Those who admire or seek to imitate St. Francis of Assisi often speak of a “Franciscan spirituality,” but an authentic spirituality must be rooted in a sound theology, a way of understanding God and God's relationship to his creation. On July 15, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, a Franciscan bishop and doctor of the Church. This begs the question: is there a uniquely Franciscan theology?
With the eventual rise of Thomism – the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas – in the late Middle Ages, and the later crowning of Thomism as the primary theology of the Church following the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council, Franciscan theology has been largely forgotten by everyday Catholics. Yet, for many centuries it was actually the Franciscans who held the widest influence in medieval theology. In order to better understand the uniqueness of Franciscan theology, it might be helpful to contrast it with Dominican theology, or Thomism.
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Dominican theology is centered around the idea of atonement, that the Incarnation happened as a result of original sin and the primary reason for Jesus Christ is expiation for the sins of humanity. This approach, weighted toward law and redemption, is rooted in the Western (Latin) Fathers, particularly St. Augustine and St. Anselm. While St. Augustine certainly lauded the love and goodness of God, his primary focus is the sinfulness of man. This is what we learned in catechism class, God created everything good, but sin and the fall from grace happened hot on the heels of God's work. We are sinners in need of redemption. As we sing every Easter Vigil in the Exsultet: “O wondrous fault that earned us so great a redeemer.”
Franciscan theology, which was influenced by the Eastern (Greek) Fathers, sees an alternative way of looking at these events. Impacted largely by Athanasius, Basil and Pseudo-Dionysius, Franciscan theology viewed the Incarnation as too momentous an event to be initiated by sin. This pointed insight is brought out in the theological writings of Franciscans such as St. Bonvanture and Bl. John Dun Scotus.
According to this alternative view, the emphasis is not on the sinfulness of man, but on the goodness and glory of God reflected throughout his creation. According to Scotus, Jesus was not an after-thought, a last minute rescue plan devised to save fallen humanity. Instead, the Incarnation was intended from the beginning, regardless of original sin. The Franciscan school moves sin out of the forefront and places Christ at the center of God’s creation, revealing a God who is passionately in love with humanity.
Much more could be said on this amazing topic. Countless books have been written on Franciscan theology. Perhaps this short article might serve as a starting point to digging deeper into the Franciscan understanding of God and creation.