Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and the lifestyle style of he left behind has bedeviled both Catholic and Protestant thinkers for eight centuries—not to mention thinkers, historians, social philosophers, and artists outside the religious sphere. Dante, for example, would imagine Francis as a rising sun in his Paradiso. In the events leading to the sixteenth century Reformation it would be a grievous omission to overlook a man whose influence on Christian society radiated in several directions, some of them in opposition to others. If by “reformation” one means a radical reform of Church life, then one would need to acknowledge that Francis set this in motion three centuries before Luther. If by “reformation” one means a change in thinking about the meaning of the Church—its identity and actions—Francis set the wheels of change in motion there, too.
Over the past two years I have had the opportunity to revisit contemporary research on St. Francis of Assisi, in Medieval Christianity: A New History (2015) and Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (2012). (I have reviews at both Amazon sites.) It is interesting to see how much continues to appear from historians who pour over the original records, which includes the saint’s own autobiography written shortly before his death. I am assuming that all readers have a cursory knowledge of Francis’ life and may remember that he fought in a war between Assisi and Perugia which hastened some kind of inner life crisis. When he returned to Assisi, his lavish deeds of charity to the poor—from his father’s pocket--led him to a final break from his family.
Religious change is always the child of discontent. We have no way of knowing the root of the saint’s discontent, though his immediate course of action after the familial break is certainly a clue. He set out by himself to live in dire poverty, to pray, and to tend to the wounds of lepers. He might have continued this life into perpetuity, but in his life story he records that “the Lord gave me brothers.” It is hard to say whether Francis welcomed this development or not, given his penchant for a hermetic lifestyle. Kevin Madigan points out that Francis’ distinct religious observance held special appeal to the upwardly mobile who were equally discontent with their lives. The truly poor would have found nothing notable about Francis’ life, which they were seeking to escape. On the other hand, men (and eventually women) of means would have found Francis’ way a true and dramatic baptismal submersion into eternal life, a courage equal in its own way to their confreres off to fight in the Crusades.
Administration was not a strength of Francis, but he was no rube, either. He compiled a very brief rule from a random selection of Gospel texts in which Jesus calls his followers to give up everything and take up his cross. Luther, whose moment of light came from a reading of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, could appreciate this. Francis eschewed the established rules of other orders then in existence, but he also had opportunity to observe the mistakes of other clusters of penitentials who had gone off to pursue their own lights. When his community was still quite small, Francis had presence of mind (and apparently good advice) to receive papal approval for his enterprise.
That pope would be Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) who may have been the most powerful pontiff to occupy the Chair of Peter. His spiritual and worldly power, the inheritance of the Gregorian Reform, had restored Rome to the center of influence in both a religious and secular sense. When Francis arrived, Innocent was a leader with much on his plate, including a concern about the propagation of many penitential and mystical groups across the European landscape who were fomenting unrest and heresy. Innocent and Francis engaged in a true dialogue; the pope requested that Francis assume the rule of the Augustinians; for his part Francis questioned the premise that it was impossible to live the very words of the Gospel. Innocent finally granted Francis his wish.
What is often overlooked in Franciscan and Catholic history was Innocent III’s approval of Francis’ idea that the Bible itself could provide unmitigated insights into the life of the Church in the present day. If this resonates with Luther’s later principle of sola scriptura, by the Scripture alone is man saved, then so be it. Francis, by throwing himself at the feet of Innocent, confirmed his status as a true son of the Church, so much so that some progressives in my lifetime have expressed disappointment that Francis was so much a “church man.” Of course, the same could be said of Luther in the sense that he was a devout Augustinian monk and scripture scholar throughout his life leading to his awakening to the vision of justification by faith, not works. Luther, like Francis, did engage with Church authorities, sending a copy of his 95-theses to his local bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, specifically to address the matter of indulgences. Luther’s discontent voiced itself at a time when the papal court was occupied by lesser men than Innocent III. One of the great “what ifs” of history is the question of how (or even if) the Protestant Reformation would have played out with better enlightened pastors at its helm.
There is nothing to suggest that Francis would have disobeyed Innocent had the pope commanded him to assume an Augustinian way of life. But it is worth noting that Francis, after his post-war conversion, had several choices of religious life in front of him and apparently found them all wanting in some respect. (In the 1960’s, we would have said they were all “establishment.”) That Francis began alone, in autonomy, by the lights of his own conscience, makes him something of an outlier for the post-Reformation age of freedom of conscience. His obedience to the Church and his love of its most sacred practices does not obliterate the fact that this love would always be focused by his own special lights.
There is more to the story of the Franciscans and the Reformation, which will involve posts on the tragic story of the Spiritual Franciscans, the most radical followers of Francis in the century after his death, and Innocent III, who worked to preserve orthodoxy and eradicate heresy. His template remained in place as the Protestant Reformation unfolded.