There’s always been a tendency within the Church, and within society, to appropriate religious figures to promote a variety of agendas. Jesus of Nazareth is a good example of someone routinely invoked to be whatever we want him to be—and endorse whatever we want him to endorse—to the point where who he really is, and what he really endorses, gets obscured. This makes the Church’s task that much harder, as if it isn’t hard enough already.
Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) is another religious figure regularly pressed into servicing a variety of agendas: ecological, sociological, economic, political and ecclesiological. We need to be careful, though, as assigning a particular agenda to him is a risky business. As I’m a Third Order Franciscan, friends assumed I’d be pleased when the new Pope chose the name Francis I. Not really, I confessed. He’s actually a Jesuit, I said. If he really wanted the Church and society to live according to Franciscan values, he would have left the Jesuits long ago, joined the Franciscans, and done something other than become Pope. I admitted to not knowing why he chose the name but suspected there was a level of opportunism about it, since Francis I could have called himself something else, perhaps Ignatius I after the Jesuits’ founder.
What’s in a name? Apparently a lot, as the Pope’s choice has nourished many hopes and expectations, all of which are being projected onto Francis of Assisi, who’s being invoked as patron saint of the Pope’s ecclesiological agenda, regardless of what it is in theory and however it unfolds in practice. Because of the studied nature of the Pope’s choice, and what he’s saying and doing, there’s been much speculation that we’re about to hear more good news for women, homosexuals, the poor and disadvantaged, indigenous peoples, and victims of child abuse; more good news for those against the clerical hierarchy and clerical celibacy; more good news for those who oppose industrial capitalism; more good news for those who resented Ratzinger-cum-Benedict for saying things they didn’t want to hear.
There’s been a lot of spin around these hopes and expectations and it’s hard to tell how much spin comes from the Church—given the well-known propensity of Christians to be simultaneously loyal and disloyal towards each other—or from a media that loves to undermine the Church whenever it can. Either way, there’s something unsettling about the spin, as it’s attached to a range of mindless thought bubbles—about those who wear red shoes—and the mischievous assumption that the light of Francis of Assisi’s countenance is shining upon Francis I.
Around 1200, while still an adolescent, Francis of Assisi was the popular, revelling, well-heeled son of a cloth merchant, whose life was soon to change. He joined a military expedition, was taken prisoner, and spent a year in captivity. On his return to Assisi, he resumed his carefree life for a while; however, after a long illness he joined another military expedition, but returned to Assisi after a vision told him to go home and wait upon God. As waiting upon God can be a perplexing and disorienting business, his behaviour changed. Much to his father’s embarrassment, he avoided his former companions and contemplated a life of radical poverty. Apparently he had encounters with paupers, and a poor knight, and a life-transforming experience on meeting a leper. Having mastered his horror of leprosy, he began serving social outcasts.
Francis continued to wait upon God—who still hadn’t revealed his intention—while becoming increasingly disenchanted with his previous life. His father continued to be challenged by a son who never did things by halves, was giving away his family’s money, and showing no signs of settling down and doing what a prosperous merchant’s son was meant to do: take the family business seriously, marry, and provide descendants. This humiliating family drama was acted out in a public way and, while different sources provide different details, they agree on the broad contours. His father petitioned the civil authorities for restitution, but Francis refused to recognise those civil authorities, who in any event had no authority to intervene in what they suspected to be an ecclesiastical matter. His father then petitioned the ecclesiastical authorities for restitution, whereupon Francis was summoned to appear before the local bishop, before whom he renounced all connections with his father and former life.
At this stage, while the Church had become Francis’s principal nurturer, the divine intention still hadn’t been revealed, so he continued waiting upon God and trying to discern the form his vocation would take. There is a legend that, during this period, while meditating upon an image of Christ crucified, in the little rundown church of San Damiano, he had a vision in which he heard a voice say to him: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” According to the legend, he took this literally and spent the next year or so living as a hermit and a beggar while physically repairing little ruined churches. Early in 1208, while attending Mass, his life was changed by hearing the Gospel passage in which the apostles were commissioned to preach. During the following months, somewhat on the model of John the Baptist, he began to call people to penitence, started to attract followers, and sought inspiration by randomly consulting the Gospels.
