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The moral doctrine of poverty

Jesus Christ did not condemn the possession of worldly goods, or even of great wealth; for He himself had rich friends. Patristic tradition condemns the opponents of private property; the texts on which such persons rely, when taken in connexion with their context and the historical circumstances, are capable of a natural explanation which does not at all support their contention (cf. Vermeersch, "Quæst. de justitia", n. 210). Nevertheless it is true that Christ constantly pointed out the danger of riches, which, He says, are the thorns that choke up the good seed of the word (Matthew 13:22). Because of His poverty as well as of His constant journeying, necessitated by persecution, He could say: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests: but the son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20), and to the young man who came to ask Him what he should do that he might have life everlasting, He gave the counsel, "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor" (Matthew 19:16-21). The renunciation of worldly possessions has long been a part of the practice of Christian asceticism; the Christian community of Jerusalem in their first fervour sold their goods "and divided them to all, according as every one had need" (Acts 2:45), and those who embraced the state of perfection understood from the first that they must choose poverty.

Does this mean that poverty is the object of a special virtue? Gury (Theolog. moralis II, n. 155) answers the question in the affirmative, and many religious writers favour the same opinion, which is supported by the ordinary conventual and ascetical literature; what is prescribed by the vow of poverty is compared therein with the virtue of poverty, just as we compare the vows of obedience and chastity with the corresponding virtues. But this is erroneous; for the object of a virtue must be something honourable or praiseworthy in itself: now poverty has no intrinsic goodness, but is good only because it is useful to remove the obstacles which stand in the way of the pursuit of spiritual perfection (St. Thomas, "Contra Gentiles", III, cxxxiii; Francisco Suárez, "De religione", tr. VII, l. VIII, c. ii, n. 6; Bucceroni, "Inst. theol. mor.", II, 75, n. 31). The practice of poverty derives its merit from the virtuous motive ennobling it, and from the virtues which we exercise in regard to the privations and sacrifices accompanying it. As every vow has for its object the worship of God, poverty practised under a vow has the merit of the virtue of religion, and its public profession, as enjoined by the Church, forms a part of the ritual of the Catholic religion.

The ancients understood the nobility of making themselves independent of the fleeting things of earth, and certain Greek philosophers lived in voluntary penury; but they prided themselves on being superior to the vulgar crowd. There is no virtue in such poverty as this, and when Diogenes trampled Plato's carpet, saying as he did so: "Thus do I trample on Plato's pride", "Yes", answered Plato, "but only through your own pride." Buddhism also teaches the contempt of riches; in China the tenth precept of the novices forbids them to touch gold or silver, and the second precept of female novices forbids them to possess anything of their own; but their ignorance of a personal God prevents the Buddhist monks from having any higher motive for their renunciation than the natural advantage of restraining their desires (cf. Wieger, "Bouddhisme chinois", pp. 153, 155, 183, 185). If voluntary poverty is ennobled by the motive which inspires it, the poverty which puts aside temporal possessions for the service of God and the salvation of souls is the most noble of all. It is the apostolic poverty of the Christian religion which is practised in the highest degree by missionaries in pagan countries, and to a certain degree by all priests: all these voluntarily give up certain possessions and advantages in order to devote themselves entirely to the service of God.

Voluntary poverty is the object of one of the evangelical counsels. The question then arises, what poverty is required by the practice of this counsel or, in other words, what poverty suffices for the state of perfection? The renunciation which is essential and strictly required is the abandonment of all that is superfluous, not that it is absolutely necessary to give up the ownership of all property, but a man must be contented with what is necessary for his own use. Then only is there a real detachment which sufficiently mortifies the love of riches, cuts off luxury and vain glory, and frees from the care for worldly goods. Cupidity, vain glory, and excessive solicitude are, according to St. Thomas, the three obstacles which riches put in the way of acquiring perfection (Summa, II-II, Q. clxxxviii, a. 7). This abandonment of superfluities was the only way in which voluntary poverty could be understood before the introduction of the common life. The state of perfection, understood in its proper sense, requires also that the renunciation should be of a permanent character; and in practice this stability follows as the result of a perpetual vow of poverty. The warnings and counsels of Jesus Christ are valuable even to those who are not vowed to a state of perfection. They teach men to moderate their desire for riches, and accept cheerfully the loss or deprivation of them; and they inculcate that detachment from the things of this world which our Lord taught when He said, "Everyone of you that doth not renounce all that he possesseth, cannot be my disciple" (Luke xiv 33).

The canonical discipline of poverty

Among the followers of perfection, the spirit of poverty was manifested from the first by giving up temporal possessions; and among those living in community, the use of goods as private property was strictly forbidden, being contrary to that common life which the patriarchs of monasticism, St. Pachomius and his disciple Schénoudi, St. Basil, and St. Benedict, imposed upon their followers. But there was at that time no express vow of poverty, and no legal disability; the monastic profession required nothing but the rigorous avoidance of all that was unnecessary (cf. De Buck, "Do sollemnitate votorum, præcipue paupertatis religiosæ epistola", x). Justinian ordained that the goods of religious should belong to the monastery (Novel. 5, iv sqq.; 123, xxxviii and xlii). This law gradually came into force, and in time created a disability to acquire property, although in the twelfth century, and even later, there were religious in possession of property. The rule of French law, under which a religious was considered as Civilly dead, contributed to establish a necessary connexion between the vow of poverty and the idea of disability.

