What John Duns Scotus can Contribute to our World Today | Closing Remarks of the Minister General

On 8 November 2018, at the aula magnaof the Pontifical University Antonianum, the annual Academic Act was held in honor of Blessed John Duns Scotus.The Minister General and Grand Chancellor, Br. Michael Anthony Perry OFM, gave the closing remarks and final message.


Response to Prof. Carmela Bianco

Ultima solitudo: la ‘comunionale incomunicabilità’ della persona in Giovanni Duns Scoto

Fr. Michael Anthony Perry, OFM




            On behalf of the entire Order of Friars Minor, I want to thank Bro. Josep Bekan and his team of excellent scholars who are members of the Scotus Commission for the Order for their tremendous work in the course of this year and for their dedication in preparing the indexes for the works of the Doctor Subtilis, Blessed John Duns Scotus. I also want to thank in a very special way Professor Carmela Bianco for her tireless efforts to help the world understand and appreciate the work of Duns Scotus, and to acknowledge her pioneering 2017 book on the seminal role of Scotus’ thought for the modern understanding of the human person (Ultima solitudino, la nascita del concetto moderno di persona in Duns Scoto).

Professor Bianco has carefully traced how John Duns Scotus’ seminal teaching on the singularity of each person contributed to the modern understanding of the human person.[1]  In this response I wish to trace his thought in the other direction, back to its origins in the vision of St. Francis of Assisi.  That is where it was born.  I will then ask what Scotus can contribute to what we face in today’s world.

As some of you are aware, I spent the better part of my young years as a friar the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that I have continued to visit on a regular basis. What is evident in that country as is the case in so many other places around the world is the blatant disregard and disrespect for the dignity of each and every human person. People are treated by their leaders, indeed by the international community, as something less than human, a nameless mass of humanity that has nothing unique to contribute, nothing in common to share. Unfortunately, total disregard for the inherent dignity and value of each human has become all too common in many parts of the world.  News reports in the media are dominated by the plight and inhumane treatment of migrants and refugees seeking a place where they might find peace, security, and some guarantee for the future of their families. The many wars and military conquests conducted in the name of democracy and a new world order have witnessed widespread destruction of the homes, health, and livelihood of so many people. The daily violence in city streets, peace accords that are deadlocked, and the demagoguery that adamantly clings to its ideologies and refuses to even listen to opinions of others have replaced any sense of the common good and civility.  We also face a pervasive sense of absolute personal autonomy, unbridled individual freedom, and loss of concern for others.

To be sure, that is not the whole picture of how people act in our world, but that kind of behavior threatens to totally overshadow the goodness in people around us, to leave us weary and without hope for a better world.  What hopes, what vision of human life together can we offer people of today?  What promise does the Franciscan vision of Scotus hold out for us?


The World of St. Francis

The world into which Francis was born was not unlike ours, though on a smaller scale.  Upheaval was widespread.  There were wars, rebellions against civil and religious institutions.  There were divisions between the rich (maiores) and the poor (minores).  Penniless beggars and lepers roamed streets surrounded by wealthy greed, and roadways were beset by brigands.  Francis chose to identify with the minoresand become a peace-maker and reconciler.  He had a profound respect for all creatures in their uniqueness, he saw them as sisters and brothers.  The vision that motivated him was God’s humble love shown in the Incarnation and sealed unconditionally in the Passion.

Francis was not a trained theologian.  He expressed this vision in simple words and exhortations, but even more by his actions and way of living among the people of his day.  Some have called him a “vernacular theologian.”  It was left to his followers to name theologically what Francis had proclaimed by his life.  Of special note among those early friars were St. Bonaventure of Bagnoreggio and Bl. John Duns Scotus.  They shaped Francis’ vision into a remarkable theological system.  For our purposes we can single out these lines of thought they developed from the vision of Francis:

  • God is love, a Trinity of persons bound together in a relationship of love;
  • God freely chose to invite others to enter that relationship in the Incarnation of the Son and gave it final, irrevocable expression in his death;
  • that same outward movement of love led to the creation of all else; and
  • God has endowed every creature with unique individuality and value, and humans with freedom to love as well.