So apparently the divine intention for Francis was to rebuild the Church as a rundown institution rather than a series of rundown buildings, and everything took off from there. As he attracted more followers he realised that in order to be effective—and not be seen as one of his many antinomian or heretical contemporaries undermining the Church—he had to act completely within the Church. As he needed the Church’s imprimatur, he wrote a primitive form of life and went to Rome seeking papal approval. At the conclusion of his visit, the Pope authorised him and his friars to preach penance, which they did.
It’s important at this point to stress Francis’s orthodoxy, as he always operated within the hierarchy, which was one reason why the movement that coalesced around him grew so rapidly. During his lifetime, there was an interdependent dialectic between Francis and the hierarchy, who saw in him something original, powerful and worth harnessing.
What was that something? Can it be whatever we want it to be? Can we use it any which way we choose? We can’t begin to answer these questions without asking another: Who was Francis of Assisi? Within the vast area of research known as Franciscan Studies, those who search for the historical Francis seek answers to what’s relatively recently become known as the “Franciscan Question”, in similar ways that other academics search for answers about the historical Jesus. The challenges are methodological and historiographical, since we’ve inherited a somewhat idealised, romantic and anachronistic view of the saint, which revolves around images of his gentleness, being agreeable to everyone, and loving animals and nature—hence his attraction to a broad coalition of pacifists, ecumenists and environmentalists—and it’s hard for most people to think about him without resorting to this idealised, romantic and anachronistic view.
An Omnibus of Sources appeared in 1973, which challenged academics to rethink the received tradition about Francis, but that quickly became outdated and was superseded in 1999 by the three-volume Early Documents—The Saint, The Founder, The Prophet—which focuses on the texts of Franciscanism’s first 150 years. As these collections of medieval texts are challenging—and reveal many apparent contradictions—allowances need to be made for their pretexts, contexts and subtexts.
Before the Omnibus of Sources and Early Documents appeared, Francis tended to be understood through a broad range of projections onto the screen of his life, while his own writings—whether previously unknown or hitherto overlooked—had yet to be assembled chronologically and studied in depth. The earliest biographies, Celano’s Vita Prima (1228–29) and Vita Secunda (1245–47), both commissioned by different General Chapters, were based on canvassed reminiscences of the friars who’d known Francis, grouped and redacted thematically. Bonaventure’s Legenda Minor (1260–63) and Legenda Maior (1260–63), also commissioned by a General Chapter, were written with a different purpose in mind—to harmonise Francis with the Church’s mystical theology—and Bonaventure’s gift was to gloss the life of Francis and mission of his Order in terms of the life of Jesus and mission of his Church. Add to that a vast array of hagiographical writings and the “Franciscan Question” becomes harder to answer.
The General Chapter of 1263 received Bonaventure’s accounts of Francis. The General Chapter of 1266 accepted those accounts as canonical and ordered all earlier accounts to be destroyed. Thankfully, that proved impossible, as by then copies of the earlier accounts were in libraries over which a Franciscan General Chapter had no jurisdiction. Hence we’re left to pursue the “Franciscan Question” with all its methodological and historiographical challenges and contradictions.
In The Misadventure of Francis of Assisi (2002), Jacques Dalarun reminds us of the ways in which the historical Francis tends to be lost to the hagiographical Francis, hence our need to distinguish history from hagiography, or fact from topos, while always remembering Francis as a human being who’s no less saintly for being human. That involves comparing and contrasting the sources, to see what they corroborate, without presuming the sources we designate as historical are more truthful than the sources we designate as hagiographical, since the supposedly historical sources may contain evasions and the supposedly hagiographical sources may contain truths.
