that ushered in the historical epoch of modernity and all the evil that has followed from this revolutionary era. While reading the RO version of the “Scotus story” I remember wondering why the Church hadn’t condemned Scotus’s work and the majority of Franciscan thought if it has had such a negative impact on Western Civilization since the accomplishment of the Thomistic synthesis. The RO genealogy of modernity makes Scotus sound like a demon from hell paralleled to the outright heresy and rebellion of Martin Luther. Comparatively Luther is an innocent choirboy while Scotus is a diabolical villain.
Instead of taking Milbank and ROs word for it, I decided to find out what Scotus and the Franciscans were all about. I am much too intellectually curious to let a movement tell me what to think about a specific person or tradition of thought that is being blamed for the societal ills we currently confront.
What I discovered about Bl. John Duns Scotus and the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition was much different than what I had read from Milbank’s gang of obscurantists. And I suppose at this juncture it is worth noting that my pointed words of RO’s treatment of Scotus should not be used to negate some of the vitally important insights of this theological movement. The criticisms they have constructed against the modern/postmodern reality we are currently living are as essential as they are powerful.
Admittedly, however, it took some time to get used to the distinctively Franciscan flavor of philosophy and theology because I had entrenched myself in the thought of Thomistic scholarship. Now that I have come to understand the nature and motivation of the Franciscan intellect, my heart and mind seem to be full once again.
I will always love the Angelic Doctor and Thomist thinkers, but when I encountered the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the mystically beautiful writings of St. Bonaventure, and the committed Franciscan genius of the Subtle Doctor Bl. John Duns Scotus, my heart, mind, soul, and strength have been fully directed to love Christ more than I ever imagined I could. Moreover, the manner in which Franciscans uphold and love the most Holy and Blessed Virgin Mary pushes me to trust her and love her more as well. Through the Immaculate Heart of Mary I find myself more united to the Sacred Heart of Christ.
The life of the Christian faith is a journey and finding your voice within the Catholic Church is also a path we must not be afraid to travel. In many ways, once discovered, the journey is only just beginning. My brothers and sisters, be steadfast in your search for that distinctive tradition that helps shape your Catholic voice. The treasury of saintly traditions is vast. There are the Augustinians, the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Salesians, the Carmelites, and the list can go on. Search for your Catholic voice until you find it, and your saintly travels toward the beatific vision will be greatly edified.
– Lucas G. Westman