Blessed John Duns Scotus OFM
"Dear Brothers and sisters,
This morning, after several catecheses on various great theologians, I would like to present to you another important figure in the history of theology. He is Blessed John Duns Scotus, who lived at the end of the 13th century. An ancient epitaph on his tombstone sums up the geographical coordinates of his biography: "Scotland bore me, England received me, France taught me, Cologne in Germany holds me." We cannot disregard this information, partly because we know very little about the life of Duns Scotus. He was probably born in 1266 in a village called, precisely, "Duns", near Edinburgh. Attracted by the charism of St Francis of Assisi, he entered the Family of the Friars Minor and was ordained a priest in 1291. He was endowed with a brilliant mind and a tendency for speculation which earned him the traditional title of Doctor subtilis, "Subtle Doctor". Duns Scotus was oriented to the study of philosophy and theology at the famous Universities of Oxford and of Paris. Having successfully completed his training, he embarked on teaching theology at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and then of Paris, beginning by commenting, like all the bachelors of theology of his time, on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Indeed, Duns Scotus' main works are the mature fruit of these lessons and take the name of the places where he taught: Ordinatio (called in the past Opus Oxoniense – Oxford), Reportatio Cantabrigiensis (Cambridge), Reportata Parisiensia (Paris). One can add to these at least the Quodlibeta (or Quaestiones quodlibetales), a quite important work consisting of 21 questions on various theological subjects. Duns Scotus distanced himself from Paris, after a serious dispute broke out between King Philip IV the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII, rather than sign a document hostile to the Supreme Pontiff as the King requested of all religious, preferring voluntary exile. Thus he left the country, together with the Franciscan Friars, out of love for the See of Peter.
Dear brothers and sisters, this event invites us to remember how often in the history of the Church believers have met with hostility and even suffered persecution for their fidelity and devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Pope. We all look with admiration at these Christians who teach us to treasure as a precious good faith in Christ and communion with the Successor of Peter, hence with the universal Church.
However, friendly relations between the King of France and the Successor of Boniface VIII were soon restored and in 1305 Duns Scotus was able to return to Paris to lecture on theology with the title of Magister regens [regent master], now we would say 'Professor'. Later his Superiors sent him to Cologne as Professor of the Franciscan Studium of Theology, but he died on 8 November 1308 when he was only 43 years old, leaving nevertheless a consistent opus.
Because of the fame of his holiness, his cult soon became widespread in the Franciscan Order and Pope John Paul II, wishing to confirm it, solemnly beatified him on 20 March 1993, describing him as the "minstrel of the Incarnate Word and defender of Mary's Immaculate Conception." These words sum up the important contribution that Duns Scotus made to the history of theology.
First of all he meditated on the Mystery of the Incarnation and, unlike many Christian thinkers of the time, held that the Son of God would have been made man even if humanity had not sinned. He says in his "Reportatio Parisiensis": "To think that God would have given up such a task had Adam not sinned would be quite unreasonable! I say, therefore, that the fall was not the cause of Christ's predestination and that if no one had fallen, neither the angel nor man in this hypothesis Christ would still have been predestined in the same way." This perhaps somewhat surprising thought crystallized because, in the opinion of Duns Scotus the Incarnation of the Son of God, planned from all eternity by God the Father at the level of love is the fulfilment of creation and enables every creature, in Christ and through Christ, to be filled with grace and to praise and glorify God in eternity. Although Duns Scotus was aware that in fact, because of original sin, Christ redeemed us with his Passion, Death and Resurrection, he reaffirmed that the Incarnation is the greatest and most beautiful work of the entire history of salvation, that it is not conditioned by any contingent fact but is God's original idea of ultimately uniting with himself the whole of creation, in the Person and Flesh of the Son.
As a faithful disciple of St Francis, Duns Scotus liked to contemplate and preach the mystery of the saving Passion of Christ, as the expression of the loving will, of the immense love of God who reaches out with the greatest generosity, irradiating his goodness and love. Moreover this love was not only revealed on Calvary but also in the Most Blessed Eucharist, for which Duns Scotus had a very deep devotion and which he saw as the Sacrament of the Real Presence of Jesus and as the Sacrament of unity and communion that induces us to love each other and to love God, as the Supreme Good we have in common. As I wrote in my Letter for the International Congress in Cologne marking the 7th centenary of the death of Blessed Duns Scotus, citing the thought of our author: “just as this love, this charity, was at the origin of all things, so too our eternal happiness will be in love and charity alone: ‘willing, or the loving will, is simply eternal life, blessed and perfect.’”
Dear brothers and sisters, this strongly "Christocentric" theological vision opens us to contemplation, wonder and gratitude: Christ is the centre of history and of the cosmos, it is he who gives meaning, dignity and value to our lives! As Pope Paul VI proclaimed in Manila, I too would like to cry out to the world: [Christ] "reveals the invisible God, he is the firstborn of all creation, the foundation of everything created. He is the Teacher of mankind, and its Redeemer. He was born, he died and he rose again for us. He is the centre of history and of the world; he is the one who knows us and who loves us; he is the companion and the friend of our life.. I could never finish speaking about him" (Homily, Manila; 29 November 1970).