Dalarun is a medievalist whose research project is both philological and archaeological. Faced with the “good fortune” of having an official canonical view of Francis the saint, narrated by Bonaventure, he believes we ought to reconstruct the “bad fortune” of an unofficial non-canonical view of Francis the sinner, which includes everything Bonaventure chose not to keep from the earlier accounts, and which the General Chapter calmly voted to destroy. This non-canonical Francis won’t be inherently more historical than the canonical Francis; however, the “bad fortune” of the sinner ought to remain in a constant dialectic with the “good fortune” of the saint, resulting in a kind of overall if paradoxical legitimacy.
Obviously, the methodological and historiographical challenge is getting in touch with what happened in the thirteenth century, with Francis and his movement, which is somewhat analogous with the methodological and historiographical challenge of getting in touch with what happened in the first century, with Jesus and his movement. These challenges are necessary, as we continue to appropriate Francis and Jesus to legitimate our twenty-first-century agendas. Here I discuss two of these agendas: liberation theology and inter-faith dialogue.
Does Francis of Assisi legitimate liberation theology? Liberation theology was popular when I was a seminarian in the 1980s, with its focus on the Church’s hypothetical need to shift from a preference for the wealthy and powerful to a preference for the poor and powerless, its vision of the poor as privileged channels of God’s grace, and its insistence that poverty was structural and systematic: that is, poverty was inevitable given a capitalist and bourgeois hegemony incapable of adapting for the common good. Anxious to avoid the Marxist implications of liberation theology’s insistence that orthopraxis (the hypothetical “right practice” of the historical Jesus) ought to take precedence over orthodoxy (the canonical “right belief” in the risen Christ), my lecturers advocated what they called a “cruciform tension” between the two and promoted a Christology that was “low ascending” rather than “high”. Then suddenly liberation theology went out of fashion, along with all its jargon—much like Matthew Fox’s creation theology—on the syllabus one year, off the next.
The Brazilian Leonardo Boff is the significant liberation theologian here, as he’s a former Franciscan priest as well as an influential left-wing academic. His book Saint Francis: A Model of Human Liberation (1982) argues the case for regarding Francis of Assisi as second only to Jesus as a model of liberation theology. At times his argument seems tempting, as Francis is widely known as “the poor one” (il poverello), whose well-known and radical identification with the poor can, at first glance, reinforce the Marxist critique of power. There are several problems with Boff’s thesis, however. First, it was written before the Early Documents appeared. Second, it’s oblivious to the methodological and historiographical challenges posed by the “Franciscan Question”. Third, while it (correctly) warns us against viewing Francis through a romantic hagiographical lens, it falls into the trap of using that same lens to view Francis.
As I recall being quite impressed with Boff’s book thirty years ago, rereading it has been a fascinating experience. Now it seems much more one-dimensional, jargon-laden and doctrinaire, with its dualistic world of good and evil, victims and oppressors, communists and capitalists. There’s no attempt to discern what the social gospel might have looked like in the thirteenth century; because, by definition, as the socioeconomic system was feudal, no social gospel was possible. Curiously, too, although Francis of Assisi lived in the Middle Ages, Boff believes he’s emblematic of the post-Enlightenment critique of reason, which is why Boff sees Francis foreshadowing the French Revolution, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Jung, Heidegger and Guevara. Clearly, Boff would have completely rejected Ratzinger-cum-Benedict’s cautionary warning about this post-Enlightenment critique of reason—which I regard as one of his most important academic and papal legacies—and Ratzinger-cum-Benedict would have seen Boff’s poverello as little more than an idealised communist trope anticipating an idealised communist religion.
At least Boff is consistent. Not long after September 11, 2001, he said the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center represented “the shift towards a new humanitarian and world model” in which the “system and culture of capital began to collapse”. In the same interview he said, “One of the worst fundamentalisms is that of neoliberalism”; an observation which presumably excludes many if not most Quadrant readers—and anyone who belongs to the Mont Pelerin Society—from being authentic Franciscans. According to Mervyn Bendle’s article, “Pope Francis, Liberation Theology and Integralism” (Quadrant, November 2013), Francis I has recently consulted Boff, who is pleased with the symbolism of the new Pope’s name, and has even said: “He is now the Pope and he can do whatever he wants. Many will be surprised with what Francis will do.”
