The Reign of Christ. Book Two. Chapter Thirteen: The Fifth Law: Claiming Ecclesiastical Goods For Christ the Lord, and Their Pious Use
17 min read
17 min read
There can be no doubt that the ministries of bishops and of other priests and clergy, or proper inspections of the churches, or synods cannot be restored in the churches unless Your Majesty would first remove, along with every appearance of simony, those execrable sacrileges and such monstrous despoliations of the churches which have been allowed, so that stipends of sacred ministries have been conferred for favor and a price to these most unworthy men, and very often two, three, four, five, or more to one individual who has no desire to satisfy even one. This state of affairs gains entrance if the priesthood is conferred on anyone for a reason and purpose other than that the churches may be built up in the faith of Christ through faithful and fit ministers, or if any temporal consideration, a price or a service or a favor, is involved in the bestowal.
Another obvious sacrilege in the looting of the churches is that which the Roman Antichrist exacts from bishops and other priests, “the fruits and tenths of the first year,” as they are called. In view of this Your Majesty understands well enough how alien it would be to his piety for him to imitate Christ’s adversary in this matter. It is indeed the duty of the churches and of all ministers of religion to help Your Majesty to meet the needs of the realm with ready hearts as much as they can. For as to every soul it has been divinely commanded that it “should be subject to powers” bearing the sword, so also it is required of every soul, both of priests and of the rest of mankind, to give “tribute” to him “to whom tribute is owed, tax to whom tax is due, to render honor to him who is worthy of it, reverence to whom reverence is appropriate” (Rom. 13:1; 6-7).
Thus, on the basis of this right, devout emperors required fiscal payments and canonical conveyance of estates which either the churches or the clergy possessed. And this so strictly that if at some time churches were not able to meet fiscal debts in any other way, they conceded the transfer of ecclesiastical real estate in order to pay these debts, which was otherwise most sacredly forbidden. The churches also contributed to the constructions of roads and bridges and also to the costs of sudden emergencies arising from unexpected needs; nor were the churches and clergy kept exempt, except from the obligation of sewage disposal and from extraordinary giving of evidence, and from the burden of giving hospitality to the court retinue or the militia.
Meanwhile, however, just as these emperors paid salaries to the clergy, so they also supported the poor from the public income of the empire. As we previously mentioned, this had been instituted by Constantine the Great. A third part of this liberality, which Julian had completely taken away from the churches, Jovian restored to them, influenced by public demand to satisfy the churches both in regard to the stipends of clerics and poor relief. But this pious prince Jovian promised the churches that he would restore what Constantine had established as soon as a famine which then was raging had abated.
Those pious emperors held ecclesiastical possessions to be so sacrosanct, however they had come to the churches, that they in no way allowed them to be alienated nor even to be exchanged for imperial property, unless for possessions equally good, or even better. In this regard, the sanction of Justinian may be quoted here, since it contains much that is pertinent to our consideration. “If there is any common advantage and cause respecting the welfare of the commonwealth and there is demanded possession of such real estate as we have proposed, it is allowed to receive it from the holy churches and other venerable houses and colleges, always observing an indemnity to the sacred houses, compensating them for that which has been received with something of either an equal or a greater value. For what else should the emperor do but give better things, to whom God has granted abundance and power, so that he can readily give, and especially to the holy churches in which magnificence in giving is an excellent rule. Hence, if any such a thing happens and takes place in a businesslike way, with the requirement that the empire receives some part thereof, and a better, or richer, or more useful thing has been given in compensation, let the exchange be permanent; and let those who are in charge of the houses to which what is alienated belonged and who have the responsibility of administration be entirely without complaint and without fear of the penalties threatened by Leo of pious memory and confirmed by us; it is so agreed, since the priesthood and the empire do not differ much from each other and sacred things from common and public property, seeing that an abundant state of all things should always be made available to the holy churches out of the munificence of the empire. No charge will be leveled against anyone for decent compensations. But we permanently declare invalid any other sale or contract of transfer made either to the empire or to any person Whosoever.”
Pious princes have followed this one policy in giving goods to the churches and conserving them, really and reverently providing fair salaries for the church ministry and the means whereby the necessities of life might not be wanting to any of the poor. On this account they most gravely prohibited the distribution of any ecclesiastical goods either to those who were not legitimately ministering in the churches or to those who were not really needy. And perhaps it will not be useless to quote some of the words of laws of this kind.
