Sunday, August 28, 2016

Avignon and the Western Schism

Two related developments of a distinctly political rather than theological nature—in the 14th and early 15th centuries—can be seen as a medieval episode forcing Church reorganization or as part of a gathering storm leading to a broad-based crisis in the 16th century.

The first was the Avignon papacy, between 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes resided in and presided from the town of that name. The Western Schism that followed involved several simultaneous claimants to the papal chair.

The bishop or overseer of the Church in Rome was regarded as preeminent going back to apostolic times because the first one was the apostle Peter, to whom Jesus assigned leadership over his followers in Matthew 16:18-19 in terms that admittedly left room for debate much later.

The Romans called Peter’s successors Papa (father) or pontifex (Latin for “bridge builder,” from pons plus facere), which was the title of the leader of the principal college of priests in ancient Rome. Although other bishops of ancient sees claimed some eminence in the Church, allegiance to the pope was universally accepted until 1054, when the Roman pope and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other, launching the still-unhealed Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox communions.

In addition, political, legal, social and even military roles befell the pope to the point that the medieval popes were not only the spiritual and ecclesiastical leaders of Western Christianity, but they were rulers over large parts of Italy, the Papal States—their decrees amounted to acts of a common European law. The medieval pope could be best seen as a secretary general of United Nations, but on steroids; the pope could rule on the terms to settle conflicts between kings and princes, order dispositions of territories and property and since Charlemagne even crown emperors.

Of course, between the years 200 and 1449 there arose some 42 challengers, called antipopes. The would-be pontiffs gained sufficient following among a faction of church leaders to claim the seat of Peter in opposition to a pope more generally seen as the legitimately elected pontiff, often by express confirmation by a general council.

Avignon and the related Papal Schism lasted altogether a bit more than a century and opened up what should have been chastening questions concerning the significance of the pope and the see of Rome that had never quite been considered before.

At the beginning of the 14th century the French-speaking town of Avignon had no great importance. Its only religious claim to fame was the legend surrounding its bridge, built by a shepherd boy, the future Saint Bénézet (1163–84), who was told in a vision to build a bridge over the Rhône River at Avignon.

He started building the structure by single-handedly laying a huge foundation stone. Later called the Pont Saint-Bénézet, it was a bridge built with 22 stone arches that tended to collapse when the Rhône flooded. Rebuilding was abandoned in the 17th century, but it nonetheless inspired a popular French folk song, Sur le Pont d’Avignon (On the Avignon Bridge).

In 1309, Avignon attracted a bridge builder of a different kind, the Catholic pontiff. Indeed, the four surviving arches on the bank of the Rhône were built around 1345 by an Avignon pope, Clement VI.

The Avignon papacy started when, facing factionalism in Rome and encouraged by French King Philip IV, Pope Clement V moved the papal residence and offices to the French town. All seven of the popes during the period were French, as were 111 of the 134 cardinals named, but the pope was not as influenced by royal French pressure as critics claim.

In some respects the inner functioning of the ecclesiastical offices connected to the pope improved away from Rome. The College of Cardinals gained a stronger role in governing the church, there was vast reorganization and centralization of administrative offices, reforms of the clergy were begun and many attempts were made to settle royal rivalries and establish peace. All this occurred within a complex of buildings that still stands, the Palace of the Popes, an architecturally severe French Gothic structure.

The shift had a distinct economic effect on France when Avignon became a center of trade. The popes were followed to Avignon by agents of the great Italian banking houses who intermediated between the papal agencies and others. Traders brought products needed for the upkeep of a large papal court and the visitors who flocked to it. Grain and wine came from Provence and the countryside around Lyons. Fish came from as far away as Brittany. Cloth and tapestries were brought from Bruges and Tournai. Avignon became wealthy, and its university drew European students who were rewarded with free books and scholarships.

