Benedictine and Franciscan Poverty

Benedictine and Franciscan Poverty March 25, 2013

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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