The Thought of John Duns Scotus

This brings us to Scotus’ development of haecceitas, the “thisness” that makes every creature “this” particular individual.  With Francis, Scotus is convinced that it is possible for individuals to be known as such, not only by their observable traits, but also in their underlying haecceity. That is known dimly, by a kind of intuition; ultimately their uniqueness remains a hidden mystery.  At that level,haecceitasis incommunicable, an ultima solitudo.   This gives each person unique value and worth.  Scotistic scholar Allan Wolter explains why.

Scotus’s doctrine of haecceity applied to the human person would seem to invest each with a unique value as one singularly wanted and loved by God, quite apart from any trait that person shares with others or any contribution he or she might make to society.  One could even say, haecceity is our personal gift from God.[2]

Ultima solitudoof an individual need not be understood as total isolation, imprisoned loneliness.  If God created free persons out of love, desiring to receive their love in return, human individuality is tightly woven with another strand in the thought of Scotus: the possibility of mutuality, of freely entering into relationship with God, and indeed with others of one’s kind.   God’s desire for a human creature who could love God as fully as possible does not stop with the Incarnation.  God intended others to be co-beloveds (condilecti) and co-lovers (condiligentes) with Christ.  (cfr. Ciro Tammaro’s comments [3])

Ultima solitudoneed not keep humans apart.  God has gifted them with the ability to relate to others, to enter into communion with them.   For Scotus it all comes down to love.  Fr. Charles Balić, long-time President of the International Scotistic Commission, has written: “The whole of Scotus’s theology is dominated by the notion of love.  The characteristic note of this love is its absolute freedom.  As love becomes more perfect and intense, freedom becomes more noble and integral both in God and in man.”[4]  Growth in love gratefully received and freely given makes one fully human.

The World of Today

What lesson might we draw for our world in which the sacred dignity and worth of each individual is so casually cast aside and violated, in the name of one’s own unfettered freedom, autonomy, and selfish gain?  What remedy is there?

The remedy.  Someone has written that the hatred and destructive violence around us can only be overcome by love.  That is not an easy task; nothing less than a radical change of heart (metanoia) is required.  As a human family we need to learn, or re-learn, a different way of looking at each other.  We are not isolated individuals unable to relate.  Individuality is not an impenetrable barrier.  Personal differences are not a threat to be walled out; they are a gift to be respected, valued, and welcomed in.

A first step is to set aside stereotypic generic views of “those others” and then to get to know them as individuals with their own worth and value, their own experiences and perspectives.  To see them as different, a gift to be reverenced. The mystery of their uniqueness can never be fully known, yet in friendships and marriages individuals are drawn to explore the deeper mystery of their difference over and over.  The haecceitasof each can be woven together in mutuality, in relationship.  Getting to know others in their uniqueness and gradually going beyond ourselves and entering into deepening relations with them is the remedy Scotus offers.

The work of all.  To replace divisive antagonism and its inhumane consequences, to broaden and enhance mutual respect and acceptance will take work.  Beginning to bridge differences and cultivate relationships of healthy mutuality is not easy.  It will demand concerted ongoing effort.  It will not happen overnight.  But it will not happen at all unless breaking down barriers becomes our common cause.  This work has to be done by every human being, each taking even the smallest steps day by day.  The imperative is clear: spread respect and loving concern, not hatred and violence.

The work of reflection.  To inspire and support us in that work, we will need the help of thoughtful leaders who keep before us a better vision, who reflect on what is happening in our world and identify ways to better it, who mine the resources of our human and religious traditions such as biblical injunctions[5] and insights of thinkers such as Scotus, who can re-invigorate us when energies lag or we become forgetful of what we need to do.  That is what the world needs now.

[1]Carmela Bianco, Ultima solitudo : la nascita del concetto moderno di persona in Duns Scoto, 2017.

[2]Allan Wolter, Scotus’ Early Oxford Lecture on Individuation, 1992, p. xxvii [emphasis added].

[3]Cimo Tamarro, “Riflessione sul potere politico nel pensiero di John Duns Scotus: un’anticipazione della teoria sul contratto sociale,” http://www.spolia.it/online/en/argomenti/storia/storia_religiosa/2004/scoto.htm[accessed 30 Oct 2018].

[4]Charles Balić, New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 1105.

[5]E.g., Mt 5:43-47, 22:36-38; Mk 12:30-31; Lk 6:27-36; Rm 12:11-21.