On the Use and Abuse of St. Francis for Quarantine Life: The Case of Giorgio Agamben

At this point, because I have declared the responsibilities of each of us, I cannot fail to mention the even more serious responsibility of those who had the duty to keep watch over human dignity. The Church above all, which, in making itself the handmaid of science, which has now become the true religion of our time, has radically repudiated its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope who calls himself Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. It has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is that of visiting the sick. It has forgotten that the martyrs teach that we must be prepared to sacrifice our life rather than our faith and that renouncing our neighbor means renouncing faith.
—Giorgio Agamben, "A Question"

Over the course of nearly two months, the Italian philosopher and political theorist Giorgio Agamben has been highly critical of the response to COVID-19 put into place by many societies around the world—especially Western, liberal democracies. He decries the measures for social distancing and quarantine. He rails against the surrendering of so many civil liberties not in the face of imminent attack and destruction, but, as he puts it, “in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify.”[1] In Agamben’s opinion the West has clearly shown that its highest value is mere survival and the preservation of life. Governments and health officials are willing to sacrifice friendship, community, love, and happiness for humanity’s most base and animalistic instincts.

With a flare for the dramatic, he expresses understandable horror at the idea that people are being cremated without the possibility of a funeral, invoking images of the moral crisis at the center of Sophocles’s Antigone. As the world analogously becomes Thebes, he fears that the bureaucratic Creons in liberal democracies, who have declared yet another state of emergency to thwart an existential crisis, will continue to erode citizens’ constitutional rights and that the freedom to enjoy those things that truly make life worth living will fade away, consigned to the dustbin of history.

Curiously, Agamben in the course of these diatribes focuses his outrage on Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the threat of the virus. Agamben concedes that it is uniquely the Church that has the responsibility “to keep watch over human dignity.”[2] In a clever bit of rhetoric, he states that the Church has become the “handmaid of science,” perverting the traditional view that the sciences are ancillae theologiae.

He accuses the Pope and the Church of moral cowardice. To his mind, Francis and the Church have forgotten their obligations to visit the sick and bury the dead, both of which are corporal works of mercy. They have lost sight of their primary duty to love their neighbor and stand firm in the faith, even if that means courting the glory of a martyr’s death. Because as a Heideggerian he is so fond of literary, historical allusions, and etymologies he takes the opportunity to shame the Pope for not living up to his name. He declares that St. Francis even deigned to visit lepers with no regard for his personal safety, apparently solely out of his excessive love of his neighbor.

Few medieval people have captured the world’s imagination quite like Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, better known as Francesco d’Assisi. From the moment that he stripped naked in the piazza of Assisi according to the legend, people have been enamored with this poor little man (Il Poverello). The mind staggers at the incredible number of followers that joined him in his desire to live the Gospel authentically and achieve spiritual perfection by adhering to a strict regimen of evangelical poverty. By 1224, less than two decades after Pope Innocent III gave his personal approbation to Francis’s movement, and less than one decade after the official recognition of the Franciscans as a pre-existing Order by Lateran IV Council, there were thousands of friars spread across Europe, enough to require provincial administrators in Italy, Poland, France, Germany, Spain, the Near East, and the British Isles.[3]

Popular interest in St. Francis has never waned. It transcends temporal and ideological boundaries. In 1268 the secular master of theology Gerard of Abbeville preached a polemical sermon in the Franciscan convent in Paris, invoking Francis and his canonization as a way to shame the assembled friars to abandon their silly notion of spiritual perfection through evangelical poverty and to submit to the traditional teaching of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. During the late 13th and 14th centuries, a group of Franciscans emphasized Francis’s devotion to poverty above all else as a way to chastise their confrères to return to a faithful adherence to the Rule and to quit their lives of luxury and lasciviousness.

There is, of course, the popular view of Francis as the lover of nature. He is, after all, the man who called the Sun his brother and the Moon his sister. He spoke to the birds. Indeed, St. Bonaventure reports in his Legenda maior, the Order’s “official” life of the saint, that animals, especially birds, would quiet themselves while Francis was preaching.[4] Such stories about Francis have inspired the pious tradition of blessing animals, often household pets, on his feast day. Statues of Francis holding a bird or some other creature, as if he had just walked into a scene in Disney’s Bambi, are ubiquitous in garden shops and backyards around the globe.

Lastly, there is the Francis who is an instrument of peace. This conception of the saint has its origins in the reported encounter between Francis and the Sultan. Francis apparently very much wanted to go and preach the faith to Muslims during the time of Crusade, purportedly to fulfill his desire for a martyr’s death. When he finally got the chance on his third try, he walked between the warring armies to speak to the ruler. While it is an impressive story that Francis journeyed unscathed in a war zone and nearly succeeded in converting the enemy, most people probably think of Francis as a peacemaker because of the prayer that bears his name. Sadly, there is no evidence to suggest that Francis actually composed it.

All of this is to say that Francis has been used by various people across the centuries for various ideological and rhetorical reasons. The life and stories of Francis appeal to the popular imagination far beyond Catholicism.[5] Indeed, the book that in many ways provoked the modern historical study of Francis and the history of the Franciscan Order, Paul Sabatier’s Vie de S. François d’Assise (1894), was written by a man, coming out of the rationalist tradition of historical and biblical scholarship, who had no sympathy with the Catholic Church and had been a Protestant minister. The book proved to be immensely popular and was simultaneously praised by the French Academy and condemned to the Index of Prohibited Books. It is almost enough to make one think that Christianity may come and go, but we will always have St. Francis.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Agamben would have used St. Francis for the purposes of his argument. Indeed, it must be said that the Pope himself invited this comparison. While some may have speculated that the former member of the Society of Jesus had chosen the name “Francis” out of some kind of special devotion to the great Jesuit saint Francis Xavier, it is clear that Francis of Assisi was very close to his mind. It cannot be a coincidence that the Pope used one of the few authentic writings of Francis that survive from the Middle Ages to begin his ecological encyclical Laudato si’.

