Moral Briefs – Chapter XLII – The Vow of Poverty

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonOne objection to the vow of poverty that has a serious face on it, and certainly looks wicked, is that it does not prevent the accumulation of great wealth, as may be seen in the cases of the Philippine Friars and the French orders. This is one difficulty; here is another and quite different: the wealth of the religious is excessive, detrimental to the well-being of the people and a menace to the State. Taken separately, it is easy to dispose of these charges and to explain them away. But if you put them together in one loose, vague, general imputation of avarice, extortion and injustice, and hurl the same at a person unable to make distinctions, the shock is apt to disconcert him for a moment.

The first indictment seems to hint at a contradiction, or at least an incompatibility, between the profession of poverty and the fact of possessing wealth. We claim that the one does not affect the other, that a religious may belong to a rich order and still keep his vow inviolate. The vow in the religious is individual and personal; the riches collective. It is the physical person that is poor; the moral being has the wealth. Men may club together, put their means into a common fund, renounce all personal claim thereto, live on a meagre revenue and employ the surplus for various purposes other than their needs. The personal poverty of such as these is real.

This is the case of the religious. Personally they do not own the clothes on their backs. The necessaries of life are furnished them out of a common fund. What remains, goes through their hands for the glory of God and in charity to fellow-man. The employment to which these men devote their lives, such as prayer, charity, the maintenance and conducting of schools and hospitals, is not lucrative to any great extent. And since very few Orders resort to begging, the revenue from capital is the only means of assuring existence. It is therefore no more repugnant for religious to depend on funded wealth than it was for the Apostolic College to have a common purse. The secret reason for this condition of things is that works of zeal rarely yield abundant returns, and man cannot live on the air of heaven.

As to the extent of such wealth and its dangers, it would seem that if it be neither ill gotten nor employed for illegitimate purposes, in justice and equity, there cannot be two opinions on the subject. Every human being has a right to the fruit of his industry and activity. To deny this is to advocate extreme socialism and anarchy and, he who puts this doctrine into practice, destroys the principle on which society rests. The law that strikes at religious corporations whose wealth accrues from centuries of toil and labor, may to-morrow consistently confiscate the goods and finances of every other corporation in the realm. If you force the religious out of land and home, why not force Morgan, Rockefeller & Co., out of theirs! The justice in one case is as good as in the other.

It is difficult to see how the people suffer from accumulated wealth, the revenues from which are almost entirely devoted to the relief of misery and the instruction of the ignorant. The people are the sole beneficiaries. There is here none of the arrogance and selfishness that usually characterize the possession of wealth to the embitterment of misery and misfortune. The religious, by their vow and their means, can share the condition of the poor and relieve it. If there is any institution better calculated to promote the well-being of the common people, it should be put to work. When the moneyed combinations whose rights are respected, show themselves as little prejudicial to the welfare of the classes, the religious will be prepared to go out of existence.

Everyone is inclined to accept as true the statement, on record as official, that the wealth of the Religious Orders in France is at the bottom of the trouble. We are not therefore a little astonished to learn from other sources that it is rather their poverty, which is burdensome to the people. The religious are not too rich, but too poor. They cannot support themselves, and live on the enforced charity of the laborer. French parents, not being equal to the task of maintaining monasteries and supporting large families, limited the number of their children. The population fell off in consequence. The government came to the relief of the people and cast out the religious.

And here we have the beautiful consistency of those who believe that any old reason is better than none at all. The religious are too poor, their poverty is a burden on the people; the religious are too rich, their riches are prejudicial to the welfare of the people. One reason is good; two are better. If they contradict, it is only a trifling matter. As for us, we don’t know quite where we stand. We can hear well enough, amid the din of denunciation, the conclusion that the religious must go; but we cannot, for the life of us, catch the why and wherefore. Is it because they are too poor? or because they are too rich? or because they are both? We might be justified in thinking: because they are neither, but because they are what they are – religious, devoted to the Church and champions of Her cause. This reason is at least as good as the two that contradict and destroy each other. In this sense, is monastic poverty a bad and evil thing!