Is this observation rational? Does a pope always get his own way? Did Jesus of Nazareth always get his own way? Did Francis of Assisi always get his own way?
Does Francis of Assisi legitimate inter-faith dialogue? For several generations now, the Western Church has layered speculation upon speculation and arrived at the view that its idealised, romanticised, anachronistic Francis—gentle, agreeable, and loving of animals and nature—neatly elides into another view: of his hypothetical relationship with the Other. There are several things wrong with this elision. It doesn’t engage in a dialectic between the canonical saint and the non-canonical sinner. It’s hagiographical rather than historical. It’s become a one-sided feel-good account of how some Christians want to see themselves. It assumes Francis was happy to put the Christological content of his faith aside and adopt the role of non-confrontational, peace-loving diplomat. In fact, Francis frequently issued challenges hard to construe as diplomatic. While he was always ready to apologise for his mistakes, he only did so after they were pointed out to him, and his Christology was non-negotiable.
The only example we have of Francis and inter-faith dialogue is his trip to Egypt, where he met Saladin’s nephew, Malik al-Kâmil, probably in September 1219. The best account of this meeting comes from John Tolan’s Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian–Muslim Encounter (2009). According to Tolan, Francis’s mission to Egypt wasn’t simply a footnote to the fifth crusade. It was a key moment in his life, essential for anyone seeking to understand him and his attitude towards Islam. The problem facing us, however, is methodological and historiographical. We know the meeting occurred—during a truce in the midst of a bloody war—and that it was unique. We don’t know why Francis went to Damietta, and joined the crusader camp, then crossed enemy lines. We don’t know what they said to each other, or the consequences of their meeting, or how it influenced their lives.
Neither do we know how the meeting influenced the crusade, or the impact it had on the Franciscan mission or on the European view of Islam. As Tolan reminds us, the sources from the thirteenth century onwards are incomplete and partisan, but that hasn’t stopped each age from remaking the encounter in its own image, just as it has remade Francis in its own image. Also, the sources are all Christian. The changing portrayal of the meeting, over the centuries, chronicles the evolving fears and hopes surrounding the encounter between Christian West and Muslim East. If what we have arrived at now is the image of an ecumenical and pacifist saint, hostile to the crusading movement, Tolan reminds us that recent authors have done nothing more than their predecessors: create a saint who fits their ideological needs.
In Part I of Saint Francis and the Sultan, Tolan describes the initial trajectory of the texts and images of the encounter. By 1226 it’s seen as a missionary model destined to renew the Church. Around 1229, it’s understood as Francis’s “great thirst for martyrdom”. Around 1232, Francis is portrayed as the epic hero of a sacred adventure, courageously confronting the enemy and preaching brilliantly, like a professor of theology. Around 1260, the theme of Francis’s burning love of God introduces the theme of trial by fire. In the early part of the 1300s, the encounter is recast, in terms of the schism between the Conventuals and the Spirituals, where Francis would have converted the Sultan had his stay in Egypt not been cut short by the internal crisis in the Order. By the time we get further into the fourteenth century—to the exquisitely hagiographical Fioretti—the mission to the Muslims is portrayed as a tremendous success and the Sultan has finally been converted.
In Part 2, Tolan describes how, in the fifteenth century, the emphasis shifts to the violence of the Sultan, emblematic of the rise of Ottoman power, which justifies the fight against the infidels (and later against the Protestant “heretics”). After the failure of the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, the emphasis shifts again. By the eighteenth century, the philosophes in France present Francis as a fanatical madman and the Sultan as a wise and tolerant ruler, while others see the mission as a plot by Brother Elias of Cortona, the Order’s first Vicar General, to send Francis to his death. In the nineteenth century the encounter is used to justify the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, as a civilising mission among the barbarous Orientals, and a precursor to Western colonialism. Finally, in the twentieth century, the encounter is transformed again, as Francis becomes an apostle of peace, an enemy of the crusades, an admirer of Islam, and even a budding Sufi mystic.
