The wound in the left foot: restrictions on free use by the Church of her own temporalities.
The early Church was poor but free
The modern reader of the Five Wounds will find this chapter very challenging for the Church. The first “four wounds” are indeed all relevant today, and there is still a long way to go before the “healing” process has been accomplished. But there is greater awareness of the importance of finding efficient remedies, and Vatican II has certainly produced outstanding documents that reflect the serious intent of the Church to reform herself from within.
Even from a cursory reading of the pages of the fifth wound it is clear that Rosmini’s vision of the Church is that of the Spouse of Christ embracing the same poverty of her Bridegroom, who said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay His head”. Rosmini asks that popes, bishops, and priests embrace evangelical poverty, as it was the case in the early Church. “The profession of poverty was for long the glory of the priestly ministry; the majority of men called to the priesthood abandoned their possessions or gave them away to the poor… The outstretched hands of the poor, of widows, lepers, slaves, pilgrims and the destitute became vaults where the Church could deposit her treasures without fear of theft”.
Few people today would readily agree that the official Church is poor. Popes, bishops, priests, religious orders, are not seen as the best examples of poverty, with a few exceptions. The general consensus is that the clergy is at least comfortably off, very often better off, and occasionally rich. This perception may well be inaccurate but is often repeated; and many find unconvincing the defence that being poor today simply means living by the same standards of the majority of the people that are being served. Some argue that Christ and the Apostles chose to live not according to prevailing standards; they chose the poverty of the poor, and their precarious existence.
The early Church was poor, but free. Her evangelical poverty was safeguarded by seven maxims which regulated the acquisition, administration and use of material goods. Rosmini explains these ancient maxims with a passionate plea that the Church of his time, the Church of our time, may embrace them once again if she is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
- The first requirement was that all offerings to the Church had to be “spontaneous”. Christ obliged the faithful to maintain those working for the gospel, but He appealed to the faithful’s free acceptance of His gospel, and to their moral response. St. Paul, although acknowledging that he had the moral right “to food and drink” for preaching the gospel, seldom used it preferring to work hard for his food and the food of his own companions. Moreover, the obligation that Christ imposed on the faithful of maintaining the clergy did not extend beyond the strict needs of the preachers of the gospel, “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they may provide”. This maxim is stressed by Tertullian at the beginning of the third century, “Each one who can, puts aside some money monthly, or when he decides. No one is forced; all give spontaneously. These funds are the investments of piety”. Spontaneity only ceased when the offerings were enforced by sanctions imposed by the secular arm. This came about with the advent of “feudalism” in the 8th century. For Rosmini, “feudalism” was an unmitigated disaster for the Church, the most profound cause of all of the five wounds of the Church. “Feudalism – says Rosmini – extinguished the freedom of the Church and gave rise to all her afflictions”. Barbarian kings considered themselves the owners of everything within their territories, including all Church’s properties. They distributed favours to bishops and expected in return total subjection and loyalty to them. Barbarian rulers considered both people and properties “theirs” by right of conquest. “We can easily imagine what occurred when Church properties were no longer free possessions of the Church, but held under the dominion of temporal rule. Offerings were extracted by force, the only power of coercion available and understood by the secular arm”. The use of force changed the whole nature of the offerings to the clergy. The faithful resented being forced to give, and their attachment and love for their clergy disappeared. The clergy were now guaranteed a constant income which did not depend on the amount of work they were doing. Moreover, all donations to the Church were seen as ultimately the property of the feudal ruler who could take over such donations at will. This “evil seed”, says Rosmini, brought about the confiscations of the goods of monasteries and churches all through the succeeding centuries, including the then recent decree of 2nd November 1789 in which the national assembly in France declared all Church properties to be at the disposition of the State.