Politically, France slowly gained control of the Kingdom of Arles, within which Avignon was located. At the outset of the Avignon papacy, the kingdom was nominally part of the (Germanic) Holy Roman Empire as it had been since 1032. When the popes left, the kingdom was dissolved and effectively and legally passed to France.

All this favoritism toward France damaged the papacy in the eyes of the English and German nobility, which disliked the Avignon papacy. In the eyes of some critics it also provoked a grave moral crisis in the Church, which came to resemble a bawdy and earthly principality, gaining critics such as William of Ockham and others, who sought a more austere clergy. Such critics described the period as the “Babylonian captivity” of the popes, a term thought to originate with the humanist scholar and poet Petrarch, who while visiting Avignon in the 1340s described it as “the Babylon of the West.”

Just as the Avignon papacy ended, however, a new crisis began, known as the Great, Papal or Western Schism. Its eruption reads like a classic political thriller. Urged by many voices at the time, including that of Catherine of Siena, Pope Gregory XI reestablished papal administration in Rome in January 1377; unfortunately he died soon after, in March 1378.

The College of Cardinals was immediately convened. Romans, whose interests had suffered during the Avignon period, wanted a pope who was Roman or at least Italian, as did the mobs from various neighboring regions that pressured the cardinals to act. On April 8, the cardinals elected the Archbishop of Bari, a respected administrator in the papal chancery at Avignon, as Pope Urban VI.

As pope, however, Urban seemed to want to accomplish many reforms at once and, reportedly, was prone to violent outbursts of temper. The cardinals began to have buyer’s remorse; a majority went from Rome to Anagni, where on September 20 they elected Robert of Geneva, who took the papal name Clement VII and reestablished a papal court in Avignon.

The numerous earlier antipopes had been rival claimants to the papacy appointed by minority factions among Church leaders, but this time the same group of cardinals elected both the pope and the antipope within months of one another, without first removing the sitting pope.

The second election threw the Church—and Europe—into turmoil. Kings and princes suddenly had to choose whom they would recognize as pope. The Avignon claimant won the support of Aragon, Burgundy, Castile and León, Cyprus, France, Naples, Savoy, Scotland and Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion in Wales. Denmark, England, Flanders, the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and the Republic of Venice, along with other Italian city states, sided with the Roman claimant.

The schism lasted 39 years with three parallel papal lines: two Avignon popes (Clement VII and Benedict XIII); four Roman popes (Urban VI, Boniface IX, Innocent VII and Gregory XII); and—incredible as it sounds—two parallel substitute popes elected to resolve the dispute (Alexander V and John XXIII) yet ultimately unsupported by majorities.

Yes, you read right, John XXIII. Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, a church history aficionado, chose that very name when elected pope in 1958 to cross a t and dot an i in the historical record; the medieval John XXIII is officially regarded as an antipope.

The schism ended with the resignation of Gregory XII in 1415—the last time before 2013 that a pope stepped down before death—and the election of Martin V in 1417. To prevent the repetition of such a spectacle, Pius II decreed that papal elections were irrevocable and could be undone only by the sitting and elected pope.

To some observers, the survival of the Catholic Church despite such immense folly is evidence of its divine protection.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

All Will Be Well

Although she lived some years after the Church travails yet to come in this narration, let us take a respite from such things in the person of an English anchoress, mystic and theologian. She has gained a faddish contemporary following, but she was firmly and indisputably rooted in the Christian faith.

Julian of Norwich*
Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) was a contemporary of another great female Christian figure, Catherine of Siena, of whom we shall hear later. We know next to nothing of Julian’s family, which was likely of some privilege in the Norwich area; some historians surmise that she received her early education with the Benedictine nuns at Carrow. Her original name is unknown; the name Julian comes either from her cell, built into the wall of the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, which still stands today, or from the medieval form of Gillian, a common name for women then.

