Last week we talked about the origins of the Franciscans as the face of renewal in Medieval Europe, and the similarities and differences in the reforming styles of Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther. The Franciscan story does not end with Francis; it opens an era of controversy on the authority of Scripture vs. Pope, a century long tale that regrettably comes to a sad end for a segment of the Franciscan family, a movement of friars known today in history as “the Spiritual Franciscans.”
The tale of the Spiritual Franciscans began during Francis’ last years. The saintly founder had fought consistently for a literal interpretation of the Gospel as it was stated in the friars’ rule. Many of the friars, as we saw last Thursday, were educated, and nurtured in towns and households where learning was esteemed. While most friars adhered to basic ministry at the grassroots level, more than a few gravitated toward the teaching ministry. Because of their erudition and simplicity of life, the university friars were much loved by their students. The friars taught their courses for free, rousing considerable ire from their secular clergy counterparts. The friars enjoyed special protection from popes, referred to as “papal privileges.” Francis, in his lifetime, saw papal privilege as an unrequested and dangerous status that would undermine the heart of his order.
The theological issue most troublesome to the Order in the years after Francis’ death in 1226 A.D. was usum (or “use.”) With the Order accepting more priests into its ranks, its admissions swelling, and the needs of its scholars for books, libraries, and other academic accoutrement, it became harder to adhere to Francis’ Biblical rule that the friars “should take nothing for the journey.” Ironically, the saint’s death itself was an outlier for the kinds of struggles ahead for the Order: his immediate successors (at least a portion of them) approved a magnificent church in Assisi as Francis’ final resting place on the grounds, one could say, that the greatest apostle of Gospel austerity deserved the best that money could buy. The Franciscan conundrum, simply stated.
[Source note: the best and most readable volume of the controversies in today’s post is David Burr’s The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After Saint Francis (2003). I have an Amazon review posted here.]
The evolution of the Order from itinerant bands of brothers to mainstay of the medieval Church was navigated about as well as could be hoped by the General of the Order St. Bonaventure (r. 1257-1274), one of the greatest minds of the Church in his day. (St. Bonaventure University near Buffalo bears his name.) Bonaventure is alternately praised or condemned for his role in the evolution of the Order into a primarily clerical institution which accepted possession of buildings and possessions because, spiritually speaking, the friars did not own the buildings and other resources but simply used them (usum). (If you’ve ever wondered about that term “medieval distinction” ….)
While Bonaventure worked for some kind of unifying principle to hold strict observants and the institutionally minded in fellowship, his fellow friar and thinker Peter John Olivi (1248-1298) was headed in an opposite direction. Olivi was deeply committed to the radical poverty of Francis and the Gospels, and his writings served as an intellectual and theological basis for the beleaguered spirituals going into the 1300’s. Peter died in the good graces of the Church, but his writings had a life all to themselves, inspiring both the radical Franciscans and the many free-floating fraternities that worried popes at the turn of the fourteenth century.
Peter became a spiritual figurehead for those who believed that the Rule of Francis could not be taken metaphorically. David Burr writes of the sufferings endured by the spirituals in fraternities, where their ragged and tattered habits were mocked by other friars (the relaxati) and at times defaced or degraded, thrown into privies, for example. A separation seemed inevitable, and the literature of the spiritualists made this almost inevitable.
A review of the Spiritualist literature gives us a picture of their working theology. They placed major emphasis upon the Gospels, particularly the evangelical virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience which Francis had integrated into the original rule. Their emphasis on poverty is noteworthy because they regarded the Church as overly rich and corrupt. They regarded priests in mortal sin as incapable of exercising their office (as would Luther.) Perhaps their most politically dangerous tenet was the lack of authority of any pope to change the Franciscan Rule. Thrown into this mix is the earlier writing of a monk, Joachim of Flora, who predicted that a new age, the Age of the Holy Spirit, would occur soon. Spiritual Franciscans revered Francis as the prophet of this new age.
By the 1300’s the Inquisition began interrogation of the Spirituals on the grounds that they promoted both theological and legal error in the Church. Implied in their beliefs, of course, is the superiority of Scripture over Church authority. (When I reviewed Burr’s book many years ago, I wrote at the time that “for all practical purposes the Reformation began here.”) Pope John XXII (r. 1316-1334) excommunicated the Spirituals and burned several. Many went into exile carrying their devotion and ideas with them and needless to say, found more sympathetic hearers in some other parts of Europe.
But the story is not over yet. The general Franciscan Order had accrued many papal privileges over its first century, but not so many friends and allies. The favoritism of the Vatican Court toward Franciscans did not please clergy and the Dominican Order. When John XXII excommunicated the radical Franciscans---those most wedded to Franciscan uniqueness—an outside observer of the Dominicans, for example, could look at the friars of 1325 and ask legitimately, “What makes them so different from the rest of us?” The Order found itself defending its raison d’etre, particularly the usum principle whereby all the friars’ good technically belonged to the pope, not the friars. John would have none of this. As his Wikipedia biography states, “John XXII declared it ridiculous to pretend that every scrap of food given to the friars and eaten by them belonged to the pope, refused to accept ownership over the goods of the Franciscans in future and granted them exemption from the rule that absolutely forbade ownership of anything even in common, thus forcing them to accept ownership.”
John XXII was angry that the general body of friars was slow to embrace his interpretation of the usum rule, and he may have wreaked more disciplinary action on the entire Order—or even disbanded the friars—but the pope found himself in hot water on another front after release of his own theological tract on the soul after death. His theology was judged in error by the Cardinals, and duly chastened, he appears to have been less aggressive in his dealings with the mainstream Franciscan Order.
In case you are wondering, some form of usum continues today. A few weeks before my simple profession in 1969, I signed a will leaving all my earthly possessions to my Province of the Order. Who ultimately owns what my former Province has, I can’t say, but with fewer workers and more elderly friars, it is safe to say that the main office is not getting rich. I assumed that my will lost force when I left the friars in 1989. My life’s earnings are not high enough to justify anyone’s paying an attorney at probate time, in any event.