Pope Francis: The Seraphic Pope? (Part 1 of 2)

by rightscholarship


The current crisis in the Church—which is due largely to the efforts of a segment of traditionalist Catholic conservatives to undo the election of an allegedly ‘liberal’ Pope, but fuelled by new revelations regarding clerical abuse in decades past—has understandably thrown many Catholics off balance. The traditionalist critique (and here I don’t mean all traditionalists, but only those who are antagonistic toward the Church at large) is based on an imagined narrative of a twentieth-century decline of the Church into ‘Modernism’ and the embrace of social liberalism. The traditionalists have adopted a populist stance that places the concerned and scandalized faithful against a faraway ‘official’ Church that seeks forge ahead with business-as-usual, in partnership with the powers of political liberalism and globalism. An increasing number of traditionalists are veering toward schism, or at least toward a vision of a future in which small pockets of the faithful, supported by parishes that reject all or part of the post-Vatican II Church, would build strictly orthodox communities of believers, protected from the contamination of the modern world and from Modernist heresy. Pope Francis has become the focus of their discontent, an object of derision and ridicule, and the lead character in their conspiracy theories. I will not address what I consider to be the fundamental traditionalist error in their interpretation of Modernism, but instead outline a vision of Church history that may act as a counterbalance to the traditionalist narrative. It is one which certainly does not envision the Church as following a path of business-as-usual in the service of liberal worldliness.

This vision is not my own. It is based on St. Bonaventure’s theology of history as interpreted by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. What is my own are only the speculations I attach to this vision regarding the reason for Pope Benedict’s resignation, and the significance of the papacy of Pope Francis. I would love to ask the Pope Emeritus about all of this, but he is not answering my phone calls and I don’t think he has a Twitter account. I of course welcome input or correction from anyone with a deeper understanding than mine of the thought of St. Bonaventure, Pope Benedict XVI, or Pope Francis. Mine is still shallow.

I have been fascinated by the work of the Franciscan Minister General and Doctor of the Church St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) ever since reading his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (The Journey of the Soul into God), select transcripts from Collationes in Hexaemeron (Talks on the Six Days), and Étienne Gilson’s The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure. His exemplarist doctrine of ‘universal analogy,’ his emphasis on the hierarchy of what has been referred to in other contexts as the Great Chain of Being, and his cataloguing of the myriad of ways in which Christ is the Great Mediator, all left a deep impression. It was only, however, upon reading The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure (1955) by Joseph Ratzinger, or Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, that I became aware of the special significance of Bonaventure for our time.

Ratzinger’s book (which is the published version of his academic Habilitationsschrift or habilitation thesis) looks specifically at Bonaventure’s Collationes, which is comprised of a collection of student transcriptions of his later lectures. In Collationes, Bonaventure outlines his mature theology, which includes, Ratzinger argues, a theology of history that is both a reaction to the influence of the prophesies of Joachim of Fiore on the Franciscan order and a contribution to Catholic thought in its own right.

Joachim, as is well known, saw history as divided into three ages. These three ages are the Age of the Father, which is documented in the Old Testament; the Age of the Son, which began with Christ; and the Age of the Holy Spirit, which is a coming age of peace and perfection on Earth. Some Franciscans of Bonaventure’s time, known as the ‘Spirituals,’ identified the existing Franciscan Order with the new order of the Age of the Holy Spirit. Bonaventure, in his role as Minister General, was eager to both dispel this notion and offer a revised version of Joachim’s theology of history. Ratzinger’s book identifies and examines this new theology of history in detail. As William L. Patenaude demonstrates in his lucid Master’s thesis, Loving in the Present: The Theological and Pastoral Influences of St. Bonaventure’s Critical Retrieval of Joachim of Fiore on Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI (2011), Bonaventure’s vision would become an integral part of Ratzinger’s own theology.

I will not describe the full schema of Bonaventure’s understanding of salvation history as identified by Ratzinger. It suffices to say that it places Christ in the centre of two seven-age eras, in keeping with Bonaventure’s view of Christ as mediator of all things. We are in the tail-end of the sixth age of the second era, and thus most of salvation history has already passed. This idea that the Church exists at the verge of the end of history is not new in Christianity; what is, however, new is the idea, borrowed loosely from Joachim, that we are entering a seventh age in which peace will reign on earth. This peace will be an earthy reflection of the peace experienced by those now awaiting the Resurrection of the eighth day. Our age, which was also the age of Bonaventure, will enter or has entered a period of transition or overlap—a time of both crisis and renewal.

