On Duns Scotus

«Defender of the Immaculate Conception»

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VATICAN CITY, JULY 7, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience in Paul VI Hall.

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Dear brothers and sisters,
This morning — after a few catecheses on several great theologians — I wish to present to you another important figure in the history of theology: John Duns Scotus, who lived at the end of the 13th century. An ancient inscription on his tomb summarizes the geographical coordinates of his biography: «England received him; France instructed him; Cologne, in Germany, keeps his remains, he was born in Scotland.» We cannot overlook this information, because we have very little information on the life of Duns Scotus.

He was born probably in 1266 in a village, which in fact is called Duns, on the outskirts of 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. Gifted with a brilliant intelligence geared to speculation — an intelligence that merited him by tradition the title of doctor subtilis, «subtle doctor» — Duns Scotus was directed to the study of philosophy and theology at the famous Universities of Oxford and Paris. Having concluded his formation successfully, he undertook the teaching of theology at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and then Paris, beginning his commentary, as all teachers of the time, on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. The main works of Duns Scotus represent, in fact, the mature fruit of these lessons, and take the title of the places in which he taught: Opus Oxoniense (Oxford), Reportatio Cambrigensis (Cambridge), Reportata Parisiensia (Paris).

Duns Scotus left Paris when a serious conflict broke out between King Philip IV the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII, preferring voluntary exile rather than signing a document hostile to the Supreme Pontiff, as the king had imposed on all religious. Thus — out of love for the See of Peter — he left the country together with his Franciscan Brothers.
Dear brothers and sisters, this fact invites us to recall how many times in the history of the Church believers have met with hostility and even with persecutions because of their fidelity and their devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Pope. We all look with admiration to these Christians, who teach us to guard faith in Christ and communion with the Successor of Peter, and thus with the universal Church, as a precious good.
However, relations between the king of France and Boniface VIII’s successor soon became friendly again and in 1305 Duns Scotus was able to return to Paris to teach theology with the title of magister regens, today we would say ordinary professor. Subsequently, his superiors sent him to Cologne as professor of the Franciscan Theological Studium, but he died on Nov. 8, 1308, when only 43 years of age, leaving, however, an important number of works.
Because of his fame for holiness, devotion to him soon spread in the Franciscan Order and Venerable Pope John Paul II wished to confirm him solemnly blessed on March 20, 1993, describing him as «singer of the Incarnate Word and defender of the Immaculate Conception.» Synthesized in this expression is the great contribution Duns Scotus made to the history of theology.
First of all, he meditated on the mystery of the incarnation and, as opposed to many Christian thinkers of the time, he maintained that the Son of God would have become man even if humanity had not sinned. In the Reportata Parisiensia he affirms: «To think that God would have given up such work if Adam had not sinned would be altogether irrational! I say, therefore, that the fall was not the cause of the predestination of Christ, and that — even if no one had fallen, not angels or man — in this hypothesis Christ would still have been predestined in the same way» (in III Sent., d. 7, 4).

This, perhaps, rather surprising thought is born because for Duns Scotus the incarnation of the Son of God, projected from all eternity by God the Father in his plan of love, is the fulfillment of creation, and makes it possible for every creature, in Christ and through him, to be filled with grace and give praise and glory to God in eternity. Duns Scotus, though aware that, in reality, because of original sin, Christ has redeemed us with his passion, death and resurrection, confirms that the incarnation is the greatest and most beautiful work of the whole history of salvation, and that it is not conditioned by any contingent fact, but is the original idea of God to finally unite the whole of creation with himself in the person and flesh of the Son.
Duns Scotus, faithful disciple of St. Francis, loved to contemplate and preach the mystery of the salvific passion of Christ, expression of the immense love of God, who communicates with enormous generosity outside of himself the rays of his goodness and his love (cf. Tractatus de primo principio, c. 4). And this love is not only revealed on Calvary, but also in the Most Blessed Eucharist, to which Duns Scotus was most devoted and which he saw as the sacrament of the real presence of Jesus and as the sacrament of the unity and community that induces us to love one another and to love God as the supreme common good (cf. Reportata Parisiensia, in IV Sent., d. 8, q. 1, n. 3).
Dear brothers and sisters, this theological vision, intensely «Christocentric,» opens us to contemplation, to wonder and to gratitude: Christ is the center of history and of the cosmos; he it is who gives meaning, dignity and value to our life! Like Pope Paul VI in Manila, I also would like to cry out to the world today: «[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, Nov. 29, 1970).

Not only the role of Christ in the history of salvation, but also Mary’s [role] is the object of the reflection of the doctor subtilis. In Duns Scotus’ times, the majority of theologians offered an objection that seemed insurmountable to the doctrine that Most Holy Mary was free from original sin from the first instant of her conception. In fact, the universality of the redemption wrought by Christ, at first glance, might seem compromised by such an affirmation, as if Mary had no need of Christ and of his redemption. Because of this theologians were opposed to this thesis.

