Defending Bonaventure

The Critics

I feel compelled to defend Bonaventure against his critics. I have always felt drawn to the attractive saint and scholar of 13th Century Paris.

Critics dislike three things about Bonaventure. Firstly, they claim that as Minister General Number 7, he compromised important values of St Francis, especially that of poverty.

They also complain that his standing as a scholar ruled him out of the Friars Minor. Francis, after all, was uncomfortable with academic learning, and wanted the brothers to preach from the heart – not the head. Leave that to the Dominican friars!

Thirdly, Bonaventure’s critics point at the Cardinal’s red hat Bonaventure accepted. They grumble that although he had always honoured the offices of priest and bishop, Francis believed that parts of the church hierarchy were corrupt. Cardinal Bonaventure had joined the enemy!

Poverty and our Distance from the Lie of Materialism

Did Bonaventure compromise the central Franciscan value of poverty? The friars elected Bonaventure Minister General because they believed he could hold together the grievously divided Order. Bonaventure had personal authority with both the spirituali and the relaxati.

The spirituali wanted to keep alive the tradition of begging and living in small hermitages.

The relaxati, however, were content to live in convents inside the cities. As they grew in numbers, begging and refusing cash became less practical. Living in convents made the brothers’ pastoral ministry more effective and provided security for precious books and liturgical items. (Cusato, 136)

The problems were obvious. When they lived outside the towns, the Little Brothers distanced themselves physically and spiritually from the economic system of the towns. When they moved physically, they risked losing the spiritual importance of staying out of the materialistic world.

Bonaventure, a realist, recognises the risk of spiritual dilution. He also knows that the Order will not survive in small insecure hermitages.

Bonaventure chooses survival. Without his diplomacy, the Order may have collapsed. Bonaventure could claim that with careful discipline, even in convents friars could remain true to Lady Poverty, but the ‘spiritualising’ party continued to believe that the heart of the Franciscan charism was lost.

Sociological theory about movements started by charismatic people charts their process:

  • Man
  • Movement
  • Machine
  • Monument

A Movement will die when as institution (“a Machine”) it loses its sense of purpose. But a movement is fluid, dynamic, in itself uncontrollable. Even Francis was frustrated when he tried to bring his movement back to his original vision.

Bonaventure understood the need for the Machine (the Order) to provide structure for the Movement. If you spend all your energy on the processes within the institution, both Machine and Movement are very soon a Monument, a Memory – dead. The ALP in our day is playing out these dynamics; the Anglican Church is learning its rules.

So to survive you need to intervene not in the Movement, nor in the Machine. You need to focus on the Man, the charismatic founder, and so inspire people again to follow the Man, to take up his ideals, to be the Movement.

Bonaventure spent much of his academic energy re-vitalising the Order’s picture of Francis. He wrote Francis’ biography. His writings capture the meaning of Francis’ spiritual experience. He enthused readers to become energetic participants in the movement with the vision Francis bequeathed.

Did he succeed? The answer can only be in terms of the Order he tried to save. The Order survived, but remained divided. Today’s Friars Minor, Capuchins and Conventuals are all children of the original Franciscan movement.

The questions raised by the critics of Bonaventure still need asking. Have we arranged our lives as an expression of the Franciscan virtue of poverty?

There have always been some who have literally given away their worldly wealth to live “in extreme simplicity” as acknowledged in the Third Order Principles. For most of us, the answer is that we, in First World countries, live more or less in affluence.

Do we let our wealth blur our vision of what God calls us to as Franciscans? Does our wealth distance us from “the lie” – Western society’s belief that materialism will save us? Does our wealth make it easy to forget to be “aware of the poverty in the world and its claim on us?” (Third Order Principles).

Thanks to Bonaventure’s critics, we need to keep on asking those questions.


Master of Paris or Betrayer of the Heart?

Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas and Franciscan friar Bonaventure were both academics at the University of Paris. Both were brilliant scholars. Bonaventure was a lesser light only because of the extraordinary radiance of Thomas’ intellect.

But didn’t Father Francis warn his brothers not to be seduced by academia? He allowed Antony to preach at Padua only when convinced that Antony’s learning supported preaching from the heart. Francis’ treatment of Antony exposes Francis’ real objection. He objects not to scholarship in itself, but because scholars easily lose the heart.

I guess that Francis would have tolerated Bonaventure’s scholarship, because it led to the heart. In the Itinerarium, Bonaventure describes how the spiritual journey requires us to leave intellect behind and enter the arena of the heart and of direct experience of God. Francis’ spiritual journey reached its climax on Mount Averna when he received the stigmata… at least, that’s the story that we have, and one of its earliest tellings is by Bonaventure!

Many Franciscans today are addicted to the buying, collecting and reading of books. So it is ironic that Bonaventure warns us to watch out for this addiction.

I know how easily I get into cycles of reading, and reading, and reading more books. Reading becomes a frenzy of accumulating new ideas and information.

I need to read less and to live more.

It is ironic that Bonaventure the great scholar is the one who recalls how Francis’ ambivalence to intellectual endeavour. Let him maintain that discomfort!

The Cardinal and the corruption

Bonaventure could have refused the red hat. Thomas Aquinas did.

But Bonaventure was different. Well-respected and liked by his brothers and the wider Church, Bonaventure as Cardinal could witness to an integrity forgotten by the Church’s princes.

Bonaventure was reluctant to be elevated. He turned down the Pope’s earlier offer to be Archbishop of York. After the Cardinals had called him in as a mediator in their disputes, he acquiesced to Gregory X’s invitation to be Cardinal-bishop of Albano. He was washing up, the story goes, when the messenger bearing the news arrived, and he directed the messenger to hang the red hat on a tree until he had finished his kitchen duties.

At Gregory’s request Bonaventure prepared the theological quaestiones for the Council at Lyons. Bonaventure chaired some sessions and used his diplomatic skills to negotiate, with some success, with the Greek Orthodox delegates.

It was perhaps inevitable that Brother Bonaventure became a Cardinal. His skills as a mediator were needed in all the councils of the Church, and his integrity was never compromised by his diplomacy. One admirer even declared that Bonaventure was not tainted by original sin!

A successful mediator must take the way of littleness. The task of mediation is to present the view of one party in such a way that the other party can hear their opponent’s viewpoint with sympathy. Mediators hold the space open for the contenders and so create the best environment for a non-coercive dialogue.

These themes: littleness; non-violence; dialogue; holding space open all resonate with the Franciscan tradition.

The challenge for all Franciscans in positions of power is to exercise authority in the way of littleness: renouncing the use of force to gain compliance and acknowledging heart as well as head.

I would like to know more about Bonaventure as leader. His demeanour should shape Franciscan officials in any century.


St Bonaventure in Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent, accessed 21/03/2006.

G.K. Chesterton (1956) Saint Thomas Aquinas, “The Dumb Ox”, New York: Image Books.

Michael J. Cusato OFM, (1997) Hermitage or Marketplace? The search for an authentic Franciscan locus in the world. Spirit and Life: A Journal of Contemporary Franciscanism, Vol.7, 1997, 125-148.

Brother Michael SSF (date not known) For the Time Being: a memoir, London: Gracewing.

Harrison Owen (2003) The Practice of Peace, New York: Open Space Institutes (on holding space open in non-violent conflict resolution)

Paul Rout OFM (1996)Francis and Bonaventure, London: Fount.

A shorter version of this article was published in Franciscan Angles, the publication of the Society of Saint Francis, Province of the Divine Compassion

One response

  1. […] have wanted for some time to read this exploration of Bonaventure, and I am enjoying the experience. Ratzinger is learned and lucid, a teacher whose range is so wide […]

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