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Alternative Orthodoxy

Simply Living the Gospel

Sunday, February 2nd, 2020

Alternative Orthodoxy

Simply Living the Gospel

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Rule and the life of the Friars Minor is to simply live the Gospel. —St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) [1]

One of the things I most appreciate about my Franciscan heritage is its alternative orthodoxy. The Franciscan tradition has applied this phrase to itself and its emphasis on “orthopraxy”; we believe that lifestyle and practice are much more important than mere verbal orthodoxy. While orthodoxy is about correct beliefs, orthopraxy is about right practice. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the famous Dominican Doctor of the Church, may have been influenced by St. Francis when he wrote, “Prius vita quam doctrina.” [2] Or, “Life is more important than doctrine.” All too often Christianity has lost sight of that in spite of Jesus’ teaching and example.

Jesus’ first recorded word in at least two Gospels, metanoia, is unfortunately translated with the moralistic, churchy word repent. The word quite literally means change or even more precisely “Change your minds!” (Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17). Given that, it is quite strange that the religion founded in Jesus’ name has been so resistant to change and has tended to love and protect the past and the status quo much more than the positive and hopeful futures that could be brought about by people agreeing to change. Maybe that is why our earth is so depleted and our politics are so pathetic. We have not taught a spirituality of actual change or growth, which an alternative orthodoxy always asks of us.

Francis loved God above all and wanted to imitate Jesus in very practical ways. Action and lifestyle mattered much more to him than mentally believing dogmatic or moral positions to be true or false. Francis directly said to the first friars, “You only know as much as you do!” [3] Franciscan alternative orthodoxy has never bothered fighting popes, bishops, Scriptures, or dogmas. It just quietly but firmly pays attention to different things—like simplicity, humility, non-violence, contemplation, solitude and silence, earth care, nature and other creatures, and the “least of the brothers and sisters.” These are our true teachers.

The Rule of Saint Francis—which Rome demanded Francis develop—was hardly a rule at all and was more thought of as “Tips for the Road.” Like Jesus, Francis taught his disciples while walking from place to place and finding ways to serve, to observe, and to love the world that was right in front of them. Observation with love is a good description of contemplation.

In Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis writes, “In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present. God does not abandon us, God does not leave us alone, for God has united . . . definitively to our earth, and God’s love constantly impels us to find new ways forward. Praise be to God!” [4] I believe the Franciscan worldview with its alternative orthodoxy can help us “find new ways forward” and stop being so afraid of change.


[1] Francis of Assisi, “The Later Rule” (1223), chapter 1. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1 (New City Press: 1999), 100.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5.

[3] “The Legend of Perugia,” Saint Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources (Franciscan Press: 1991), 74.

[4] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html. Emphasis mine; I replaced masculine pronouns with the word “God.”

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Returning to Essentials: Teaching an Alternative Orthodoxy (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015), CDMP3 download;

and The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis (Sounds True: 2010), CD.

Image credit: St. Francis of Assisi (detail), Jusepe de Ribera, 1642, El Escorial.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Francis loved God above all and wanted to imitate Jesus in very practical ways. Action and lifestyle mattered much more to him than mentally believing dogmatic or moral positions to be true or false. Francis directly said to the first friars, “You only know as much as you do!” —Richard Rohr
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