To make this preservation from original sin understood, Duns Scotus then developed an argument which later would also be adopted by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1854, when he defined solemnly the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. And this argument is that of the «preventive redemption,» according to which the Immaculate Conception represents the masterpiece of the redemption wrought by Christ, because in fact the power of his love and of his mediation obtained that the Mother be preserved from original sin. Hence Mary is totally redeemed by Christ, but already before her conception. The Franciscans, his brethren, accepted and spread this doctrine enthusiastically, as did other theologians who — often with a solemn oath — committed themselves to defend and perfect it.
In this regard, I would like to highlight something, which it seems to me is important. Valuable theologians, such as Duns Scotus with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, enriched with their specific thought what the People of God already believed spontaneously about the Blessed Virgin, manifested in acts of piety, in the expressions of art and, in general, in Christian living. Thus faith in the Immaculate Conception or in the bodily assumption of the Virgin was already present in the People of God, while theology had not yet found the key to interpret it in the totality of
the doctrine of the faith. Thus the People of God precede theologians and all this thanks to that supernatural sensus fidei, namely, that capacity infused by the Holy Spirit, which qualifies us to embrace the reality of the faith, with humility of heart and mind.

In this sense, the People of God is «magisterium that precedes,» and that later must be deepened and intellectually accepted by theology. May theologians always be able to listen to this source of faith and have the humility and simplicity of little ones! I made this reminder 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. Holy Mass with the Members of the International Theological Commission, Dec. 1, 2009).

Finally, Duns Scotus developed a point to which modernity is very sensitive. It is the topic of liberty and its relation with the will and with the intellect. Our author stresses liberty as a fundamental quality of the will, initiating an approach of a voluntaristic tendency, which developed in contrast with the so-called Augustinian and Thomistic intellectualism. For St. Thomas Aquinas, who follows St. Augustine, liberty cannot be considered an innate quality of the will, but the fruit of the collaboration of the will and of the intellect.

An idea of innate and absolute liberty placed in the will and preceding the intellect, whether in God or in man, risks, in fact, leading to the idea of a God who would not even be linked to the truth and to the good. The desire to save the absolute transcendence and diversity of God with an affirmation about his will that is so radical and impenetrable fails to take into account that the God who revealed himself in Christ is the God «logos,» who acted and acts full of love toward us.

Certainly, as Duns Scotus affirms, in line with Franciscan theology, love surpasses knowledge and is increasingly capable of perceiving thought, but it is always the love of the God «Logos» (cf. Benedict XVI, Address at Regensburg, Teachings of Benedict XVI, II [2006], p. 261). Also in man the idea of absolute liberty, placed in the will, forgetting the nexus with truth, ignores that liberty itself must be freed of the limits imposed on it by sin.
Speaking to Roman seminarians last year, I reminded that «[s]ince the beginning and throughout all time but especially in the modern age freedom has been the great dream of humanity» (Address to the Pontifical Major Roman Seminary, Feb. 20, 2009). However, modern history itself, in addition to our daily experience, teaches us that liberty is authentic, and helps the construction of a truly human civilization only when it is reconciled with truth. If it is detached from truth, liberty becomes, tragically, a principle of destruction of the interior harmony of the human person, source of malversation of the strongest and the violent, and cause of suffering and mourning. Liberty, as all the faculties with which man is gifted, grows and is perfected, affirms Duns Scotus, when man opens himself to God, valuing that disposition of listening to his voice, which he calls potentia oboedientialis: When we listen to divine Revelation, to the Word of God, to accept it, then we have been reached by a message that fills our life with light and hope and we are truly free.
Dear brothers and sisters, Blessed Duns Scotus teaches us that what is essential in our life is to believe that God is close to us and that he loves us in Christ Jesus, and therefore to cultivate a profound love of him and of his Church. We are witnesses of this love on earth. May Mary Most Holy help us to receive this infinite love of God that we will enjoy fully for eternity in heaven, when our soul will finally be united for ever to God, in the communion of saints.
 [Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:] 
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis on medieval Christian culture, we now turn to the distinguished Franciscan theologian, Blessed John Duns Scotus. A native of Scotland, he taught at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Paris. Duns Scotus is best known today for his contribution to the development of Christian thought in three areas. First, he held that the Incarnation was not directly the result of Adam’s sin, but a part of God’s original plan of creation, in which every creature, in and through Christ, is called to be perfected in grace and to glorify God for ever. In this great Christocentric vision, the Incarnate Word appears as the centre of history and the cosmos. Secondly, Scotus argued that Our Lady’s preservation from original sin was a privilege granted in view of her Son’s redemptive passion and death; this theory was to prove decisive for the eventual definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Finally, Duns Scotus paid great attention to the issue of human freedom, although by situating it principally in the will, he sowed the seeds of a trend in later theology that risked detaching freedom from its necessary relation to truth. May the teaching and example of Blessed John Duns Scotus help us to understand that we attain happiness, freedom and perfection by opening ourselves to God’s gracious self-revelation in Christ Jesus.
I offer a warm welcome to the members of the General Chapter of the Congregation of Holy Cross, together with my prayerful good wishes for the spiritual fruitfulness of your deliberations. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience, especially the groups from Wales, Ireland, the Philippines, Canada and the United States of America, I invoke God’s abundant blessings.

© Copyright 2010 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[The Holy Father added in Italian»]

Finally, my thought goes to young people, the sick and newlyweds. Yesterday was the liturgical memorial of St. Maria Goretti, virgin and martyr: a girl who, though very young, was able to demonstrate strength and courage against evil. I invoke her for you, dear young people, so that she will help you to always choose the good, even when it is costly; for you, dear sick, so that she will sustain you in enduring your daily sufferings; and for you, dear newlyweds, so that your love will always be faithful and filled with mutual respect.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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