We also do not know exactly how she came to become an anchoress, one of the earliest forms of monasticism. An anchorite withdraws from society to lead a life that is prayerful, ascetic and, in the case of Julian, involves daily Eucharist. Unlike other hermits, in the Middle Ages anchorites vowed to remain permanently enclosed in a cell, often attached to a church, and their rite of consecration was similar to the funeral rite, after which they would be deemed dead to the world, yet a kind of living saint.

Among the possibilities explaining how Julian became one are disease and widowhood. Keep in mind that epidemics of the plague ran rampant in the 14th century; in some cases, the anchoritic life was a quarantine of sorts for devout people. Some hypothesize in addition that Julian may have been a widow whose family had died in the plague. There is also inconclusive debate as to whether she was a nun in a nearby convent.

Whatever her origins, we know precisely how her life as a mystic began. At the age of 30 Julian became seriously ill nearly to the point of death and her priest came to administer the last rites on May 8, 1373. As part of the ritual, he held a crucifix in the air above the foot of her bed, and Julian reported that she was losing her sight and felt physically numb. Then, as she gazed on the crucifix, she saw the figure of Jesus begin to bleed. Over a number of hours and days she had 16 visions of Jesus Christ, all of which ended with recovery from illness five days later.

The anchoress wrote about her visions immediately after they occurred in a work called Revelations of Divine Love. This first version of the book, consisting of 25 chapters, is the earliest surviving book written in the English language by a woman. Twenty to thirty years later, Julian wrote a theological exploration of the meaning of the visions—known among scholars as “The Long Text”—which runs to 86 chapters.

Julian lived in a cell with two smallish windows; one faced the church chancel, the other was on the church’s exterior wall and looked out on the outdoors. Julian maintained contact with the world through letters and was even interviewed around 1414 by the lay English mystic Margery Kempe, who came for advice, as did many pilgrims.

Even in adaptation to an English more intelligible to the contemporary reader, but not entirely modernized, Julian’s writing is of unparalleled beauty. Even her archaisms help the reader discover a new way of thinking about profound topics.

In her opening chapter, she summarizes all 16 visions, including the first, which included “many fair shewings of endless wisdom and teachings of love: in which all the shewings that follow be grounded and oned.” She speaks of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion and death in one vision, and of his mother in another as “dearworthy,” in a footnote rendered as “precious” or “honored”; yet dearworthy feels to me far less pretentious and more genuine. I hear her say she finds both the Passion and Mary worthy of endearment and love.

She is best known for her saying, in the original, “al shal be wel and al shal be wel and al manner of thynge shall be wele,” which in the faddish spirituality of feeling good comes across as some lighthearted reassurance in the face of what seems frightful. Yet in the full context of her revelation (it occurs in her 13th shewing) it reveals the serious doubts and concerns of a believer faced with the problem of evil, as follows:
After this the Lord brought to my mind the longing that I had to Him afore. And I saw that nothing letted me but sin. And so I looked, generally, upon us all, and methought: If sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like to our Lord, as He made us.

And thus, in my folly, afore this time often I wondered why by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not letted: for then, methought, all should have been well. This stirring was much to be forsaken, but nevertheless mourning and sorrow I made therefor, without reason and discretion.

But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered by this word and said: It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Indeed, even today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church cites Julian in affirming that God can draw out goodness even from evil.

She concludes, therefore, that Christ wishes us to “keep us in the Faith and truth of Holy Church, not desiring to see into His secret things now.” This is something that council fathers from Nicaea onward, along with theologians and religious rebels, could have kept in mind and spared the world a great deal of confusion, not to mention strife.

Julian is also down-to-earth in her delving into the psychological and physical needs of human beings.

“The feeling of weal is gracious touching and lightening, with true assuredness of endless joy; the feeling of woe is temptation by heaviness and irksomeness of our fleshly living,” she writes. “We are kept all as securely in Love in woe as in weal, by the Goodness of God.”

Although she is not a canonized saint, Julian has a feast day, May 8 in the Anglican and Lutheran traditions and May 13 in the Catholic.


* Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral, by David Holgate FSDC. (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Concilia Laterani


A visitor to Rome who wishes to see the cathedral must go not to St. Peter’s Basilica just east of the Tiber, but west and well across the city to St. John Lateran. Next to the formal entrance is a plaque that reads Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput (Most Holy Lateran Church, mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world).

Baroque and overly ornate, it is the product of several centuries of restoration and improvement after devastating fires in 1307 and 1361, the last architectural touches completed in 1735. However, it was originally consecrated in 354 and had a notable history even then, standing on the site of the home of the Laterani family. Consul-designate Plautius Lateranus was famously accused by Nero of conspiracy against the emperor, resulting in confiscation of his properties. Emperor Constantine I donated the house and its land to the bishop of Rome. Four notable medieval church general councils took place here.

Through the end of the first millennium, almost all eight councils held from Nicaea onward were mostly about doctrine. An exception was the so-called Robber Council of Ephesus in 449, which as we have seen was hijacked by a subsequently deposed factional minority, its decrees subsequently abrogated.

The philosopher bishops of late antiquity and the early middle ages quibbled mostly about highly technical matters of what was beginning to be called theology. From that period, the only item that would later give rise to dispute was defined in 787 at the Second Council of Nicaea in a statement of belief referring to the mother of Jesus as “God-bearer without blemish, Mary the ever-virgin.”

The Anglican Communion generally accepts the first four ecumenical councils (Anglo-Catholics add three more) as a source of valid universal Christian teaching. This is because after that the councils largely ceased to be “ecumenical,” meaning inclusive of all regions. The First Lateran Council was the first such meeting to take place without representation from the patriarch of Constantinople.

The Lateran general councils are different from those that preceded. During the buildup to scholasticism, the bishops began to function more as the Church’s noblemen and princes than theologians and depended on scholars for advice on such matters, as is the case today. Moreover, doctrinal concerns were overshadowed by problems of their day, including conflicts between church and state, public clerical immorality, and a host of political and legal issues faced by the era’s central social institution, plus a series of perceived threats external to European Christendom.

The First Lateran Council was convened in 1123. Most momentous, with an effect on Catholics today, was its decision regarding celibacy for priests in the Latin rite. The language of the decree clearly lets on (and later Lateran councils confirm) that it covered more than met the eye: “We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons and monks to have concubines or to contract marriages.”

A second general council just 16 years later, was called because the papal election of 1130 had ended in a split result, and two popes were claiming the seat. The Council condemned the heresies of religious popular rebels of their day and heard preaching by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in favor of a new crusade against Islam.

However, the decrees that convey the tenor of life, particularly of clerics, inveigh against simony (or the purchase of blessings); ordination of men with many wives and concubines; monks charging to tutor laypeople; charging for chrism, holy oils and burials; lay Church employees pocketing donations; sons of clerics claiming right to ownership of churches, their income and associated church positions; and sons of priests insisting on participation in religious services even though they were not ordained.

The council worried about the “ferocious greed of usurers,” usury being any lending of money with interest. Lateran II also applies the penalty of excommunication for the “most dreadful, devastating and malicious crime of incendiarism,” with penance defined as a year of service in Jerusalem or Spain. The council also addresses intermarriage of the nobility in order to amass wealth and territory, which it condemns as “incestuous behavior” and “under the influence of the enemy of the human race.”

In a decree that is oddly colorful and relevant today, Lateran II warns against new war technology: “We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on.” The crossbow was a horizontal bowlike assembly that shot projectiles called bolts or quarrels. They were used in Scotland by the Picts as early as the 6th century and at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. But the council was concerned about their use by the “Saracens” (medieval for Muslims), who had adapted what they called the “Frankish bow” for use against Crusaders. The new and improved Saracen crossbow proved especially deadly.

