Fifty years ago, on 14 July, 1966, Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Letter, Alma parens, marking the 700th anniversary of the birth of John Duns Scotus. Although Scotus’ argument in favor of belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary influenced Pope Pius IX’s Apostolic Constitution of 1854 defining that dogma, Alma parens was the first papal document on Scotus.
On 20 March, 1993, Pope John Paul II beatified Scotus, and on 7 July, 2010, at a Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Scotus. In these and other writings and speeches about Scotus, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI quoted from Paul VI’s Alma parens. Thus, papal teaching about Scotus has developed, by Church standards, rapidly, and Scotus has been proposed to the faithful as a model of holiness and as a reliable intercessor.
Scotus (1266-1308) was contemporary with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Marco Polo (1254-1324), but he remains less well-known. A Franciscan priest, he was born in southeastern Scotland and taught at universities in Paris, Oxford, and Cologne, where he died and is entombed. Even for students of philosophy, his philosophical writings are difficult, and he worked within the Augustinian intellectual tradition while drawing upon empirical Aristotelianism. Some later medieval thinkers used Scotus’ ideas to develop a form of voluntarism, a philosophical approach placing the will above the intellect. For an extreme voluntarist, emotion becomes superior to reason.
Since the will is related to the capacity to love, Scotus himself took a more careful line, one of several refinements that led to him being dubbed “the Subtle Doctor.” According to James Hitchcock’s indispensable History of the Catholic Church (2012), Scotus gave the will “primacy over the intellect: the mind informed the will, but the will first determined the perceptions of the mind.” Reason can inform our choices, but our choices influence our reasoning.
Pope Paul VI’s letter anticipated scholarly conferences to be held in mid-September, 1966, at Oxford and Edinburgh to commemorate Scotus’ 700th birthday. Since most of the scholars attending those conferences would be Christians from various churches and confessions, Paul VI suggested that they use Scotus’ writings as a basis for future ecumenical discussion. He noted that Scotus was part of the Augustinian heritage shared by Christians on both sides of the Reformation.
As with other authoritative writings by that saintly Pope, Alma parens seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Catholic scholars of the Thomist school shy away from Scotus, despite his personal orthodoxy, as a first step towards Protestantism and Modernism, and Protestant scholars and also some Catholics wonder why Scotus, now obscure in all senses, would be a better source for ecumenical dialogue than Augustine of Hippo himself or even C. S. Lewis.
An unexpected cultural development since Alma parens has been an award-winning film about Scotus. The sketchiness of Scotus’ biography allows for dramatic license, and so in 2010 an Italian television network, TVCO, produced Duns Scoto. Under the title Blessed Duns Scotus: Defender of the Immaculate Conception, it is commercially available on DVD from Ignatius Press. Italian mime and actor Adriano Braidotti portrayed Scotus. In 2011 this movie won Best Film and Best Actor at the Vatican’s second annual Mirabile Dictu International Catholic Film Festival.
Beautifully filmed and well-acted, Blessed Duns Scotus depicts Scotus’ prayer life, his teaching, and his courage. The film begins with Scotus going into exile from Paris to Oxford because he refused to sign a document issued by France’s King Philip IV condemning Pope Boniface VIII. The film culminates with Scotus engaging Dominican theologians in a public disputation about Mary’s Immaculate Conception. A lesser creative team would have made such a film tedious at best. Instead, they raise it above the earnest and sugary fare of a few other religious movies one could name.
An unusual aspect of this film is the screen credits at the end of the movie explaining that a scene in which Scotus speaks about the Eucharist derives from a meditation by Chiara Lubich (1920-2008). Although Scotus had comments about the Eucharist, they are dense and philosophical, not the best text for a television movie.
In the days of Aquinas and Scotus, reference to “the council” meant Lateran IV, held in Rome in 1215. That council used a new term, transubstantiation, to sum up Church teaching on the Eucharist. The council thus definitively rejected the teaching of Berengar of Tours (c. 1010-1088), that, using Aristotelian terminology, accidents and substance cannot be separated, and so for Berengar the Eucharist was merely a memorial meal, spiritually symbolic but not the Body and Blood of Christ.
Like Aquinas, Scotus argued for transubstantiation. Nevertheless, Scotus put emphasis on God’s freedom, while acknowledging that God cannot attempt a logical impossibility, such as trying to create a round square. A student of the works of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), Scotus was wary of Anselm positing that God was required to do something.
So, for Scotus the big question became: Could God have chosen to commune with believers by some means other than transubstantiation? Scotus argued that God could have chosen to leave the accidents and substance of the bread and wine yet include Christ’s body, blood, soul, and divinity (consubstantiation), but He chose to remove the substance of the bread and wine and replace it with Christ’s own substance (transubstantiation). Since the council of 1215, to believe otherwise is not to be Catholic.
In the film, Scotus speaks of the Eucharist as the source of unity amongst Catholics. He explains to a young friar that by partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood, we become part of His mystical body and thus become united with each other in Him. Scotus then describes how through the Eucharist the Holy Spirit makes possible the spousal relationship between Christ the bridegroom and His bride, the Church. It is excellent theology, but it comes from the twentieth century.
In the spirit of Alma parens, the film Blessed Duns Scotus presents Scotus as a sympathetic character, worthy of further attention. While it conveys his brilliance as an academic theologian, it also presents a real man with real struggles who preferred virtue to vice and is on the path to sainthood. The film shows Scotus as a holy man, as a teacher, and as a champion of unpopular beliefs. All the better that it can do so while letting piety infuse fine style.