The Codex De Sacrosanctis Ecclesiis contains the Valentinian and Marcian law sanctioned in these words: “The privileges which by general constitutions princes have heretofore bestowed on all the holy churches of orthodox religion, we decree shall be preserved firm and intact in perpetuity. All the pragmatic sanctions, which have been produced for the sake of favor or gain with references to the ecclesiastical canons, we command to be held void in their force and strength. And since we owe it to our humaneness to benefit and help the needy, so that sustenance will not be lacking to the poor, the allowances which have been administered until now to the holy churches for various kinds of public assistance, we order now to be bestowed undiminished and intact, and to this most forthright liberality we give permanent force.”
Likewise, the third Authentica, toward the end: “Inasmuch as we have delineated the provisions pertinent to it, it is appropriate that the holy patriarch and reverend clergy should see to it that the remainder of what is received from church revenues should not be used for other purposes than causes that are pious and pleasing to God, for the good of those who are really in need and have no other source of sustenance of life (for these are the things which are generally propitious to the Lord God). Nor should what is supplied for ecclesiastical use be distributed to the well-to-do for patronage or human pursuits, so as to defraud the needy of the necessities of life. Let the administrators in their great love of God know, both those who are so now and those who will be, that if they are in any way delinquent in these matters, they will not only be liable to heavenly penalties but will also of their own substance render an indemnity to the holy Church.”
And the fifty-eighth Authentica states: “Many of the clergy on the occasion of the filling of vacancies in certain oratories, or perhaps even as replacements for some of them, as soon as they have received the solemn compensation too often have nothing at all to do with the sacred mysteries (for what motive, they themselves know too well), or on any given occasion withdraw completely from the holy Church in which they have a place. We therefore decree, lest this impediment be inflicted on the sacred ministry, that the bishops who have a responsibility for these churches, in their great love of God, when they perceive such things, should replace them with others. For we do not wish to concede to any that they should convert to their own gain the compensation now derived from the churches. Nor do we wish that there be any pretext or occasion for some to profit by defrauding others, but rather that whatever remuneration has been available from the beginning should continue without any limitation of time, nor should the sacred ministry be corrupted and decay in this matter; and those who withdraw from the churches will have no license, after others have replaced them, appointed by the holy patriarch or the provincial bishops, to derive anything from the replacements if they wish to return. Nor may they compel those who support this payment to undertake double compensation, both to the replacements and to themselves who wish to return; but (as we may say most simply) if they do return, they may not be accepted; to those, however, who have need after a prior retirement, an annual pension should be provided, with no gain derived from those who are accustomed to supply for them, so that those who would attempt to make a profit on such things will, in regard to the pension benefits and other benefits received from the replacements as a hereditary adjunct to succession, have knowledge that if they are detected in fraud, certain property of their patrimony will be confiscated for our private religious fund, for payments to be made to them from it.
From this Your Majesty will easily understand how the Church must reverently preserve its goods and redeem them for their rightful purposes, namely, to provide the necessities of life for those who minister well to the churches or who are really indigent. So Your Majesty should impose on estates and persons fiscal and canonical obligations and collections for urgent necessities or public works in such a way that there is no appearance of simony, such as the exaction of the fruits of the first year. Nor should he be harder on the true ministries of Christ, needed schools, and the poor, than on the other citizens of his realm, and thus make the preservation and spread of the Kingdom of Christ a matter of lesser importance than his ancestors did. For they showed themselves to be so very munificent even toward depraved and false ministries of the Church, when they thought that they were right and true, and toward schools and projects for the poor, yet they kept a magnificent court and successfully waged difficult wars.
