Saint of Authority and the Saint of the Spirit: Paul Sabatier's Vie De S. Francois D'Assise

Article excerpt

Men may glorify as discoveries some insignificant trifles that supply little or no evidence and bestow the name of new documents on late accounts of doubtful authenticity,


there is nothing further to be known concerning St. Frances, and ... the Bollandists, Chalippe and Papini, writing ore than a century ago, knew as much, more or less, concerning St. Francis, no new fact, episode, or saying had been added to his life.

MGR. FALOCI (1902)

The criticism of Franciscan origins is still in its infancy.


The divide separating the two mentalities represented in the epigraph runs like a fault line through later nineteenth century Roman Catholicism. On many theological fronts -- biblical studies, apologetics, ecclesiastical history -- proponents of traditional positions who considered everything of fundamental importance to have been said were confronted by expansions of critical methods who saw themselves mapping out little-explored territory. The traditional hagiography was not exempt; it too faced a critical revisionism characterized by methods and a mentality informed by historical criticism.

The often oppositional relations between traditionalists and progressives formed part of the context for Catholic reception of a nonCatholic's biography of St. Francis of Assisi. In November of 1893 Paul Sabatier (1858-1928) published at his own expense his Vie de S. Francois d'Assise.(1) Its author was an unknown; he had published nothing previously in Franciscan studies. Yet the book enjoyed an almost instant success; by the following March the biography was translated into English and German. It received sufficient notice from the Vatican to be placed on the Index of Prohibited Books and from the French Academy to be awarded the crown of honor. Even those most opposed to its portrait of Francis acknowledged its influence.(2)

Both the popularity and the influential character of Sabatier's biography invited comparison with another biography published three decades earlier: Ernest Renan's Vie de Jesus (1863).(3) It too was prefaced by a critical study of the sources and like Sabatier's effort was suffused with a romanticism that permeated the portrait of its principal subject. While a number of factors have been adduced to account or the success of Sabatier's Vie de S. Francois,(4) the two that it shares with Renan's Vie de Jesus are worth closer consideration here.

On one level, Sabatier's liberal Protestantism appeared more palatable to Catholics than did Renan's overt rationalism. The former's critical conclusions were less extreme, the treatment of his subject more respectful by comparison. But if the application of the method was more restrained, the spirit which informed the method was no more acceptable. On another level, their criticism converged; it naturalized the miraculous and ultimately rationalized the supernatural.

To Catholic traditionalists historical criticism appeared to be a means of recreating Jesus or Francis into the critic's own image and likeness. The Lives produced by such critics were less biographical representations of their subjects than presentations of a thesis. As such they took on the character of novels -- fictionalized renderings more indebted to authorial imagination than to historical reality. In short, Sabatier, like Renan, had produced a roman-a-these. Or, more properly, given reactions to the influenced conclusions of criticism, a roman-a-hypothse.(5)

The spirit which traditionalists detected in these works and which made them uneasy was only partly rooted in historical criticism. That spirit also reenacted a romanticism which contributed to the Franciscan revival and was a factor in the popularity of both Renan's and Sabatier's Lives. As C. N. L. Brooke has observed, "the nineteenth-century romantics found (or thought they found) a man after their own heart, a lover of mankind, a lover of animals, an apostle of liberty -- a libel romantic in the thirteenth century. …