Mervyn Bendle makes a significant point when he says Francis I might be falling back on an Argentinian Integralism—characteristic of Peronism and the spiritualised politics of the Iron Guard and Comunione e Liberazione—which condemns aspects of capitalism while firmly disdaining communism. Bendle also suggests that the new pope “will strive to develop the Church as an inclusive organic unity”, a rather curious observation which implies the Church isn’t one already. If we’re going to go down this path—of admitting the Church’s need to be reformed because it isn’t operating according to the ideals of Jesus of Nazareth or Francis of Assisi—surely we’re obliged to be specific about what that actually means and not resort to pious rhetoric or empty gestures. Given the rise of welfare states—and the struggle to maintain them—what precisely does an option for the poor mean, now, in the age of the safety net, and what precisely must the Church do that it isn’t already doing? There has to be a method before there can be results.
When Jesus was asked which commandment in the Torah was greatest, he answered:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40)
As Jesus wasn’t the only rabbi to say this, Christians can’t claim a monopoly on the insight, which stands at the heart of Judaism. And the point of the insight is this: We can’t claim to love God without loving our neighbour, and we can’t claim to love our neighbour without loving God. Otherwise put, we mustn’t sell our souls to some horizontal social gospel and compromise our vertical relationship with God. Francis of Assisi got the balance right. We must too.
It would appear some denominations have focused on the horizontal and compromised the vertical. Certainly, some Protestant denominations have. Certainly, some branches of Anglicanism have too. It would be sad if Catholicism went down the same path. This is the real challenge facing Francis I. In rising to the challenge, it will be important for him to manage the inevitable perception that his pontificate is some kind of protest against the pontificates of John Paul II or Benedict XVI; each of which was profound and significant in their unique ways; both of which understood the need to balance the horizontal and the vertical. The papacy mustn’t become a revolving door for competing visions of Church.
As far as the horizontal is concerned, while Christians disagree over the degree to which the Church should accommodate the contemporary world, there’s a limit, just as there’s a necessary distinction between the social gospel, class politics, and the identity politics of religion, gender, ethnicity and sexuality. It’s safe to assume Francis of Assisi understood the social gospel; however, in living it out, he didn’t engage in class politics—as we now understand it—and wouldn’t have supported identity politics in any form. If he was exceptionally radical in the way he continuously and spontaneously gave away everything he had to the poor, including his clothes, with no thought for himself, it’s because he trusted God to provide. But nothing fell from the sky. God provided through a medieval economy—through a particular way of creating and distributing wealth—which had its own logic and “worked” in its own way.
As far as the vertical is concerned, if Francis of Assisi really is patron of Francis I’s ecclesiological agenda, we need to hear more about the saint’s vertical relationship with God, on which his horizontal relationship with the Church and the world depended in its entirety. This vertical relationship cannot be naively linked with the rehabilitation of liberation theology, or embracing a preferential option for the poor, or returning to a poorly understood and incomplete something called Vatican II. It would be most ironic if—while striving to “develop the Church as an inclusive organic unity”—Francis I unwittingly did the opposite, opened a can of worms instead, and we ended up with a Church that was neither inclusive nor organic nor unified.
The eyes of the world are upon Pope Francis. He needs to be mindful of giving the wrong impression: that his predecessors were wanting in some way; that he’s going to make up for their want. Also, he needs to demonstrate an understanding of how wealth is created and distributed. Finally, if Bendle is right, he needs to tell us why Argentinian Integralism—or anything Argentinian for that matter—is a model for the global Church in the twenty-first century.
Michael Giffin is a priest in the Anglican diocese of Sydney.