Benedictine and Franciscan Poverty

Since our new pope’s emphasis on poverty is a hot topic, here are a few thoughts about the Benedictine approach to poverty and how it contrasts with the Franciscan.

A Benedictine monk takes three vows: obedience, stability, and conversion of life. He doesn’t take a vow of poverty. However, the Rule of St Benedict does forbid private ownership of any kind. A Benedictine monk does not take a vow of poverty, but he lives under a rule of no personal possessions. The monastery owns stuff. In fact, a monastery could be very wealthy. However, it is all owned in common, and each individual monk makes use of what is owned in common, but does not own it himself.

This is a radical attempt at communal living which commands personal poverty, but does not elevate being impoverished as if it were some sort of virtue simply to be poor.

St Francis, on the other hand, wanted to marry “Lady Poverty” and claimed that it was indeed a virtue to be poor. He may have been reacting to the Benedictine monks of the day who may not have technically owned anything individually, but who did live very well in their plush monasteries. The problem with Francis’ embrace of literal poverty is the reason he was suspected of heresy–if poverty is a virtue for its own sake, then by implication private ownership is evil and by further implication the heresy of Manicheanism is lurking–the belief that the material world is somehow tainted or evil. Francis corrected this by embracing the goodness of all things which could be best enjoyed by not owning them or grabbing them for oneself. His poverty was therefore an affirmation of all things rather than a rejection.

While the Benedictine approach does not embrace poverty as a virtue, it does hold hands with the Franciscan approach in it’s rejection of private and personal ownership. Both ways call for a radical rejection of private ownership in order to develop within the person a proper Christian detachment. Detachment within the Eastern religions is a detachment from the physical because it is lower than the spiritual realm.

Christian detachment is different. The Christian is called to be detached from material things in order to be properly attached to all things. The poet Thomas Traherne says, “Can a man be just unless he loves all things according to their worth.” Thus a Christian should be detached from all his belongings so that he can love them–and all things–according to their true worth.

What does this ‘detachment’ mean in actuality? For the religious brother or sister it means complete renunciation of personal property. I knew one monastery, for example, where the monks picked up their underwear for the week from a common laundry store. For the Franciscan this means a literal embrace of poverty as a virtue. For the Benedictine it means personal property is rejected. For the diocesan priest it means living in ‘apostolic simplicity’–trying to avoid attachment to material things in order to be properly attached to all things and to God.

What about laypeople? In fact we are all called to a proper and appropriate type of detachment. Think how our church and her ministry would prosper if all of us were properly detached from our wealth and our material possessions! This does not necessarily mean that we automatically give everything to the poor. Instead we realize what our wealth is for. We are attached to it in the right way. We love our money for what it can accomplish for God’s kingdom. We realize that we are stewards of our wealth in order to spread the gospel and help the needy.

My Dad was a Christian businessman. Sometimes people would criticize him for making a decent mark up on goods he sold in his store. Read more.


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  • Romulus

    Priests and prelates are frequently muddled when it comes to speaking about wealth and poverty. I’m thinking right now of “anti-poverty” programs, such as those backed by the CCHD, which appear to target poverty as an intolerable evil in itself. This utopian call to transform society is very different from a call to serve the poor, which is clearly a basic duty of all Christians, yet the distinction is frequently glossed over.

  • friar minor

    Father L:

    Thank you for this interesting article. I’d only offer one observation. Francis’ writings do not actually address material poverty– much of what we understand as “Franciscan poverty” comes from the later arguments between the friars of the Community and the Spirituals and the hagiography written within the context of that debate.

    Francis’ conception of poverty had to do with Christ’s poverty: the humility of the Incarnation and His obedience to the Father (i.e., poverty of will). While Francis and first friars lived a radical simplicity, Francis himself accepted the gift of a mountain (La Verna) and insisted that the friars never give up possession of the Portiuncula (the first church of the Order).

    I’d direct you to Fr. Augustine Thompson’s fine biography of Saint Francis for a fuller discussion of these issues. Thompson is a Dominican, by the way. Go figure.

  • Ginny K. Allen

    What about the Dominicans? I know of a Dominican who inherited vacation property in a trust. He doesn’t share it with family or other Dominicans on a regular basis and has many antiques and collections in the house which is used only occasionally.

  • ama

    That’s the word I was looking for; detachment! Thank you Father. I have been meditating on poverty and thinking about how some people can have so much, make so much and still feel they are impoverished while others don’t have much, don’t make much and don’t desire much, and are content with what they have. Many have been making a big “to-do” over Pope Francis embracing poverty but I think his behavior is more about detachment and embracing and serving those who really are impoverished.

  • Mr. Patton

    The comparison here is relativism at its’ finest. Good job, sir!

  • Peter

    Today, I am taking a vow of Holy Poverty! I just got off the phone this afternoon with a charismatic Protestant friend regarding what poverty is and is not.

    I find this discussion very interesting: for me, holy poverty is about living in a simple and humble manner with the focus of everything upon spreading the Kingdom and Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I guess my path is more in the direction of Holy Father Francis, although my spirituality is mainly Catholic Charismatic along with Montfortian Marian spirituality.

