The Dominican and the Franciscan – An Argument Waiting to Happen or Two Paths to the Same Place?


Painting of St. Dominic (on left) and St. Francis by Angelo Lion (1597-1621)

Pope Francis has left the United States after a hectic week.  Perhaps you heard about it.  Last week I wrote a sort of introduction to the Papacy.  In that piece, I made reference to the tussle among American Catholics that seems to follow the political fault lines between the left and the right.  Although that is an imperfect description of the two groups, my non-Catholic readers surely get the idea.

This is a topic that I have been thinking about for some time.  Since coming into the Church, and especially since getting serious about it, American Catholic culture (among those serious about their faith) seems to break down into two big groups.  One group seeks out parishes where sound doctrine is preached and life issues are stressed.  The other group seeks out parishes where the marginalized are made to feel welcomed, and where social issues are emphasized.  Although these groups may not be fully immersed in the wider culture wars, they sometimes seem to lack a common worldview.

It has occurred to me that another way to describe these people is as either Dominicans or Franciscans.  Dominic de Guzman and Francis of Assisi were contemporaries early in the thirteenth century.  They knew and were respectful of each other, and each founded a religious order of priests and brothers.  Each one was also later declared to be a Saint.  But for all of their similarities, there were some striking differences to the way in which they went about living their faith.

Dominic was disturbed by the prevalence of the heresy, particularly that of the Albigensians.  Albigensianism, in a nutshell, argued that life consisted of two things – the spiritual (which was good) and the material (which was evil).  This philosophy denied the divinity of Christ, arguing that the divine could never become a human, because humans are material and  material was bad.  Dominic and the Order he founded (called the Order of Preachers) saw that people were not being taught the authentic Christian faith, but were being encouraged to starve themselves to death because food and drink were evil.  Dominic and his Preachers worked tirelessly to address the problems of lax and poorly educated clergy by rigorous education, constant preaching of the Gospel, and doing both in loving poverty.

Francis, on the other hand, saw a world with much sickness, suffering and poverty.  The Order that Francis founded (The Order of Friars Minor) was known for its members’ simplicity, care for the sick and the poor, and respect for the natural world.  The statement “Preach the Gospel at all times.  When necessary, use words.” sums up the Franciscan ideal, though Francis might not have actually said it.  If you didn’t know it before, you have probably picked up on why Bishop Bergoglio chose the name of Francis upon becoming Pope.

It is important to note that, despite their different approaches and missions,  the Orders of both Dominic and Francis were parts of the same Church and preached a common faith.  They just went about it in different ways.  Was/is one better than another?  Only in the sense that for some jobs a hammer is superior to a saw, while the saw is preferred for others.

I will confess that I identify more with the Dominicans.  This affection is honestly obtained, since my oldest son is a Dominican Student Brother who hopes to be ordained as a Dominican Catholic priest in a few years.  I have learned a bit about Dominic and his Order, and its emphasis on learning and teaching appeals to my left-brained nature.  However, I have also spent time thinking that I should spend more time cultivating Franciscan virtues as well, and fretting that I have not done so well on this score.

But shortly before writing this, I came across the thoughts of a blogger who goes by DFXC who, after referring to Paul’s analogy that we are many different parts of the same body, makes the point that although we are merely a part of the body, we have our own job to do – it does no good for the finger to want to be an arm.  Or more to the point here, the knee and elbow are both necessary, but for different reasons.  Perhaps those of us who are more Dominican in our outlook should concentrate on doing a better job of being like a Dominican rather than trying to be like a Franciscan too.  And even more important, I should stop expecting those of a more Franciscan constitution to be more like me.  Of course, this breakdown of the world into Dominican vs. Franciscan is a gross oversimplification because the more you genuinely become like one of them, the more you start to resemble the other as well.