- The second maxim protecting the Church from corruption was that goods should be possessed, administered and dispensed in common. Initially the faithful brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Distribution was made to each as any had need. We can only admire the love and union between the believers, and wonder at the common life amongst clergy and faithful. This requirement was preserved for a long time. The bishop, as successor of the Apostles, normally distributed each month what was necessary for the maintenance of the clergy who worked for the gospel in their dioceses. The funds came from church possessions; no one had anything of his own. When Constantine permitted wills to be made in favour of the Church in 321, he laid down, “Everybody is entitled to leave the property he wishes to the holy and catholic council of the Catholic Church”. The emperor Valentinian made a law forbidding legacies in favour of individual members of the clergy; St. Ambrose and St. Jerome approved of the law. Goods held in common and administered by the wise love of bishops after consultation with their clergy were of great assistance in producing and safeguarding increased union amongst the clergy, and between the clergy and the people. All of this came to an end with feudalism, which involved vassalage, servitude to the ruler, who became the master of all that the bishops owned. The bishop, with his possessions, became an isolated individual, a man like everyone else, a courtier sharing the luxury of court life, perhaps the leader of soldiers. As the bishop became lord or baron on his own behalf and that of his ruler, the Church ceased to be visible in him; he was no longer bishop and leader of his church, and of the people once united with him. “This tremendous, unnatural transformation of churchmen impressed the mind of medieval bishops with the idea of their own individuality, and weakened the notion of unity in the Episcopal and clerical body. It broke up dioceses according to state and feudal boundaries; eventually, almost all church property came to be administered and enjoyed by individual clerics”.
- The third, precious maxim was that the clergy should use church goods only for the strict needs of their maintenance; the remainder was to be applied to pious works, especially in alms for the poor. Christ founded the apostolate on poverty, and on abandonment to Providence, He himself was the perfect example. Hence in the finest period of the Church, entering the ranks of the clergy was equivalent to a profession of evangelical poverty. The profession of poverty was for long the glory of the priestly ministry; the majority of men called to the priesthood abandoned their possessions or gave them away to the poor. These men never used the wealth of the Church for their own benefit as though it belonged to them, but accepted it in trust for the poor. The bishop, as first amongst the poor and the one responsible for distribution, could rightly take something for himself and the clergy. Rosmini quotes Julian Pomerius, a disciple of St. Augustine, who after praising St. Paulinus and St Hilary who had embraced poverty from a very wealthy background, wrote: “It is easy to understand how holy men like these (who had renounced everything to become followers of Christ) were perfectly aware that the Church’s possessions belongs to the poor. They never used this wealth for their own benefit, but accepted it in trust for the poor”. Feudalism brought to an end this blessed period. When bishops and priests became subject to their political masters, the goods entrusted to the Church by the generosity of the faithful “instead of flowing down to the poor, either remained stationary or finished in the rapacious hands of the local lord”, and the poor ceased to be a sacred charge consigned to the care of the churches.
- The fourth requirement governing Church goods and safeguarding the integrity of the clergy was that ecclesiastical wealth used for pious, charitable purposes, should also be assigned to fixed, determined works to prevent arbitrariness and self-interest from interfering with the management of the goods. In the early Church resources were allotted to definite purposes according to a fourfold division: for the support of the bishop, the clergy, the poor, and the upkeep of church buildings and cult. “It is certain – says Rosmini – that the best remedy against the corruption accompanying riches was the establishment of laws at various Councils regulating the precise uses to which they could be applied”. The corruption and ruin of many ancient monasteries is to be attributed to the lack of precise purposes to direct the great riches possessed by religious houses. As a result, abbots and other superiors controlling finances spent the income as they pleased. Feudalism destroyed the fourfold fair distribution of the Church possessions, accumulating instead all wealth into the hands of the few and powerful.
- The fifth requirement safeguarding the Church from the danger of riches was “a generous spirit, prompt to give, slow to receive”. The great rule fixed in human hearts was Christ’s noble words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”. Bishops considered money and administration a burden, to be borne only for motives of charity. St. Ambrose refused legacies and donations if he knew that poor relatives of the donor would suffer as a result. St. Augustine had to defend himself against the accusation, “Bishop Augustine gives with total generosity, but takes nothing”. What a glorious accusation, says Rosmini! Augustine said that he would gladly have lived on collections from God’s people rather than be burdened with responsibility for finances, which he was ready to cede to the people so that all God’s servants and ministers might live by sharing at the altar. But the laypeople refused his offer absolutely. It is truly painful, and damaging to the true interests of the Church, as well as scandalous, if public opinion is generally convinced that the Church’s hands are always extended to receive, but never to give. It is sad to find people thinking that what the Church puts in her treasure never leaves it; the result is contempt, envy, the elimination of generosity amongst the faithful, and the suspicion that the Church’s wealth goes on accumulating over the centuries irrespective of the needs of the poor.