  • Robert King

    It’s always a good time to recall the Universal Destination of Goods!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Benedictine??Franciscan???Jesuit??? The media certainly has a problem figuring out how to report on them. This morning’s Boston Globe ran a major story on the return of Cardinal Sean O’Malley to Boston. It was full of howlers. The best ( or worst??) howler described Cardinal Sean as “a Capuchin friar of the Jesuit order.”
    —-Lord have mercy!!!
    And, of course St. Francis became a priest in the Globe as in “St. Francis the heralded priest.” But he was a deacon. And so our new pope has taken on the name of probably–next to St. Stephen– the most famous deacon in Church history. But the media seems to be determined to keep that info a secret.

  • Jeff

    Thank you for the brief discussion re: detachment. This is a fundamental aspect of the gospel & is profoundly difficult. When one thinks one is detached from property then, one finds oneself plagued by a pride of accomplishment; which, of course, is sinful. True love for God is based upon sacrificial humility which can create a proper love for all things. Fr Gabriel’s book Divine Intimacy speaks of the importance of detachment. Sadly, I’ve not really heard much from the pulpit on the topic. So, thank you again, Father for doing so here.

  • midwestlady

    Thanks for trying to explain evangelical poverty, and good luck. Most Catholics don’ t really know anything about this and I am tired of trying to explain it. What a mess!

  • midwestlady

    It’s not even that! It’s about the basic orientation to the worth of a human being. The point of the Franciscan order isn’t that we’re going to give you stuff and be Santa Claus for you. NO. The point is that human beings are beloved by God, all human beings.
    Look at the CFRs in Brooklyn. They live down there, and they consider walking around what they do. They themselves live in poverty AND FRATERNITY with the poor. Franciscans take a lot of guff for fraternity with each other and with the poor. Some people think they’d ought to try to eradicate poverty from the face of the earth, but that’s NOT THE POINT.
    Look at the Missionaries of Charity who live with the poor in Calcutta. When Mother Teresa was alive someone offered her a million dollars but wanted to her to open a regular hospital with it, and she refused the money immediately. She knew that’s NOT THE POINT. That’s not what she was doing and she knew it.

  • FW Ken

    If memory serves, St. Benedict refers to the poor monastery as “blessed”. Certainly history gives us many examples of the degeneration of communities add they become more economically comfortable. But then, that’s true of us as individuals as well.

  • Chris
  • u3

    I spent several years at a Benedictine seminary and the old saying was always, “Monks own nothing, but possess everything.” Very true. They’re not living as simply as one might think!

  • u3

    The media are lame. That’s like saying Cardinal O’Malley is a shortstop for the Dallas Cowboys and is a great three-point shooter.

  • chris awo

    Virtually everything about our faith (especially the virtues) has to do with hierarchies. There are different levels of living poverty. everybody can not be at the same level. Barnabas sold his pristine property and gave all the money to Peter. Zachaeus gave half of all his money to the poor. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were not told by the Lord Jesus to go and give what they have to the poor.
    We live poverty according to our calling. what we dont need is hypocrisy masquerading as poverty or detachment. We dont need Ananias and Sapphira. We need the good Samaritan – using what we have for our own good and the good of others.

  • Newark

    What about the Augustinians…how do they perform within the considered argument?

  • Fr.Thomas Thekkumthottam osb

    There are 19 different branches of men, called Congregations, in the Benedictine Order now. Some of them explicitly mention poverty and chastity together with obedience, stability and conversion in their Profession formula. For example, I belong to the Sylvestrine brach of the Benedictine order. We make use of the ‘five vow formula’. But poverty means, as always, properly detachment from material things.

  • Alifa

    First of all, thank you for an interesting and informative article. I have a major quibble, however, with your statement that Eastern religions seek detachment because of the view that the physical world is “lower” than the spiritual realm. I can’t speak for Hinduism, but Buddhists seek detachment for reasons much closer to the Christian view which you present. Buddhism doesn’t address “God” issues, but looks at the reasons for the human sense of dissatisfaction and suffering, and argues that the root of that perception is greed. Look at the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis: When Eve took the fruit, it was because the snake had set up within her thought a desire for something that she thought she didn’t possess — the knowledge of good and evil. Buddhism posits that as we become detached, we can see with greater clarity the truth of the goodness of the world around us, but without ignoring the basic element of that sense of dissatisfaction, longing, or outright greed; what Buddhism seeks is essentially what it says in the 15th Psalm: “v’daber emet bilvavo” — he speaks the truth in his heart.
    A few times I’ve managed to tune in to your program on Ave Maria radio; it’s always informative and fun. Thanks so much for your insights, but please be careful about general statements on Eastern religions. I realize that it is important for Christians to differentiate their beliefs because I really don’t believe it’s all one big cafeteria lunch (or one of those gigantic dessert tables in a big hotel wedding) but it is also important to look beyond conventional wisdom, which too often just gets the differences wrong.