Not only Christ's role in the history of salvation but also that of Mary is the subject of the Doctor subtilis' thought. In the times of Duns Scotus the majority of theologians countered with an objection that seemed insurmountable, the doctrine which holds that Mary Most Holy was exempt from original sin from the very first moment of her conception: in fact, at first sight the universality of the Redemption brought about by Christ might seem to be jeopardized by such a statement, as though Mary had had no need of Christ or his redemption. Therefore the theologians opposed this thesis. Thus, to enable people to understand this preservation from original sin Duns Scotus developed an argument that was later, in 1854, also to be used by Bl Pope Pius IX when he solemnly defined the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. And this argument is that of "preventive Redemption", according to which the Immaculate Conception is the masterpiece of the Redemption brought about by Christ because the very power of his love and his mediation obtained that the Mother be preserved from original sin. Therefore Mary is totally redeemed by Christ, but already before her conception. Duns Scotus' confreres, the Franciscans, accepted and spread this doctrine enthusiastically and other theologians, often with a solemn oath, strove to defend and perfect it.
In this regard I would like to highlight a fact that I consider relevant. Concerning the teaching on the Immaculate Conception, important theologians like Duns Scotus enriched what the People of God already spontaneously believed about the Blessed Virgin and expressed in acts of devotion, in the arts and in Christian life in general with the specific contribution of their thought. Thus faith both in the Immaculate Conception and in the bodily Assumption of the Virgin was already present in the People of God, while theology had not yet found the key to interpreting it in the totality of the doctrine of the faith. The People of God therefore precede theologians and this is all thanks to that supernatural sensus fidei, namely, that capacity infused by the Holy Spirit that qualifies us to embrace the reality of the faith with humility of heart and mind. In this sense, the People of God is the "teacher that goes first" and must then be more deeply examined and intellectually accepted by theology. May theologians always be ready to listen to this source of faith and retain the humility and simplicity of children! I mentioned this a few months ago saying: "There have been great scholars, great experts, great theologians, teachers of faith who have taught us many things. They have gone into the details of Sacred Scripture... but have been unable to see the mystery itself, its central nucleus... The essential has remained hidden!... On the other hand, in our time there have also been "little ones" who have understood this mystery. Let us think of St Bernadette Soubirous; of St Thérèse of Lisieux, with her new interpretation of the Bible that is "non-scientific' but goes to the heart of Sacred Scripture" (Homily, 1 December 2009). Lastly, Duns Scotus has developed a point to which modernity is very sensitive. It is the topic of freedom and its relationship with the will and with the intellect. Our author underlines freedom as a fundamental quality of the will, introducing an approach that lays greater emphasis on the will. Unfortunately, in later authors, this line of thinking turned into a voluntarism, in contrast to the so-called "Augustinian and Thomist intellectualism". For St Thomas Aquinas, who follows St Augustine, freedom cannot be considered an innate quality of the will, but, the fruit of the collaboration of the will and the mind. Indeed, an idea of innate and absolute freedom - as it evolved, precisely, after Duns Scotus - placed in the will that precedes the intellect, both in God and in man, risks leading to the idea of a God who would not even be bound to truth and good. The wish to save God's absolute transcendence and diversity with such a radical and impenetrable accentuation of his will does not take into account that the God who revealed himself in Christ is the God "Logos", who acted and acts full of love for us. Of course, as Duns Scotus affirms, love transcends knowledge and is capable of perceiving ever better than thought, but it is always the love of the God who is "Logos" (cf Benedict XVI, Address at the University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006). In the human being too, the idea of absolute freedom, placed in the will, forgetting the connection with the truth, does not know that freedom itself must be liberated from the limits imposed on it by sin. All the same, the Scotist vision does not fall into these extremes: for Duns Scotus a free act is the result of the concourse of intellect and will, and if he speaks of a “primacy” of the will, he argues this precisely because the will always follows the intellect.
In speaking to Roman seminarians last year I recalled that "Since the beginning and throughout all time but especially in the modern age freedom has been the great dream of humanity" (20 February 2009). Indeed, in addition to our own daily experience, modern history actually teaches us that freedom is authentic and helps with building a truly human civilization only when it is reconciled with truth. If freedom is detached from truth, it becomes, tragically, a principle of the destruction of the human person's inner harmony, a source of prevarication of the strongest and the violent and a cause of suffering and sorrow. Freedom, like all the faculties with which the human being is endowed, increases and is perfected, Duns Scotus says, when the human being is open to God, making the most of the disposition to listen to his voice: when we listen to divine Revelation, to the word of God in order to accept it, a message reaches us that fills our life with light and hope and we are truly free.
Dear brothers and sisters, Blessed Duns Scotus teaches us that in our life the essential is to believe that God is close to us and loves us in Jesus Christ, and therefore to cultivate a deep love for him and for his Church. We on earth are witnesses of this love. May Mary Most Holy help us to receive this infinite love of God which we will enjoy eternally to the full in Heaven, when our soul is at last united to God for ever in the Communion of Saints."