But Your Majesty will not be seen only by men but will be judged by God himself if he does not try to do his duty to God and the churches with all the strength and power which he has received from the Lord: first, that no one should receive the established compensations for the holy ministries of the churches who does not reverently fulfill those ministries in the churches. On this account, Your Majesty must prevent as a most grave sacrilege any priests or prelates from deriving pensions which they pass on to men who neither minister in the churches nor are truly needy. For the pensions should be derived from richer benefices, to be transmitted to faithful ministers of the churches for whom there is no other source of help and to other persons in need. For no reason should anyone be allowed to make an exchange of goods with the churches or their ministers, unless someone wishes to give property to the churches which is better than what he receives, or at least of equal value. For it is said that some very valuable possessions were formerly taken from some colleges and churches under the appearance of an exchange and that nothing but the goods of plundered parishes were transferred to the colleges and churches in place of the preempted possessions. Secondly, that Your Majesty should not impose a greater tax to be paid to the state on the possessions of the churches and their ministers than he is accustomed to impose on the private possessions of men. For who could be excused from manifest impiety if he burdened with more taxes and held in lower esteem the true ministers of Christ’s religion, i.e., of eternal life, and his little ones (on whom we bestow whatever we have of humanity and kindness) than other men who perform services to the state and the churches which are neither so necessary or salutary nor so commended to us by the Lord for every good work.
The kings of Egypt, as we read in the story of Joseph, made only the lands of priests exempt (Gen. 47:22), but the true churches of Christ do not agitate for this exemption; they do not resent at all the payment of the usual tax, provided that they are not held in a more unfavorable position than other groups of men or private persons. And the ministers should be left immune at least from those obligations which they cannot meet without a serious impairment of the service they owe the churches for the eternal salvation of men.
Lastly, it will have to be arranged by Your Majesty that whoever has the endowments or possessions of parishes should, from the income of these parishes, if there is any surplus, establish funds to pay those who are rendering faithful ministries to the parishes of Christ. If, however, there is not enough of a surplus from the parishes to make it possible for faithful ministers to be taken care of, then certainly, as we have said before, the means of providing for such despoiled parishes must be sought from the bishops and wealthier priests. Here the communion of saints must be exercised that the churches which have an abundance should help those which are in need. For it is said that there are not a few parishes where there is no more left from the lavish incomes that they used to have than four or five pounds, or a little more. And so let the law of the Lord apply: “The laborer is worthy of his food and pay” (Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7). Likewise: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (I Tim. 5:17). But these ought also to teach other Christians by their example, as when they are given “the means of nourishment and being clothed, with these they are content” (I Tim. 6:8). Let that law of the Holy Spirit also apply: “Your abundance should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, so that there will be equality among you, as it is written: He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack” (II Cor. 8:14-15; Ex. 16:18).
Your Majesty will therefore give a fifth law to the churches, by which the goods and assets of the churches, according to the aforementioned plan handed down by the Holy Spirit, may be claimed for and restored to their legitimate uses.
I hear that Your Majesty’s treasury has been somewhat debilitated by long wars. Also, the churches, therefore, should help that it is restored as fully as possible to every usefulness to the commonwealth, to which the churches themselves belong as well as their ministers, their schools, and their poor. But this can be done by means which are common in all well-constituted kingdoms, so that there is no need to imitate the sacrilegious inventions of the Roman Antichrist. Precautions must also be taken lest those who assume responsibilities for restoring the treasury of the realm act in their own interest rather than that of Your Majesty and the Commonwealth.
Something which must not in any way be admitted is the entreaty of those who are accustomed to say: “Your Majesty’s father enriched so many ministers from the goods of monasteries and churches; why should not the son follow his father’s liberality in regard to his own ministers?”
For to these, Cicero, a pagan, gives this answer: “Kindness should be no greater than one’s assets, nor is the fountain of kindness to be exhausted by kindness.” Where are the possessions of the monasteries today, so that Your Majesty would be able to be- stow them on his ministers? But if he should attack the goods of bishops and of other rich prelates, where will the means be found to restore the ministry necessary for eternal salvation to the despoiled parishes, to repair the schools, to foster the studious, to care for the poor?
But they say: for what need of the churches, schools, or poor do the bishops and wealthy prelates apply today the wealth of the churches? They feed a lazy, inert, and profane household, enjoy themselves, and indulge themselves in all manner of luxury and mundane pomp. And if they are liberal to some, they are liberal to those joined to them in the flesh; they will adorn wives and children so as not to be outclassed by the nobles.