The episode in the life of St. Francis to which Agamben alludes comes early in Bonaventure’s Legenda maior. Following the dramatic scene in the piazza during which he renounced all worldly possessions, Francis set out on a journey to find solitude so that he could learn more about the hidden things of God. He was set upon by robbers; begged alms from a monastery; and received comfort and clothes from an old friend. Because he wanted to grow in true humility, he then journeyed to a community of lepers. Bonaventure reports that “he washed their feet, bandaged their ulcers, drew the pus from their wounds, and washed out the diseased matter; he even kissed their ulcerous wounds out of his remarkable devotion, he who was soon to be a physician of the Gospel.”[6] These actions pleased the Lord, and Bonaventure says that Francis received the gift to heal people from both their physical and spiritual afflictions.

In many ways Agamben’s analogy between Francis’s humble service to the lepers and the duty of Christians, especially the Pope, to rush in to treat and give comfort to the sick and dying, as well as stand firm in the face of pandemic by keeping churches open in heroic witness to the power of the Christian faith, breaks down. Christians, of course, have a moral obligation to do such works of mercy, as is happening around the globe as I type this. The Italian and international press is full of stories of priests, religious, doctors and nurses who are heroically sacrificing themselves precisely from their love of neighbor. The Pope has preached and prayed many times in solidarity with those labors and for the comfort of the sick and the dying. The sacramental and theological tradition of the Catholic Church provides a special means to be spiritually close to one another, to the Sacrament, and to those in need, even at a time of closed churches and other public institutions.

And so we see the danger of invoking analogies in the category of “monumental history” for rhetorical effect, as described by Friedrich Nietzsche. He writes:

Monumental history deceives with analogies: with tempting similarities the courageous are enticed to rashness, the enthusiastic to fanaticism; and if one thinks of this history as being in the hands and heads of talented egoists and enraptured rascals then empires are destroyed, princes murdered, wars and revolutions instigated and the number of historical “effects in themselves,” that is, of effects without sufficient causes, is further increased.[7]

In other words, it pays to be cautious when invoking historical analogies about the great actors of the past.

Francis did not go to be among the lepers because he wanted to earn the glorious crown of martyrdom. There would be no reason to because his death from the disease would not have merited that level of recognition. He did indeed desire such glory in other events of his life but not here. As we have seen, he wished to preach Christianity to belligerent non-believers. Here too medieval society provides a word of caution.

In December 1290, the Parisian theologian Henry of Ghent was asked in an open dispute (quodlibet) whether doctors of theology who did not work for the conversion of unbelievers (infidelium) were guilty of committing a sin.[8] Henry responded that while seeking to convert non-believers to Christianity was a good thing, to do so in a place ruled by Muslims would be foolhardy. Somehow Henry knew that such preaching would be against the law and would result in a death sentence. He concluded that one might view such a death as martyrdom, but this would be in error. Unlike the glorious martyrs of the Early Church, no one would be converted or moved by this sacrifice. It would not be efficacious, and therefore the height of foolishness and arrogance.

It is a legitimate question to ask what benefit to the faith and the world would come by the sacrifice of so many beyond those with a special call to minister to the sick and dying at this time. The past can provide us with inspiration and important models on which to ground our thinking and our actions. Perhaps, we should not look to St. Francis to chastise those in authority for not advocating for some foolhardy form of pseudo-martyrdom by embracing the sick as if they were medieval lepers. Agamben is nevertheless correct to be concerned about the growing power of governments over all aspects of social and private life, but this is nothing new. Such actions have been accumulating for at least the last 40 years. Consequently, the more apt analogy to the life of Francis should be: once this is over, how will we, as individuals, respond to the call to “Rebuild my Church”?

[1] Giorgio Agamben, “A Question,” translated by Adam Kotsko, published on 15 April 2020 on the blog An und für sich (emphasis in the original); a similar argument can be found in an essay reposted on Cynthia Haven’s The Book Haven, which appeared on 17 March 2020.

[2] Agamben, “A Question.”

[3] John Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order: From its Origins to the Year 1517 (Oxford: OUP, 1968), 62.

[4] My comments come from the edition translated by Ewert Cousins: Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey to God, The Tree of Life, The Life of St. Francis (New York: Paulist, 1978) 177-327.

[5] See the fascinating study by Patricia Appelbaum, St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America’s Favorite Saint (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina, 2015_.

[6] Bonventure, The Life of St. Francis, 195.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss, Indianapolis 1980, p. 17.

[8] Henricus de Gandavo, Quodlibet XIV q.12 (ed. Badius 1518, reprt. Louvain 1961), ff. 569vT-570rV.

Featured Image: Gino Covili, Holy card of St. Francis with Birds, c. 1992; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


Stephen M. Metzger

Stephen Metzger is Assistant Scriptor at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's Medieval Institute and the author of the two-volume Gerard of Abbeville, Secular Master, on Knowledge, Wisdom and Contemplation.

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