The third Lateran council was called by Pope Alexander III in 1179 to undo the damage of antipopes. Once again the council addressed increased clerical corruption (many of the decrees are reiterated), heresies and perceived external threats. Among the latter is a hardening of attitudes against non-Christians, seen in the decree forbidding Jews and Saracens to have Christian servants in their houses. Notably for ecclesiastical order, the council established three key rules: pontiffs must be elected by a two-thirds vote; a bishop must be a man at least 30 years old, “born in lawful wedlock” and “worthy by his life and learning”; and valid excommunication was defined in response to precise causes and following specified procedures.

The Fourth Lateran Council, called in 1215 by Pope Innocent III, was among such medieval gatherings the most decisive and controversial, with the longest-lasting impact. It was attended by 500 bishops, including the patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, and about 1,000 abbots and religious superiors, including Saints Dominic and Francis.

The council set the tone with its opening lengthy creed or “Confession of Faith,” whose opening sentence shows the rising influence of philosophical scholasticism: “We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature.”

More significantly, the Lateran IV confession introduced a point of controversy that would resonate through the Reformation and to this day. The council fathers declared that “His body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been changed in substance (in Latin, transubstantiatis), by God's power, into his body and blood, so that in order to achieve this mystery of unity we receive from God what he received from us.”

The Anglican Benedictine ecumenically known as a modern authority on the Eucharist, Dom Gregory Dix, confirmed that before the Reformation no one questioned whether what began as bread and wine ended up as Body and Blood. The medieval scholastics and clergy merely wanted to explain how this happened.

Next, in full view of the patriarchs, the council protested “the pride of the Greeks toward the Latins” in a half-hearted attempt at reunion with the East. The decree laments that “after the Greek church together with certain associates and supporters withdrew from the obedience of the apostolic see, the Greeks began to detest the Latins.” In order to heal the division, the council fathers said, “we strictly order” that the Greeks in question “conform themselves like obedient sons to the holy Roman church.”

The council did throw the East a consolation prize, a decree that reaffirmed “the ancient privileges of the patriarchal sees,” placing “after the Roman church, which through the Lord's disposition has a primacy of ordinary power over all other churches,” the church of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, in that order of primacy.

Among the many church disciplines from Lateran IV one is significantly to Catholics today: the duty of yearly confession and yearly communion. The council added the assurance of the confessional seal: “if anyone presumes to reveal a sin disclosed to him in confession, we decree that he is not only to be deposed from his priestly office but also to be confined to a strict monastery to do perpetual penance”; today the penalty is excommunication.

Lateran IV extended prohibition against marriage involving consanguinity to the fourth degree, which includes in-laws. To avoid repudiation of spouses as had been happening among kings of France and Castile, the council established rules of evidence to be accepted by priests before marriage and ordered the publication of banns, which older readers may remember, persisted until the current code of 1983.

The council established a broad range of rules concerning the participation of clerics in civil suits and the courts. These rules came to be important in Europe after the French Revolution, even in civil law.

Lamentably, Lateran IV, in its last four canons (67-70) set the stage for long-standing entrenched and institutionalized anti-Semitism in Europe, including practices the Nazis copied.

First, the council embraced the broadside against Jews as evil moneylenders, a theme taken up by Shakespeare in “The Merchant of Venice,” accusing them of “usurious practices” carried out in growing “perfidy.” The council orders Jews who “extort oppressive and excessive interest” to be banished from the presence of Christians.

Canon 68 stipulated that Jews and Muslims “are to be distinguished in public from other people by the character of their dress,” so that no Christian will marry them unknowingly. The Nazis pointed to this as a precedent for ordering Jews to wear a yellow Star of David. The following canon disqualified Jews from holding public office.

Arguing that “it is a lesser evil not to know the Lord’s way than to go back on it after having known it” the council ordered priests to ensure that Jews who converted to Christianity did not observe their old rites and customs.