Part of what separates Joachim’s vision from Bonaventure’s, Ratzinger argues, is the latter’s understanding of the status of revelation in history. Joachim seemed to predict the coming of a new revelation in the Age of the Holy Spirit and a withering away of the Church as an institution, but Bonaventure rejects that idea. He sees no new revelation on the horizon, but at the same time he realizes that we are always learning more from revelation in Scripture, and that we can also learn about the future by looking at Scripture through history from the perspective of the present. Ratzinger provides an elegant description of this process of the historical unfolding of the meaning of Scripture, as conceived by Bonaventure:

“Certainly Scripture is closed objectively. But its meaning is advancing in a steady growth through history; and this growth is not yet closed. As the physical world contains seeds, so also Scripture contains ‘seeds’; that is, seeds of meaning. And this meaning develops in a constant process of growth in time. Consequently, we are able to interpret many things which the Fathers could not have known because for them these things still lay in the dark future while for us they are accessible as past history. Still other things remain dark for us. And so, new knowledge arises constantly from Scripture.” (9)

Bonaventure’s view of the relationship between Scripture and history is very different from that of liberal Protestant theology or any of the varieties of Catholic Modernism. There is no hint of historicism or any concept of an organic evolution of the truth of Scripture; Bonaventure was, after all, speaking about a half-millennium before the birth of Hegel. There is no new revelation, even if our understanding of what was revealed in Scripture deepens over time. What we once perceived as “seeds of meaning” have become fruit-bearing trees in the present, and as we travel through time toward Parousia, our understanding of the past reveals more and more about what Scripture tells us of the future. As Ratzinger neatly summarizes it, “In this way, the exegesis of Scripture becomes a theology of history; the clarification of the past leads to prophecy concerning the future.”

Bonaventure’s cautious and orthodox approach to understanding salvation history provides him with a vision of the seventh age that is striking but not utopian:

“Then the prophecy of Ezechiel (40ff) will be fulfilled: The Holy City will come down from heaven; not, however, that city ‘which is above’ (Gal. 4, 26), but that one which is below, that is, the church militant. But she will be formed in the likeness of the Church triumphant in as far as this is possible in her pilgrim state . . . And then there will be peace . . .” (qtd. in Ratzinger 22)

Instead of predicting an imminent or earthly Parousia, as Joachim did with his prophecy of a new revelation in the Age of the Holy Spirit, Bonaventure envisions a coming preparatory stage in which the Church will exist in peace at the end of the second era, while still waiting for Parousia. In the transition to this seventh age, there will be tribulation, and “Out of this time of tribulation will emerge the ordo futurus; the new People of God of the final [seventh] age” (30). This final age (the seventh age before Parousia) will be one of contemplation, as it is described in Joachim’s schema, but in Bonaventure’s case the specific form of contemplation will be one of maximum insight into the depth of the revelation found in Scripture (42). Presumably, all of the “seeds of meaning” will have reached a state of fruition.

Although Bonaventure did not, like the ‘Spirituals,’ see the existing Franciscan order as the realization of the order of the final age (49-50), he did see St. Francis and his legacy as playing a special role. St. Francis, for Bonaventure, was a sign-bearer of the seventh stage; he was the angel of Revelation 7:2, the “angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the sign of the living God” (37-8). The stigmata that Francis received when witnessing the Seraph represent this sign or seal of God. Ratzinger explains Bonaventure’s interpretation of the significance of St. Francis:

“Here it becomes clear not only that St. Francis himself is the bearer of the seal of God by reason of the Stigmata, but also that he shares in the function of the apocalyptic angel of the seal. He is to share in the task of sealing the elect of the final age. It is his task to sign the 144,000 elect with the seal of God, and in this way to establish the community of the final age. This new and final ‘Order’ which is to arise out of the tribulation of the final days will be a Franciscan Order; its proper form of life will be that of St. Francis.” (38)

Again, although Bonaventure says that this final Order will be Franciscan, it will be different from the existing Franciscan order. He claims instead, using terms drawn from the traditional conception of the angelic hierarchy, that the existing Franciscan and Dominican orders are Cherubic, rather than Seraphic (the Seraphim being the angels closest to God). The Franciscan Order of the final age, on the other hand, will be Seraphic, like its founder, and it will not be confined to an order within the Church; rather, this Order will encompass the Church in its entirety (93). The “People of God” (56) of the Church in the final age will live a life of contemplation according to an ethic of “simplicity” and “perfect poverty” (54). This contemplation of revelation will be of a higher order than what currently exists: “The revelation of the final age will be distinguished from the form of revelation already realized in the present age in the Franciscan and Dominican Orders in that it will be non-discursive and non-scholastic in character. It will be a simple, inner familiarity with the mystery of the Word of God” (71). Contemplation in the final age will reach toward what Bonaventure refers to as the sapientia nulliformis in his four-level scale of wisdom (60-63), presented here:

