Friday, May 04, 2012

The "counsels of perfection"


Your post suffers on account of its missing the concept of “counsels of perfection.”

I’ve already discussed the traditional prooftexts. Now I’d like to examine the issue from a different angle.

i) Historically, I expect that many men and women entered monasteries or convents to avoid starvation. At a time when famine was commonplace, this would be a way of feeding yourself.

ii) Peasants were already dirt poor. Taking a vow of poverty didn’t entail a personal sacrifice on their part. They had no riches to give away.

iii) By the same token, peasants were already at the bottom of the totem pole. Taking a vow of obedience didn’t require them to relinquish their freedom or authority, for they had nothing to relinquish in that regard.

iv) To my knowledge, convents were also a dumping ground for ineligible noblewomen. Or a form of punishment.

v) Regarding the vow of chastity, that has to be counterbalanced against the practice of concubinage and monastic sodomy.

vi) I don’t deny that some monks and nuns were genuinely pious. And some monks did take a pay cut (e.g. Aquinas, Francis of Assisi).

vii) For some monks, the vow of poverty was a pay raise. Some monasteries were notoriously wealthy. Isn’t that when Henry VIII plundered the monasteries? For the loot?

Of course, you can say a vow of poverty distinguishes between personal property and common property. But that can be a gimmick. Technically, the Bhagwan Rajneesh didn’t own 93 Rolls-Royces. Technically, they belonged to the commune.

viii) To my knowledge, the church of Rome wasn’t in the habit of lecturing Catholic monarchs on their harems. Indeed, that might be a bit compromising inasmuch as high-end callgirls serviced both laymen and clergymen, viz.:

During her teen years, [Ninon de] Lenclos began her career as one of Paris’s most celebrated courtesans.  During her many public affairs, she became the mistress of numerous prominent men.  Statesmen included the Grand Condé, Gaston de Cligny; Louis de Mornay, marquis de Villarceaux; and François, duc de la Rochefoucauld.  Clergy included the Abbé de Chateauneuf and Canon Gédoyn.  Cardinal Richelieu counted among one of her spurned petitioners.


  1. "i) Historically, I expect that many men and women entered monasteries or convents to avoid starvation. At a time when famine was commonplace, this would be a way of feeding yourself."

    The 16th century Reformers often labeled corrupt monks basically as "welfare bums"; before the advent of massive modern state-systems, religion provided the easiest way for low-class types with low morals to make a living for themselves without hard physical work:

    "4. There were two fathers, one of whom said that a monk who does not labor with his hands must be considered equal to a thug, or (if you prefer) a brigand ( Serapion, head of a monastery near Arsinoe in Egypt, who required his monks to earn their food by labor. Sozomen, op. cit., 6:28; Cassiodorus, Historia tripartita 8. 1 (MPL 69. 1103; tr. NPNF 2 ser. 2. 365); the second, that it is not lawful for monks to live off the goods of others, even though they be assiduous in contemplation, in prayer, and in study (Augustine, On the Work of Monks 14-17 (MPL 40. 560-564; tr. NPNF 3. 511-513). They have also transgressed this limit when they have put the lazy, wine-cask bellies of monks in these stews and brothels to be crammed with substance of others."

  2. And 1910 "Catholic Encyclopedia" for its part made the same claim - about Eastern Orthodox monks:

    Eastern Monasticism

    "The Turkish conquest sealed their isolation from the rest of Christendom; the monasteries became the refuge of peasants too lazy to work, and the monk earned the scorn with which he is regarded by educated people in the East."

  3. Continuing the welfare-abuse comparison: in the Middle Ages, monks and friars often acted as the militant "stormtroopers" of Papal power, in return of the protection and favour that the Vatican provided to their orders.

    This resembles the way modern welfare-addicts become cannon-fodder for leftist parties that are mobilized in elections - they give their votes in return of state patronage.