The fifth and last Lateran council to date, held from 1512 to 1517—after five councils held elsewhere—was so preoccupied with the emerging Protestant movement that it deserves treatment later.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Five Lesser Known, and Sometimes Reviled, Medieval Scholastics


In what remained of the Middle Ages after Aquinas, a series of scholastics made notable contributions to the thinking prevailing in Christian Europe, some quite controversially.

Bonaventure


Bonaventure (1221-1274) was a contemporary of Aquinas, like him an Italian scholar who wrestled with the Greeks. However, Bonaventure (born Giovanni di Fidanza; legend that has his moniker given by St. Francis of Assisi) was primarily a churchman from humble origins; as a Franciscan, he rose to Minister General of his order, later he became a cardinal bishop as a reward for aiding the election of a fellow Franciscan as Pope Gregory X.

His work is primarily theological, the most important a commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. He followed St. Augustine of Hippo into a Christian Platonism that was sex-negative, but positive toward authoritarian rule—including his own in his order, within which he suppressed many writings. Bonaventure thought that searching for truth philosophically could open the mind to three different routes to God. Some may see the “footprints” of God in creation and discern the Creator as the cause of the world. Others may understand the Divine Being as an illuminator of knowledge and donor of grace and virtue. Those more metaphysically inclined may see God as the absolutely perfect being whose essence is existence, an absolutely simple being who causes all other, composite beings to exist.

Apart from his personal influence at the Council of Lyons in the last year of his life, his writings were cited at many later councils, including those of Vienna (1311), Constance (1417), Basle (1435), Florence (1438) and Trent (1546). John Henry Newman states in his Apologia that Bonaventure’s writings influenced definitions of dogma and decrees concerning papal supremacy and infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1870). He was canonized in 1482 by Pope Sixtus IV.  Franciscans inclined to institutionalism, order and academic life pushed to enshrine Bonaventure as a Doctor of the Church in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V.

Albertus Magnus


Albertus Magnus or Albert the Great (1200-1280), was a German Dominican friar and bishop, later canonized as a saint. The title Magnus derived from the truly encyclopedic study of topics including alchemy, astrology, astronomy, botany, friendship and love, geography, justice, law, logic, minerology, phrenology, physiology, theology and zoology. Unlike Aquinas and Bonaventure, he was more of a philosopher than a theologian.

He held views some views that were unusual. For example, in contrast to the early Church Fathers, Albertus believed that astrology could help people understand themselves in a manner that was congruent with Christianity. However, he was more in line with prevailing Christian thought, yet still innovative, in his commentaries on music, in particular his psychological observations of the effect of plainchant on people’s disposition.

Albert is embraced in our time by “new age” eclectic thinking as a pioneer. In canonizing and honoring him for work mostly outside theology, the Church saw him as an example that a Christian can seek knowledge openly and unafraid to explore anything and everything.

Duns Scotus


John Duns, known as Duns Scotus (1266-1308), was a Franciscan born in Scotland who studied at Oxford, Paris and Cologne, where he died. He is best understood in terms of the title he was given in his own time Doctor Subtilis (subtle teacher) for his penetrating and subtle manner of thought.

His contributions are inquiries into abstract topics debated by philosopher-theologians: being, reality, the nature of matter, whether things are universal or particular and so on. Thus, he is best known for teaching about the “univocity” of being, meaning that existence is the most abstract concept applicable to everything that exists; the “formal distinction,” a way to establish differences between aspects of the same thing; and, thirdly, “haecceity,” the property that makes each thing individual. While these are not topics that concern the average Christian believer, they have an effect on the understanding of the universe.

In what is today called Scotism, God alone is absolutely immaterial, the Deity alone an absolute and perfect actuality, without any potentiality for becoming other than what She* is. In contrast, creatures, angels and human bodies and souls are of the same prime matter, though corporeal or spiritual, and endowed with potentiality and actuality; they are changeable and may become the subject of accidents. Scotus developed from such teaching a complex argument for the existence of God; he also argued for the Immaculate Conception of Mary, becoming an early but not the first advocate of the idea that Jesus’ mother was born without original sin.

