This year marks the 700th anniversary of the holy death of someone who has every right to be considered an authentic British hero: John Duns Scotus (12651308).
Here are the words that Gerard Manley Hopkins used to describe Blessed John: "Of reality the rarest-veined unraveller; a not rivalled insight be rival Italy or Greece; who fired France for Mary without spot."
Hopkins himself was quite distinctly a Scotus fan notwithstanding the traditional predilection of the sons of St Ignatius of Loyola for the philosophical and theological speculation of the great Aquinas. In Blessed John Duns Scouts, Hopkins found the one who, as he wrote, "of all men most sways my spirits to peace". , "To peace": I don't think Hopkins really meant sleep, though it can be conceded that Scotus' works might have this effect on the uninitiated. Scotus, in fact, was neither guru nor novelist. He was called Doctor Subtilis ("subtle doctor") by generations of schoolmen; "subtle" because, deftly wielding formal distinctions like a fine, two-edged sword. he penetrated further into the essences and reasons of things than perhaps any professional philosopher or theologian had ever done before him (and arguably after him too); "doctor" because he taught others to do likewise. insofar as they were able.
Scotus owes this part of his scholastic appellation to his brilliant exposition and victorious defence of the then longcontroversial subject of the Immaculate Conception of Our Blessed Lady. With the majority of the Masters of the University at Paris following the "maculist" teaching of the Marian Doctor, St Bernard of Clairvaux (that Mary was not conceived without some spot of Original Sin on her soul), and with the corroboration that this teaching had recently received from those two luminaries St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure, it must have taken quite a bit of courage to do what he did: enter into a public disputation with the aforementioned Masters, and take them on together. Rambo-style.
According to an ancient and constant Franciscan tradition, there, before the assembled elite of one of the world's most prestigious centres of learning, Scotus stood up and explained the possibility of a redemption through the merits of Christ of a more noble sort, involving preservation from original sin. stating, as that old paraphrase has it, Potuit, decuit, fecit ("He [God] could do it, it was fitting, so He did it"). And his arguments carried the day. France was fired with love for Mary without spot.
Here lies the genius of Scotus, and the reason why he more than others was able to sway Hopkins's spirits to peace. At the heart of the Franciscan's theology is a concept of God as One who is most orderly in His willing. Necessity. freedom, knowledge and love all exist
sweetly in the ineffable depths of the infinity of God. In the ocean of inexpressible perfection that is God, Scotus discerns a series of objects willed by Him out of love, in logical array, and wrapped in the same tranquility of perfect orderliness. First to be willed outside of the Most Blessed Trinity is the Summum opus Dei ("God's greatest work"). the Man-God. Christ, known, loved and willed by God in a moment logically prior to any consideration whatsoever of the sin of angels or men.
In the Scotistic vision of things a vision perfectly in harmony with Scripture and Tradition Christ reigns as King of Love at the centre of the universe. All things exist through Him and for Him; and Mary, predestined with Him before the foundation of the world, stands close by Him as Queen-Mother, without spot or wrinkle, the icon of the Church made perfect through the blood of the Lamb.
One can, with a good deal more panache, say of Scotus what one might have been inclined to say anyway: that the rather impressive degree to which Scotus has been misunderstood, misrepresented and maligned through the course of the ages is to be taken more as a title to honour than as indicative of any want of excellence on his part. The subtlety of his thought and the complexity of the matters with which he dealt have been a stumbling block to some. Another factor is the signal perfection of Scotus's exposition of Catholic truth about such matters as the Eucharist, Our Lady and the Holy Father, apt occasionally to make him persona non grata to those who have a problem with that truth. But in spite of these and other difficulties Scotus remains, as John Paul II proclaimed. "a pillar of Catholic theology, an original teacher, full of ideas and incentives for an ever more complete knowledge of the truth of the faith".
The Latin inscription on a monument in Duns, Berwickshire, says: "Scotland has his cradle, the world his fame, the Rhine his burial, heaven has his soul, the figure of this great man breathes here."
It is to be hoped that the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Blessed John's holy death will serve to make him better known and loved by the peoples of his own Isles, and that, with the help, perhaps, of friendly theologians, a new blossoming in our understanding and appreciation of Scotistic thought will augur rich and lasting fruits of holiness in the Church in years to come.
Scotus's thought about the Blessed Virgin Mary will be the subject of a symposium, open to all, at Grey College of the University of Durham on September 10-11. For further details or bookings e-mail: [email protected] or call 020 8641 6418.
Fr Agnellus M Murphy, Fl