But what do the churches reply, indeed, what does the Lord Christ, the bridegroom of the churches, reply to these things? Because the false bishops and deceitful prefects of my churches have thus until now ripped apart and ruined my patrimony, which is not rashly called the patrimony of the crucified, is it becoming to you who glory in my gospel to waste and destroy what their sacrilegious rapacity has left over for me? Do you think it is for you so to complain about those drones which take the honey of my bees that you may join them as new drones and eat all the honey of my bees which they still have left over? Do you acknowledge that it is your duty to drive those drones away from the hives of my bees, and to keep their honey safe from all drones? Have you made up your minds or not that you want me to reign over you in the kingdom of religion and of eternal life? Then see, if you want my Kingdom to be restored among you, whether it is necessary for this purpose to educate, establish, and nourish men selected by me for the ministries of my Kingdom, and therefore to repair the schools everywhere, and to foster and help those whom I have granted outstanding talents, when this cannot otherwise be accomplished? Then, since my Kingdom requires that love for all men and that sharing of the goods of daily life among those who believe in me which provides that no one will lack the necessary means to live piously and well, judge for yourselves whether or not my Kingdom should have its own treasury, and a rich one, to provide for my poor those things without which they cannot live a life that is pious and useful to the commonwealth. Say, finally, whether or not that liberality toward the needy is worthy of my Kingdom, when the pagans judged it to be the duty of every man who is well off, specifically that he should redeem captives from robbers by means of his own possessions, borrow money to undertake the cause of friends, help in the espousals of daughters, and assist good and honest citizens in things that have to be sought and Done.
Certainly, it was for the purpose of such generosity that the holy fathers of old judged that the sacred vessels and ornaments of the churches were to be broken up and sold; on this point one may read what Saint Ambrose wrote in his book, De officiis II, Ch. 28.57 One may easily suppose what elaborate expenditures these would demand of the treasury.
But the Lord, rich toward all and bestowing all largesse so munificently on all, says to the unworthy and the ungrateful: “To you, O wretched mortals, who have deserved nothing but hell from me, I bestow generously all things on all, and I ask of you in behalf of my ministers, and those who are being prepared for my ministries through which I administer your eternal salvation, and for my little ones, indeed, for myself: for these I ask not pleasures or some pomp or luxury into which you have ruinously converted my goods, but only food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, shelter for the freezing, clothing for the naked, care for the sick, and consolation for the prisoner [cf. Matt. 25:35-36]. And far from spending my assets and gifts on these needs which are not so much pious as salutary for you, you even snatch and pour out and consume to your damnation what your ancestors have consecrated to me for these purposes.”
Indeed, was there ever a commonwealth so barbarous, so impious, which with the exception of public and private matters subject to human jurisdiction, did not hold sacred things consecrated to religion? And these things were to those heathen men a matter of divine law, and so sacred were all these goods that if on the occasion of a compelling necessity of the commonwealth some of these goods were taken as a loan for the use of the commonwealth, they were bound and eager to restore it at once to sacred usages as soon as the government had been freed from such a difficulty. For among them there prevailed the belief that it was part of natural law and the law of nations that mortals be able to use nothing at all taken from the immortal gods.
In this religion, it was judged to be a sacrilege if anyone took anything sacred, and this crime was considered much more serious than the misdemeanor of appropriating public funds.60 Provided they are consecrated to his service, the Lord indeed allows and praises the expenditure of things even for private, not to mention public, necessities. In order to purchase peace for the people of God from an Assyrian tyrant, Hezekiah the King gave to him “whatever he found of silver in the house of God,” and removed the silver from the doors and posts of the Temple, after he had covered them with it, and the Lord did not disapprove of the deed; for an advantage of his people had been sought (II Kings 18:14-16). When, therefore, this refers to the salvation of God’s people, it pleases the Lord if these external things, his own earthly gifts, are expanded freely for the public advantage of his people, no less readily than he gave his own blood. For he wishes heaven and earth, and all that is contained therein, to be of service to the salvation of his people. He wills, however, that his churches have private property, things consecrated to his name, in order to preserve among his own the ministry of his Kingdom, i.e., of religion, and for the sustenance and support of his poor and not to reward the hirelings, thieves, and robbers who so criminally usurp the name and place and income of caretakers and shepherds of his flock, but to provide food, just and necessary wages, for “those who labor in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17-18), whence a means of subsistence may be available to the schools, i.e., teachers of pious and good arts, and for studious adolescents and young men fit for the ministries of the churches, whence widows, orphans, those broken by age or disease, and other needy persons may be helped and enabled to live. He wills whatever is left over from these uses of our salvation, either from what has previously been consecrated to his name or from what is newly consecrated to him, to be held sacred, and not to be converted to other uses (Lev. 27:28-29), so that whoever deals with them in any other way should be held guilty of sacrilege, under penalty of anathema. He wills that we should acknowledge that there is no other obligation to be fostered and met by us on a par with religion, i.e., the administration of our salvation, and we should hold no citizens of the commonwealth more useful than those who meet this obligation in good faith; and we should not doubt that whatever we spend on his needy ones produces dividends for us, with immense interest, namely, of all good things both present and future. For these needy ones of the Lord “will receive” us “into everlasting tabernacles” (Luke 16:9).
