Poverty and Kenosis

The Franciscan Conundrum

John Milbank

“At the heart of [the debate] lies the question of poverty, property, and the issue of the coherence of pure usage without right, or of a right against right to such usage.”

The story of the medieval debate concerning Franciscan poverty has by now been very ably documented by several scholars. I will not repeat that exercise here, but rather offer an interpretative and evaluative reflection upon this story and its astonishingly wide ramifications.

As Olivier Boulnois remarks in this same issue, one can no longer repeat the tired nostrum that nominalist theology gave rise to modernity. To the extent that it did so, it was only one aspect of a broader, often Franciscan legacy, which, for all of the life it has brought to the Church, at the same time has introduced an ambiguity. The idea that modernity is essentially Franciscan seems unlikely, but more and more appears to be true in remarkably many ways—as to economics and politics in both theory and practice, as to both realism and utopianism, as to philosophy, theology, and religious practice. And this realization presents Catholic theology (Roman Catholic or otherwise) with a certain new choice: should one retheologize modernity in its latent Franciscan light, or should one instead recognize within the Franciscan legacy an unfortunate tendency to deviate away from the patristic legacy which was much more sustained by the other mendicant orders—the Dominicans and the Augustinians?