I suspect that clash of worldview is more of an issue among we Catholics than among other faiths.  In my experience, Protestant congregations are much more likely to “self-select” by seeking out others who share their favored points of emphasis, even when there are no serious doctrinal issues.  Any disagreements in emphasis or tone are more likely to result in movement to another faith community, although transfer from one Catholic parish to another for similar reasons is not unheard of.

A final point needs to be made.  Those who deny truths of the faith in a misguided attempt to be pastoral and affirming are not living out a genuinely Franciscan way, and those who elevate doctrine for its own sake and not for the love of the human family are not honoring the way of St. Dominic.  Both of those mindsets (that are unfortunately all too common today) are outside of what is being discussed here.  But after thinking this through, I don’t think that it is a bad thing to try to become a better Dominican while someone else is trying to become a better Franciscan.

Upon meeting St. Francis of Assisi for the first time, St. Dominic is reported to have said “You are my companion and must walk with me. For if we hold together no earthly power can withstand us.”  Although it is silly to claim that Dominic and Francis pretty much make up the entirety of the Catholic Church, it is not out of line to say that each of them represents a part of the Church that complements and completes the other.  So whether you identify with the black and white garb of Dominic or the simple brown habit of Francis, we should strive to be of good cheer and know that we are all playing a legitimate position on the same team.  And I think that Pope Francis would agree.

15 thoughts on “The Dominican and the Franciscan – An Argument Waiting to Happen or Two Paths to the Same Place?

  1. You are helping me immensely on figuring a lot of things out within the Catholic Church, things that were so egregiously left out when I was in RCIA. Some of the blurry lines are now coming into focus.


  2. “You are my companion and must walk with me. For if we hold together no earthly power can withstand us.” 
    Whether he said it or not, I think it sums up the point and needed perspective quite nicely. None of us can fulfill all the roles and represent all the teachings; trying even to do many can only be accomplished poorly. Your take on Dominic and Francis is a useful illustration of the principle that the best work is only done when we trust each other to make the most of our diverse gifts.
    –and thanks for the nod.


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  6. Just came across this. Great stuff.

    The (eternal) tension between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right action/behavior). To extrapolate further, these “two groups” exemplify the two major (competing) responses that exist within all of the Abrahamic traditions, against the challenge of modernity and the Enlightenment. If we do not reject religion outright (Spinoza), and try to salvage something, how to do this?

    Liberal (or progressive) theology follows Kant and tends to reduce religion to ethics alone (Jefferson composes his own “Bible” that is stripped of any trace of the supernatural, Geiger founds the Reform movement of Judaism, Schleiermacher is the father of all Liberal Protestantism, Loisy and others exist in the Roman Catholic tradition). Christian Orthodoxy asserts (among other things) that we must maintain at least some element of right belief or dogma, or else the term “Christian” becomes ultimately meaningless. (Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism asserts, against Reform, that the 613 Commandments are fundamentally normative or binding, which also implies that there is actually a divine personality who acts in human history).

    Perhaps the most Ecumenical definition of a Christian might be, “one who self-identifies as a follower of Christ.” This allows for both groups to co-exist peacefully, in humility, as we await better discernment, beyond our present vantage point, which is a cloudy or “dimly lit mirror”, per St Paul. Embrace the mystery, the tension, the dialectic.

    Incidentally, I’ve always felt bad for the Cathars, whose population was bloodily decimated by the Hounds of God (domini canii). Apparently an old Dominican joke, making fun of the Jesuits, goes as follows:

    Q: Why are the Dominicans superior to the Jesuits?

    A: Nobody knows what a Cathar is anymore; yet Protestants are everywhere.


    • Thanks for this very thoughtful comment. You have dug quite a bit more deeply than I did here. Sadly for the Cathars, the middle ages was not a time when people could sit in a library to sip wine and debate religious beliefs. The tight knots between church and state of that time sort of blurred the distinction between what was being done in matters of faith and what was being done in matters of law and order.


  7. Lest it be unclear where my own biases stand, I’ve always felt that, deep down, the Franciscan’s were just a bunch of tree-huggers… 😉


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