Inform me, brother, how these orders, which, according to your account, so greatly disturb the church, were introduced; for it appears to many of the people that they are the safety of the church, since in them, in a special degree, the life and poverty of Christ are retained; while the pope, the bishops, and other prelates have notoriously declined from that life. Four orders so numerous, and of such a character, must therefore, it is thought, have a stable foundation.
The matter you touch upon is in part historical, and since it has no authority from the law of Christ, some, among the many who have written upon it, have, without doubt, stated what is false. To me, however, it seems probable, that subsequent to the loosing of Satan, which took place after the first thousand years since the ascension of Christ, the church notoriously departed from the pattern of her Lord. Hence, holy and devout men, not wanting in prudence, endeavoured to revive in themselves the model which was thus lost. So Dominic, and Francis, and the other friars, began to do some things good in their nature, but through the art of the devil were made to rest on many hypocritical falsehoods. According to the common opinion, Dominic, seeing the corruption of the regular clergy, who, being too intent upon the world, had departed unreasonably from the discipline of the canons, founded the order of preaching friars. He was succeeded by Francis, who, though at first a cunning and covetous merchant, founded his order in a blind spirit of devotion, utterly devoid of prudence. And then other sects, seeing that antiquity carried great weight with it, laid false claim to an antiquity superior to that of these orders, and declared Augustine to be their founder, pretending that they lived four hundred years or more unknown in a desert place, before the introduction of the preaching friars. But the fourth sect (the Carmelites) go still further, and assert that they were founded before the incarnation of our Lord, on Mount Carmel, by Elias, in honour of the blessed Virgin Mary.
These fictions, false as the shape and colour of their habit, and every thread carrying a falsehood, show with what care and labour they follow the father of lies. These appear to be the apostates described by Solomon in the sixth chapter of Proverbs: “A wicked man walketh with a froward mouth: he winketh with his eyes, he speaketh with his feet, he teacheth with his fingers; frowardness is in his heart, he deviseth mischief continually; he soweth discord.” This I have elsewhere set forth in detail.
Some men, seeing the reins of falsehood thus thrown loose, pretend that these four saints had their beginning in Cain; and thus the voice of his brethren, representing the malice of these friars, cries from the earth to the Lord: and, in fact, the four letters of this word Cain, are the initials of these four orders, in the succession in which the friars pretend they rose,—thus C denotes the Carmelites; A, the Augustines; I, the Jacobites (Dominicans); and M, the Minors.
But passing by these fictions, there are many things we must observe respecting these men as affecting the interests of the church militant. In the first place, that the order of the truly catholic religion which Christ instituted, transcends infinitely all these private orders; for as one patron is to another patron, so is one order to another; but Christ our patron infinitely exceeds the patrons of these orders, and therefore our order infinitely exceeds theirs. For this reason the holy apostle dared not introduce such sects, as appears from 1 Corinthians 1 and 3. Accordingly, although the friars may little relish the conclusion that our religion thus exceeds theirs, because then their own ought in reason to be destroyed, they stoutly maintain the confirmation of their order by the Roman court, and prove by such means, that a man may pass from a secular religion to the possessionate religious orders in their various gradations, and from these to the orders of the friars. From this it follows, that the orders of these sects are of the highest authority in the church, and thus spiritually elevated above all other orders whatsoever. If the man who favours, or mainly supports these orders, should be called their peculiar patron or founder, these four sects of mendicants should be called papal friars, rather than Dominican or Franciscan; for Dominic is said to have apostatised from his own altar, or he holds the rule of Augustine unchanged. Francis, again, is said to have compiled sermons so incongruous, that his disciples are ashamed to exhibit his rules. But it is particularly by collecting the rules of their sect from the popes, as jesters obtain their mantle, that these men give disposition to their order, which has been so often changed.
Concerning the two other sects, it appears still more plainly, that by often changing their customs, they have made but unsteady progress, like boats driven to and fro in a shoreless sea. This feeble attempt, then, to establish their orders is a failure, and accordingly we need not be surprised to find them deceiving the church. Hence, these friars, seeing the defective grounds of their institution, declare that they hold no other than the religion and ordinance of Christ, but that they hold that religion in far more perfection than we seculars, and so observe the law of Christ more perfectly.
But it is natural to ask them how it is that there should be four distinct orders of mendicants, or how it is that they ask the pope to confirm their orders and corrections? And since the novel institution, which they are so singular in observing, is no special ordinance or religion, they are asked why they retain it so pertinaciously, and in what consists its advantage, or what is still their special authority for it? Since according to Scripture, men may not introduce such unfounded novelties beyond the religion instituted by Christ, and they are bound to consider such orders as far inferior to that of Christ; inasmuch as Christ our Abbot is more worthy than their patron, our Gospel rule is far more perfect, and its company of saints militant far more noble—nay, if the excellence of an order be estimated by these marks, the military order far surpasses that of the friars.
Who, I ask, will find in this order of mendicants, such a collection of men as were in Greece in the holy Theban legion? The same is true of Mauritius and his comrades; and of the two hundred soldiers, who, in the time of Saint Catherine, followed Popherius; and so many bodies of soldiers in the world, who, in antiquity, authority, and sanctity, far exceed these orders of the mendicants.
The sort of reply proper to the argument with which we began on this subject, is now manifest, for what is assumed in this case is not valid; though hypocrites, by their false pretences, deceive and blind many men, giving attention to the surface of life, and not to the foundation of their order. They follow not the poverty of Christ, and his mode of life, since that best of masters would not be the holder of such sumptuous dwelling-places as belong to them, nor lay such a tax on the poor, nor collect together such thieves and plunderers as are the accomplices of Antichrist. But the patron of these men seems to influence them in this opposite direction. Nor is it any argument in their favour, that this patron himself hath appointed them the law, and given them the privilege to beg, since the blessed Clement forbade his people so to do.