Franciscan Science


Francis is an inspiration, but his inspiration alone is insufficient to guide us in contemporary environmental issues. About ten years ago, leading Franciscan scholars began the retrieval of the Franciscan intellectual tradition. This built upon prior efforts to draw from the example of Francis and Clare by including the philosophy and theology of Bonaventure and Scotus. This has expanded our thinking from the individual charismatic witness of Francis to a broader intellectual framework reflecting his intuition.

More recently, I have conducted research into the scientific dimension of our tradition. You might reasonably ask: what Franciscan tradition of scientific inquiry?

saetteThe examples I have investigated are from our historical past: the 13th through 16th Century, but they express in their own way, through scientific work, the love Francis had for creation. These figures are not well known because they were not beatified or canonized. They were influential figures in their time, but are virtually unknown to the American Franciscan family today.

Bernardino de Sahagún can be considered the first anthropologist researcher into the life and culture of Mexico 1529-1590. Bartholomew the Englishman (c. 1200–1272) created an encyclopedia to prepare Friars to travel through their natural and social world preaching the Gospel. Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294) was an English Friar who pioneered many philosophical ideas on which the scientific method was created.


These three men practiced medieval science using the concepts, tools and institutions of their era to gather, organize, analyze and interpret data about society and nature. Their investigations reflect a Franciscan concern for nature, rooted in the assertion that all creation is religiously and morally significant. You can find a more detailed article I wrote about these three figures for the Journal of the Association of Franciscan Colleges and Universities.

paesaggioAt least three Franciscan values appear consistently in the vocations and work of these friars:

First - they understood, like Francis, that creation is good, and can lead one to God. Since creation reflects God in some way, studying nature -- using the best available intellectual tools – is in some way learning about God, God’s character, and about God’s activity in the world.

Second - they conducted their scientific work in community. They participated in, or were leaders in, their religious communities and in scholarly communities.

For these Franciscans, the process of scientific inquiry was social, and took place in relationship with others.

Third - their scientific research had a moral purpose: for evangelization, and the benefit of Church and society.

Scientific inquiry was inherently good, for it helped them to better understand our Creator and creation.


eco 10 1How was the Franciscan tradition of science lost? This is an important question, but a difficult one to answer. Scientific work has always been but one small part of the Franciscan intellectual tradition, and these three figures were in some ways exceptional.

These examples of Franciscan scientists were actively engaged with, and advanced, the paradigms and methodologies of their eras. The Franciscan tradition of science did not successfully make the transition to the modern scientific paradigm, for several complex reasons beyond the scope of this essay.

Perhaps a more important question for us to ask today is: how can we revive this tradition and apply it in service to our Earth?

Fra Keith Warner, OFM

Question for Reflection:

How does our Franciscan contemplative tradition guide us in responding to our climate disrupted world?


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