- The sixth requirement compelled the Church to make public the administration of all her possessions. In the early Church bishops consulted the clergy and the people on all matters, including the use of the wealth of the Church. Moreover, the priests and deacons in charge of the administration had to be approved by the whole church, according to Apostolic tradition. St John Chrysostom was not afraid to give an account of his administration of church income: “We are ready to inform you of our administration”. The same spirit and practice animated all early bishops. The people who make the offering should also be aware of what is being carried out. Rosmini suggests that the people should be involved from the beginning, from selecting the special works to which funds are to be allocated to receiving a full account of the way money have been handled. Religious orders, who distinguish themselves by the making of a vow of poverty, should be the first to give a thorough account of how funds are invested and used. By making all finances public, the Church would shine before the world, and the temptation of using funds unworthily would be considerably weakened. “An obligation to present the faithful, and the general public, with an account of their administration would provide the stimulus necessary for awakening many drowsy consciences, and ensure that church offices were in the hands of honest, sincere, devout persons”.
- The seventh and last requirement is that the Church should administer her goods watchfully and carefully. What the Church owns belongs to God and to the poor, and she has to give a strict account to God of how she has administered God’s possessions. It is true, says Rosmini, that through the centuries the voracious rapacity of rulers and States have robbed the Church of so much of her possessions. But, perhaps, much squandering of her wealth has been caused by churchmen who have used it for their own selfish purposes and as though it belonged to them. Rosmini adds, “If we consider what the Church has received during the centuries of her existence, and how much has been lost through lack of serious, careful administration, we can only imagine where the Church would be now if her possessions had always been wisely administered”.
In modern times, the social teaching of the Church has certainly awoken consciences everywhere. From the Rerum Novarum, to the Mater et Magistra, to the Pacem in Terris, to the Populorum Progressio the Church has spoken most eloquently in favour of the poor, the oppressed, the economically disadvantaged of the world. Throughout the centuries, the Church has been the strongest defender and a mother to the sick, the marginalised, the rejected. Of all human institutions, is there any that can be compared to the Church in her dedication and commitment to the poor throughout her long history?
And yet, Rosmini’s plea that the Church herself needs to make an examination of conscience and assess herself against the seven maxims that helped her in ancient times to live according to the evangelical poverty willed for her by the divine Founder, sounds very true and relevant, today as in his own time. The documents of Vatican II speak about evangelical poverty when they deal with the religious life. For Rosmini, however, evangelical poverty is a characteristic, a quality, a requirement of the whole Church. It is the Church that has to be poor, and the seven maxims should become working guidelines for the whole Church.
A few questions arising from the key words of the seven maxims:
- Spontaneity: should the Church accept payments from the State collected from the taxation of citizens? Italian bishops receive from the State salaries for their priests with money raised from taxation of all citizens. The same applies in Germany and Switzerland, and other nations.
- The Church owes everything in common: why such a disparity among the clergy? Why such a disparity among the various dioceses of the world? Is individual possession still the norm?
- The wealth of the Church should cater only for the strict needs of the clergy, for the buildings and cult, all the remaining funds belong to the poor: are we satisfied that this is the case? Are priests, bishops outstanding in their poverty? Is there a substantial fund in each parish, diocese for the poor?
- Funds should be allocated to fixed purposes or works: does it happen in our parishes, in dioceses, the Church worldwide? Are a few individuals responsible for spending the money of everybody? Is there constant consultation of the faithful in all financial matters of the parish, of the diocese?
- It is more blessed to give than to receive: are churches accumulating too much, always ready to receive, never prepared to give generously to the poor? Are our churches more “businesses” than the Body of Christ?
- Public account: do churches consult the faithful in all financial matters, do they consider the faithful as the owners with the clergy and the poor of all church’s properties? Are they given a detailed account of income and expenditure on a regular basis? The same applies to dioceses, religious orders, and to the Vatican.
- Church possessions are God’s possessions: do churches consider all their properties and financial assets as “God’s property”? Are they careful and scrupulous in the way they administer what has been put into their care for the benefit of all?
“Through His wounds we are healed”
“Intra Tua vulnera absconde me”
The Five Wounds of the Church should not be cause for despair and pessimism. The bleeding wounds of Christ on the cross were not the end of the story. Christ rose from the death, and the marks of those wounds became the mighty signs of God’s infinite love for us and of His redeeming salvation. The water and the precious Blood that came out of the wound on the side became the streams of living water of baptism and the manna from heaven of the Eucharist, indeed through them the Church was generated. The Five Wounds of the Church are a challenge, but we place all our trust in the power of the Blessed Trinity. The third Maxim of Christian perfection enjoins on all baptized to “remain perfectly tranquil with regard to all that happens to the Church of JESUS Christ, in accordance with God’s designs, and to follow God’s call in working for the Church”.