#10: Week of November 4 – 10:
T is commonly said there are three medieval theologians who stand above all the rest in contribution: St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and this week’s Britannic feature, Blessed John Duns Scotus. Blessed John’s feast day is November 8th.
John was born to a wealthy farming family in the town of Duns just North of the Scottish border with England. He was reported to be a beautiful child both in appearance and behavior, and he received a solid moral education from his parents.
Blessed John Duns Scotus attended catechism classes at the Cistercian Melrose Abbey (also appearing in our article on St. Cuthbert) where he gained a deep devotion for the Blessed Virgin Mary – for which the Cistercians are well-known – who would later be the subject of Scotus’ most significant theological contribution.
Like the young St. Albertus Magnus (1200-1280), and later St. Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380) John was actually an extremely poor student in his early years, but like them was enlightened by supernatural means. Though he would apply himself with great effort, John could not remember anything he learned. And so he asked the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the Seat of Wisdom, to heal his dullness so he could advance in his academic studies.
Mary appeared to John and granted his request. From that time onward John was an incredibly acute student with a remarkable memory and keen logical abilities. Blessed John resolved he would use his divinely inspired intelligence to give glory to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who had taken pity upon him, and so he did.
At the age of 15, John became a Franciscan novice. After a year he consecrated himself with the perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He was sent by his Order to study theology at the Order’s institutions of study in Britannia. In 1291, John was ordained a Catholic priest by the Bishop of Lincoln in the Church of St. Andrews of the Monks of Cluny. He began studies at Oxford, Cambridge and other Universities in France, most notably the University of Paris.
On Christmas night of 1299, while teaching at Oxford, Blessed John was caught up into an ecstatic vision. The Virgin Mary once again appeared to him and presented him with her child, the infant Jesus, who kissed and embraced John.
John earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Paris in 1301. In 1303, John earned his Doctorate in theology. Prior to accepting his degree, however, John was forced to flee France. For in a disgraceful display of caprice, King Philip “the Fair” of France demanded that every theologian declare himself against the Pope, Boniface VIII. King Philip gave John and other anti-conciliarists only three days to leave France or else risk arrest. Soon after John was able to return and receive his doctoral degree.
Most notably, Blessed John made the defense of Mary’s Immaculate Conception the mainstream theological view. At the time, theologians could not reconcile how Jesus could be Mary’s Savior if she had never contracted Original Sin. John risked disgrace and expulsion from the University for his view. On his way to his disputation before no less than two papal legates and the entire University faculty, John stopped before a statue of the Virgin saying, “Allow me to praise You, O Most Holy Virgin; give me strength against your enemies.” Then the head of the statue miraculously bowed before him, indicating Mary’s approval. Against all objections, Blessed John was triumphant and vindicated, but the theology of the Immaculate Conception was not made an infallible dogma until as late as 1854, when Pope Pius IX infallibly declared and defined that “From the first moment of Her conception, Mary was preserved free from the stain of original sin, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ.”
Blessed John died on November 8th while teaching at the Franciscan House of Studies in Cologne, Germany. Though he was called blessed almost immediately after his death, probably because of other controversial theological views he defended contrary to dominant Thomistic theology, it was not until March 20, 1993 that John was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II.
Further reading recommended by reader Marty Fisher:
John Duns Scotus, Mary’s Architect, Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M.
The Ethical Theory of John Duns Scotus, Thomas Shannon (dedicated to Fr. Wolter, supra)
The Harmony of Goodness, Mary Beth Ingham, CSJ
The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus, ed. Thomas Williams
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Written by Mr. John Burford, IV and Dr. Foster Lerner of Incarnation Catholic Church in Orlando, Florida; a parish of The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter © 2018.
John is the founder and owner of Magnolia Prep, an SAT and ACT tutoring business with branches in several major US cities. Foster holds a Doctorate in Medicine from Nova Southeastern University Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine, and is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in medicine.