Two brilliant men, both of them just a few years older than I, died last week. Everyone knows the first one, Umberto Eco, if not for his books and articles on everything from semiology to Superman, at least for the movie “The Name of the Rose”, starring the Franciscan Sherlock Holmes played by Sean Connery. The other brilliant man was known only to a privileged few, his family, his confreres, his students and his friends, like me. His name was Thomas M. I knew him in the Franciscan seminaries where he was one year, and several light-years in intelligence, ahead of me.
Umberto and Tom shared a fascination with a footnote of medieval monastic history : the theological dispute about Franciscan poverty. Readers familiar with “The Name of the Rose” will recall the backdrop of Eco’s 13th century murder-mystery : the “disputatio”, the debate organized by the Inquisition about the poverty of Christ. The “quaestio” was : Did Christ tell His followers that they should be poor ? The Franciscans and the Dominicans, the mendicant Orders, thought so, and took, along with their vows of chastity and obedience, a vow by which they renounced the right to own anything, as individuals and even as a community. Their way of life, sanctioned by the Gospels, contrasted sharply with the luxurious, scandalous life-style of Rome’s opulent Cardinals and of the Pope himself.
Father Thomas chose to devote his doctoral thesis to a minor theologian, a member like himself (and, at one time, myself) of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, Peter Olivi, who was so radical in his views of evangelical poverty that he was condemned by the Church as a heretic. Tom spent the greater part of his life teaching Theology. Had he left the Order (as I did), he could have become, I believe, almost an Australian Alan Turing. Though early in his career he made a remarkable contribution to the scientific education of High School students, he later wasted his intelligence and his life as a Professor of Theology, regurgitating godological garbage for the gullible.
If you are interested in understanding the Middle Ages’ ferocious jousting about the “virtue” of poverty, the Web will provide more than you want or need to know about Peter Olivi and the controversy over mendicancy in early Franciscan history. Interestingly, Webster’s Dictionary defines a “mendicant” as follows : “designating or of any of religious orders whose members originally held no personal or community property, living mostly on alms.” The key-word is “originally”. Today Dominican and Franciscan friars still beg for money in the collection plate and from wealthy individual donors, and sit comfortably on property and invest capital given them as legacies. They do not live as Cardinals once did and as certain Bishops of Bling still do, but they literally want for nothing and have never known what it’s like to worry about earning a living, unemployment, making ends meet and putting food on the table. But Tom, like the others I call the Moribund Faithful Remnant Destined For Imminent Extinction, wasted his life (apart, as I said earlier, from the few years when he was a science teacher of kids in Kedron), a life which could have been as productive and as useful as Umberto Eco’s. No one forced him to continue in his “vocation” to follow the Poverello, and I hope he was happy as a faithful Franciscan. I’m just glad I recognized my own blindness in time to discover, besides first-hand experience of what real poverty is like (in the lean years I used to say “They take the vow and I keep it”), the satisfaction, joy and meaning in a life which included marriage and children and a profession that was both intellectually challenging and satisfying to me, and even of benefit to others. For fourteen years my life was governed by the dehumanizing vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. I should have realized earlier the madness of mendicancy, but it was the absurdity of chastity that set me free from letting others, through the vow of obedience, decide what I would do. As anti-abortionists say, in a different context, I chose life.