Finding Your Catholic Voice: The Franciscan Turn

Seraphic Orthodoxy, Hylomorphism, and Personal Identity“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 –

Saint Francis of Assisi With Skull“Discovering St. Bonaventure and Bl. John Duns Scotus, the two great intellectual lights of the Lesser Brothers, early on in my theological and philosophical studies, I was immediately taken by the integrity, versatility, depth, width, breadth and beauty of the theologico-mystical vision out lined by these early intellectual and spiritual successors of the Poor Man from Assisi. Their common emphasis upon charity, person and wisdom, unmistakable in what became the two defining pillars of the Franciscan vision of the economy or theologia de contingentibus – the Absolute Predestination of Jesus Christ and His Mother as the Immaculate Conception – prompted me to seek to better understand their undersanding of such loving goodness and beauty: the Deum esse et trinum.

– Dr. J. Isaac Goff, Caritas in Primo: A Study of Bonaventure’s Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity – 

Discovering the Catholic faith is an exciting journey, and when I became Catholic the lives of the saints, the councils, the creeds, and Church history became a living faith that I was now blessed to be participating in.

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 pastoral apologetics. 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 Catholic faith 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 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.

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 Thomistic literature 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 de Sales. This is not to say anything negative about the Angelic Doctor, but only to identify a relational aspect missing with this great saint’s corpus. While Thomism is intellectually exciting, there was something about it that left my heart seeking more in a Catholic theology and philosophy.

I desired 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 associates have very little good to say about the Franciscans, especially Bl. John Duns Scotus. According to RO theologians (and others who articulate the infamous “Scotus story”), Scotus is the pivotal player that ushered in the historical epoch of modernity and all the malevolence that has followed from this era of revolutionary ontology. 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 villain to be avoided, rather than a theological and philosophical master to be studied.

Instead of taking Milbank and ROs word for it, I decided to find out what Scotus and the Franciscans were all about. What I discovered about Bl. John Duns Scotus and the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition was much different than what I had read from Milbank’s narration of modernity.

Admittedly, however, it took some time to get used to the distinctively Franciscan persuasion 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 a little bit better, my heart and mind seem to be full once again.

I will always love, admire, and study the Angelic Doctor and those brilliant minds working within the Thomistic tradition of thought; but when I encountered the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the mystically splendid 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 embrace will be greatly edified.


– Lucas G. Westman


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