But some object to this as follows: the goods of the churches have to a large extent been assembled and accumulated by means of impious deceits and impostures by men who were wrongly persuaded that liberation from purgatory and heavenly thrones could be bought and purchased with the donations with which the colleges and chapels were endowed, that very much, therefore, was taken in sacrilegious fraud from communities and distinguished families, so that it is just that some of these ill-gotten gains of the churches be restored to the communities and the noble houses; for “God does not tolerate rapine in sacrifice” (Isa. 61:8), nor, therefore, fraud.
It is clear enough what must be replied to this objection. First, these goods cannot be preserved more certainly for the utility of the commonwealth than under the sanction of divine law, nor expended more usefully than for the conservation and spread of Christ’s religion and for nourishing and fostering our Lord Jesus Christ among his little ones. Second, as far as those families are concerned from whom the false clergy took away very many ecclesiastical properties by their godless persuasions and promises, how many, I ask, of these families are left? If they are left and are in need, they should be helped before others by the generosity of the churches. As for the rest, men of jurisprudence are of the opinion that donations made to communities hold force, even when given for profane use, so that if anyone bequeathes a legacy on any city for some impure spectacle, which that city is then unwilling to exhibit to its citizens because of Christ’s religion, that legatee is not on this account obliged to yield it to the gain of the heir, but it remains in the public control of the city to which it was given: “The principals of the city are to ignore the claims of the heirs, in regard to the way in which they should use the matter entrusted to them, where the memorial of the testator is celebrated in a manner other than licit.” How much more, therefore, should the things donated to the churches of Christ be left in their control but converted to pious uses, even though the things donated have by the false clergy been destined for impious Masses and other false cults by error of the donors.
But would that those who make such objections may themselves abstain with horror from every fraud and spoliation not only of private persons, but also very much more of the churches of Christ, and may they not betray the churches to their defrauders and despoilers. For we see that there are many who prefer to confer sacerdotal riches, as an insult to Christ and an injury to the churches, to those who already occupy several benefices sacrilegiously rather than to leave one uncircumscribed and unmutilated to faithful ministers of the gospel.
Since, therefore, Your Majesty’s realm in relation to the religion and Kingdom of Christ is very gravely endangered by the indicated pillage and dispersion of church property, Your Majesty must quickly and conscientiously take care and bring it about that, just as the government has its treasury, its property, so our eternal King Jesus Christ, as he has his Kingdom in Your Majesty’s realm, should also have his treasury and property. This should be held so sacred that Your Majesty himself should not exercise his generosity from it or allow any of his subjects to share in it, except the true and faithful ministers of pure religion, who really do their work faithfully, and those who are being instructed and educated for this ministry, and their teachers and educators, and finally those who are really needy.
The Lord will undoubtedly give and will give most abundantly all other things to Your Majesty as he thus seeks first his Kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33), that he may be able to show himself an abundantly liberal and munificent king to all his faithful ministers and to all men worthy of his kindness. For as the pagan teachers rightly prescribe, these precautions must be observed in generosity and good works: First, “generosity should not injure either those who will obviously receive it or others.” Secondly, “kindness should not exceed one’s assets, and should be rendered according to the worthiness of each individual. For as the illustrious Ennius said: Misplaced do-gooding I judge to be evildoing.”