  • sapientia uniformis (wisdom based in reason)
  • sapientia multiformis (wisdom based in the revelation of Scripture)
  • sapientia omniformis (wisdom based in the analogical understanding of creation, as found in Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum)
  • sapientia nulliformis (a mystical understanding of God that exceeds the limits of the intellect, as described in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite)

St. Augustine, Ratzinger suggests, represents sapientia multiformis (70), with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite representing sapientia nulliformis. Bonaventure’s own theology, based in an analogical understanding of the Great Chain of Being, represents sapientia omniformis (85-86), and thus leads to the form of contemplation that is the goal of the final age. In this final age, the People of God will stand at the peak of human history, with all the insight into revelation that such a vantage-point allows. They will possess “that form of knowledge which the Apostles had . . .” (93), or that which St. Francis was granted when he saw the Seraph. Together they will constitute the “seraphic Church of the final age” (93).

Patenaude’s Master’s thesis convincingly traces the ways in which this Bonaventuran theology of history became woven into Pope Benedict XVI’s theology as a whole and influenced his papacy. Pope Benedict XVI himself paid tribute to it his catechetical talks during his General Audiences of March 3, 10, and 17 of 2010, which were part of a series on the saints. The first talk covers Bonaventure’s life. In the second talk, the Pope contrasts the optimistic, orthodox progressivism of Bonaventure with narratives of Church decline, stressing (in the words of Bonaventure) that “‘Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt’: Christ’s works do not go backwards but forwards.” At the same time, he warns agains utopianism, stressing that any new age will still take place in a fallen world. His presentation of Bonaventure’s ideas ends on a note that betrays a pessimism regarding the likelihood of the prophecy being fulfilled in the near future. He does not encourage thoughts of an imminent seventh age, but instead seems to recommend that Catholics turn inward to prepare themselves, and specifically offers Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum as a guide. The third talk looks at Bonaventure in relation to St. Thomas Aquinas, and positions these two Doctors of the Church as towering figures of Catholic thought, very different but somehow complimentary, with Aquinas being oriented toward “the true” and Bonaventure toward “the good.” Of course, as the Pope notes, the true and the good are one and the same, even if they are approached by different paths.

By listening to Pope Benedict XVI on St. Bonaventure, and by recognizing the extent to which Bonaventure’s ideas entered into Pope Benedict XVI’s theology, we may be able to better understand our present situation. We can at least be assured that the Church does not and should not foster hope for a worldly utopian liberalism on the model of Joachim of Fiore. Both Bonaventure and Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against this (and Eric Voegelin, incidentally, has traced the destructiveness of this idea in the context of political philosophy). At the same time, in light of Bonaventure’s teachings, we can see how stifling the traditionalist narrative is with its denial of the value of the historical development of the Church—a denial that is rooted in a fear of Modernism, which traditionalists misperceive as encompassing any theology of history, and not just the historicism that Pope Pius X rightly condemned in his encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis. Pope Benedict XVI was actually more cautious even than Bonaventure, and his hesitancy regarding Bonaventure’s prophecies perhaps shaped his gently pessimistic vision of Catholics functioning as a ‘creative minority’ in a secularized world, and perhaps even his choice of pontifical name. He seems to have felt that given the unlikeliness of the seventh age coming anytime soon, all we can do is prepare by conditioning ourselves inwardly. As Patenaude argues, the theology of Pope Benedict XVI suggests that Catholics can look with hope to an indeterminate future, but must continue “loving in the present.” However, as true and important as this idea of “loving in the present” is, it also frustrates, to some degree, that longing for a real Bonaventuran transformation of the Church and society. It asks us to remain content with what spaces we are able to carve out for the Church in a world that has largely lost interest in Christianity.

On February 28th, 2013, less than three years after his General Audience in which he spoke about Bonaventure’s theology of history, Pope Benedict XVI resigned. His stated reason was his poor health, but there may have been additional unstated reasons. Some have taken the cynical view that he resigned in order to avoid becoming tangled in certain controversies or scandals that he saw on the horizon. Some have even speculated that he was forced out. Might his resignation, however, fit into the general scheme of his own theology? Did he feel the beating of the six wings of the Seraph, and recognize that something new was coming? Did he feel the axis of the Church shifting from one that runs through St. Benedict, St. Dominic, and St. Aquinas to another that runs through St. Francis, St. Bonaventure, and St. Ignatius of Loyola?

Is Pope Francis the Seraphic Pope of a dawning seventh age of the Church Militant?

In part 2 I will examine this question, with the understanding that I cannot provide a final answer.


Patenaude, William L. Loving in the Present: The Theological and Pastoral Influences of St. Bonaventure’s Critical Retrieval of Joachim of Fiore on Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. Master’s thesis. Providence College. 24 April 2011.

Ratzinger, Joseph. The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure. Trans. Zachary Hayes O.F.M. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971.