BXVI - General Audience, 7 July 2010 - © Copyright 2010 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Benedict XVI's Apostolic Letter on 7th centenary of John Scotus's death
- in English, French, German, Italian, Latin, Portuguese & Spanish
Rejoice, City of Cologne, which once welcomed within your walls John Duns Scotus, a most learned and devout man, who passed from this life to the heavenly homeland on 8 November 1308 and whose remains you preserve with great admiration and veneration.
Our Venerable Predecessors, the Servants of God Paul VI and John Paul II, exalted him with lofty praise; we too would like to surround him with the praise he deserves and invoke his protection.
Thus the 7th centenary of his pious passing is now being celebrated, as is only right. And while articles and entire works in honour of Bl John Duns Scotus are being published in various parts of the world and congresses are being held .. we consider it a duty of our service in this circumstance to say a few words about this most illustrious man who so distinguished himself by contributing to the progress of the doctrine of the Church and of human science.
Indeed, combining piety with scientific research, in accordance with his invocation: "May the First Principle of things grant me to believe, to understand and to reveal what may please his majesty and may raise our minds to contemplate him", with his refined brilliance he penetrated so deeply the secrets of natural and revealed truth, and found in them a doctrine which led him to be called Doctor Ordinis, Doctor Subtilis, and Doctor Marianus, becoming a teacher and guide of the Franciscan School, a light and example to the entire Christian People.
Thus we desire to remind scholars and everyone, believers and non-believers alike, of the path and method that Scotus followed in order to establish harmony between faith and reason, defining in this manner the nature of theology in order constantly to exalt action, influence, practice and love rather than pure speculation; in fulfilling this task he let himself be guided by the Magisterium of the Church and by a sound critical sense regarding growth in knowledge of the truth and was convinced that knowledge is valuable to the extent that it is applied in praxis.
Firmly anchored to the Catholic faith, Duns Scotus strove to understand, explain and defend the truth of the faith in the light of human reason. Thus he strove to do nothing other than show the consonance of all truths, natural and supernatural, that come from one and the same Source.
Alongside Sacred Scripture, divinely inspired, is the authority of the Church. Duns Scotus seems to follow St Augustine's words: "I would not believe the Gospel, except that I [first] believe the Catholic Church". In fact, our Doctor often gives a special emphasis to the supreme authority of the Successor of Peter. As the Blessed said: "Although the Pope cannot dispense with natural and divine law (given that his power is inferior to both), being the Successor of Peter, Prince of the Apostles, he still has the same authority as had Peter".
Therefore, the Catholic Church whose invisible Head is Christ himself, who left as his Vicars the person of Blessed Peter and his Successors guided by the Spirit of truth, is the authentic custodian of the revealed deposit and the rule of faith. The Church is the firm and permanent criterion of the canonical dimension of Sacred Scripture. Indeed, she "established which books of the biblical canon were to be held authentic".
Elsewhere he states that "the Scriptures were revealed in the same Spirit in which they were written, and in this way one must consider that the Catholic Church has presented them in that same Spirit with which the faith has been passed down, guided that is, by the Spirit of truth."
After having proven with various arguments taken from theological reason, the very fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from original sin, he was absolutely ready also to reject this conviction should it not be in harmony with the authority of the Church, saying: "We can with probability attribute to Mary all that has the greatest perfection, provided it is not opposed to the authority of the Church or the Scriptures."
The primacy of the will sheds light on the fact that God is charity before all else. This charity, this love, Duns Scotus kept present when he sought to lead theology back to a single expression, that is to practical theology. According to his thought, since God "is formally love and formally charity", with the greatest generosity he radiates his goodness and love beyond himself. And in reality, it is for love that God "chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He predestined us in love to be his adoptive sons through Jesus Christ" (cf Eph 1: 4-5).
A faithful disciple of St Francis of Assisi, Bl John contemplated and preached assiduously the Incarnation and the saving Passion of the Son of God. However, the charity or love of Christ is expressed in a special way not only on Calvary, but also in the most holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, without which "if not for being able to render supreme adoration unto God through the veneration of the same Sacrament every mercy would disappear in the Church." This Sacrament moreover is a sacrament of unity and love; through it we are led to love one another mutually and to love God as a common good and to be loved at the same time by others.
And as this love, this charity, was the origin of all things, so too our eternal happiness will be in love and charity alone: "Eternal life is simply the desire as well as the will to love, blessed and perfect."
Since at the beginning of our ministry we first of all preached love, which is God himself, we see with joy that the unique doctrine of this Blessed keeps a special place for this truth, which we consider principally worthy to be researched and taught in our time. Therefore, willingly complying with the request of our Venerable Brother Cardinal Joachim Meisner, of Holy Roman Church, Archbishop of Cologne, we are sending this Apostolic Letter with which we desire to honour Bl John Duns Scotus and invoke his heavenly intercession upon us. Lastly, to those who are taking part in any capacity in this International Congress and in other initiatives concerning this outstanding son of St Francis, we cordially impart our Apostolic Blessing.
Given in Rome, at St Peter's on 28 October 2008, the 4th year of our Pontificate,
BENEDICTUS PP XVI