In addition to being inaccessible to the average reader, including myself, Scotus’ obscurity is partially due to being purposely banished from English curricula following the Reformation. Indeed, he was only beatified, the step before being canonized, by Pope John Paul II in 1993.

Meister Eckhart


Eckhart von Hochheim (1260-1328), known as Meister Eckhart (Master Eckhart), was a German theologian, philosopher and mystic.  He was briefly a Dominican provincial superior of Bohemia but most of his career was academic. He earned the title Master of Sacred Theology at the University of Paris, where he also taught, going on to lecture in Strasburg, Frankfurt and Cologne, where he died. Like Scotus, Eckhart is on the esoteric edge of medieval scholasticism.

His modern renown has to do with mysticism. In his own time, the Franciscans, ecclesiastical rivals of the Dominicans, believed that his teachings could mislead untutored Christians to heresy. Eckhart was accused of heresy, brought before the local Franciscan-led Inquisition and tried as a heretic by Pope John XXII, but died before the verdict against him was received.

Eckhart was broadly accused of encouraging a freelance mysticism as practiced by counterculture medieval women known as Beguines or Beghards. He was also charged with proposing the view that sacraments, including the Eucharist, coupled with a complete surrender of the self leads to a total transformation “into” God; in this state a person can attain such a degree of perfection as to become utterly without sin, no longer needing to pray, to deny the body nor to be subject to any human authority or church. Another related charge involved pantheism, due to the claim that Eckhart proposed that every creature can become intimately connected with God in a similar form.

Posthumously, Eckhart was linked to an anonymous work, the 14th-century Theologia Germanica, which is said to have influenced Martin Luther’s struggle against indulgences. Eckhart’s mostly lost writings were largely forgotten until the 19th century. Recently, he gained popularity thanks to the book Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality by Matthew Fox, a Dominican priest expelled from his order in 1993 and currently a retired Episcopal priest.

Speaking for himself, Eckhart offered this explanation: “When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature.”

William of Ockham


William of Ockham (1287-1347), an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian, is commonly known for “Occam's razor,” a methodological principle of rational inquiry, but he also produced works on logic, physics and theology. He studied at Oxford and Paris, where he may have had Duns Scotus as a teacher.

William was humorously called “the first Protestant” by a Catholic author, largely because his keen mind subjected everything to searing criticism, including the established ecclesiastical order and the academically recognized system of philosophy of his day.

He protested papal reform of the Franciscan rule, calling Pope John XXII a heretic for rejecting apostolic poverty. This was the teaching that guided 13th century mendicant orders to live their lives without owning land or holding money following advice in Luke 10:1-24, which they saw as a way of reforming the Church. William went off to live with a dissident group of austere monks and was excommunicated for doing so without permission, a sanction posthumously lifted by Urban VI.

In philosophy, he advocated for reform in the method and content of scholasticism, aiming for simplification. Such effort yielded an important contribution to modern science and intellectual culture: efficient reasoning. This sprung from the well-known “Law of Parsimony,” now more commonly called Ockham’s Razor, which proposes a method of problem-solving: when there are competing hypotheses, one should chose the simplest, meaning the one requiring the fewest premises to prove the point.

In matters of faith, he was also a revolutionary. Breaking with Aquinas and other scholastics on the notion that the truth of the faith can be found through reasoning, William came to conclude that “only faith gives us access to theological truths. The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover.” His faith also refused to place human rational limits on God. William argued that God could have, had that been the divine will, become incarnate as a donkey or an ox, or even as both a donkey and a man at the same time.

William’s freethinking ways failed to earn him canonization, although he is commemorated by the Church of England on April 10. He also lives on in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose as the fictional friar William of Baskerville, a character partially based on Ockham.


*No anthropomorphizing of God intended; a pronoun is needed: “It” sounds disrespectful and “He” is patriarchist.