The express vow of renunciation of all private property was introduced into the profession of the Friars Minor in 1260. About the same time another change took place; hitherto no limit had been placed on the common possessions of religious, but the mendicant orders in the thirteenth century forbade the possession, even in common, of all immovable property distinct from the convent, and of all revenues; and the Friars Minor of the strict observance, desiring to go one step further, assigned to the Holy See the ownership of all their property, even the most indispensable. Following the example of St. Francis and St. Dominic, many founders established their orders on a basis of common poverty, and the Church saw a large increase in the number of the mendicant orders until the foundation of the clerks regular in the sixteenth century; even then, many orders united common poverty with the regular clerical life: such were the Theatines (1524), whose rule was to live on alms and contributions spontaneously given; and the Society of Jesus (1540). It soon became evident that this profession of poverty which had so greatly edified the thirteenth century was exposed to grave abuses, that a certain state of destitution created more cares than it removed, and was not conducive either to intellectual activity or to strict observance; and that mendicity might become an occasion of scandal. Consequently the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV, c. iii, de reg.) permitted all monasteries, except those of the Friars Minor Observantines and the Capuchins, to possess immovable property, and consequently the income derived therefrom; but the Carmelites and the Society of Jesus, in its professed houses, continue to practise the common poverty which forbids the possession of assured incomes.

Congregations with simple vows were not bound by the canonical law forbidding the private possession or acquisition of property by members of approved orders: the disability of private possession was thus considered as an effect of the solemn vow of poverty; but this bond between the incapacity to possess and the solemn vow is neither essential nor indissoluble. So far as the effect of the vow on private possession is concerned, the vow of poverty taken by the formed coadjutors of the Society of Jesus has the same effect as the solemn vow of the professed fathers. St. Ignatius instituted in his order a simple profession preparatory to the final one with an interval between them during which the religious retains his capacity to possess property. A similar rule has been extended to all orders of men by Pius IX and to orders of women by Leo XIII (see RELIGIOUS PROFESSION). On the other hand, since the Rescript of the Penitentiary of 1 Dec., 1820, confirmed by the declaration to the bishops of Belgium dated 31 July, 1878, the solemn profession of religious in Belgium (and Holland appears to enjoy the same privilege) does not prevent them from acquiring property or keeping and administering it, or disposing of it: they are bound, however, in the exercise of their rights, to observe the submission they owe to their legitimate superiors.

The vow of poverty in general

The vow of poverty may generally be defined as the promise made to God of a certain constant renunciation of temporal goods, in order to follow Christ. The object of the vow of poverty is anything visible, material, appreciable at a money value. Reputation, personal services, and the application of the mass, do not fall under this vow; relics are included only on account of the reliquary which contains them, and (at least in practice) manuscripts, as such, remain the property of the religious. The vow of poverty entirely forbids the independent use, and sometimes the acquisition or possession of such property as falls within its scope. A person who has made this vow gives up the right to acquire, possess, use, or dispose of property except in accordance with the will of his superior. Nevertheless certain acts of abdication are sometimes left to the discretion of the religious himself, such as the arrangements for the administration and application of income which professed religious under simple vows are required to make; and the drawing up of a will, by which the religious makes a disposition of his property to take effect after his death, may be permitted without any restriction. This license with regard to wills is of great antiquity. The simple fact of refusing to accept, for example, a personal legacy, may be contrary to charity, but cannot be an offence against the vow of poverty. The vow of poverty does not debar a religious from administering an ecclesiastical benefice which is conferred upon him, accepting sums of money to distribute for pious works, or assuming the administration of property for the benefit of another person (when this is consistent with his religious state), nor does it in any way forbid the fulfilment of obligations of justice, whether they are the result of a voluntary promise — for the religious may properly engage to offer a Mass or render any personal service — or arise from a fault, since he is bound in justice to repair any wrong done to the reputation of another person.

Submission to a superior (as we call the person whose permission, by the terms of the vow, is required for all acts disposing of temporal goods) does not necessarily call for an express or formal permission. A tacit permission which may be inferred from some act or attitude and the expression of some other wish, or even a reasonable presumption of permission, will be sufficient. There is no violation of the vow, when the religious can say to himself, "the superior, who is acquainted with the facts, will approve of my acting in this way without being informed of my intention". The case is more difficult, when he knows that the superior would expect to be informed, and asked for permission, even though he would willingly have given his consent: if it seems probable that he regards the request for permission as a condition of his approval, the inferior offends against the vow of poverty, if he acts without asking leave; but there is no offence if he knows that the superior and himself are agreed as to the essential nature of the act; and the question whether the presumption is reasonable or otherwise may depend on the customs of different orders, the importance of the object, the frequent necessity of the act, the age and prudence of the inferior, his relations with his superior, the facility of obtaining access to him, and other similar considerations. Any admission of luxury or superfluity in daily life is derogatory to the religious state and the first conception of voluntary poverty; but it is not clear that this want of strictness is necessarily contrary to the vow. To decide this, regard must be had to the manner in which each particular vow, with all its circumstances, is generally understood.

A sin against the vow of poverty is necessarily an offence against the virtue of religion, and when committed in connexion with religious profession it is even a sacrilege. It may be a grave or a slight offence. The question, what matter is grave, causes great difficulty to moral theologians; and while some regard the appropriation of one franc as a grave matter, others are more lenient. Most theologians are inclined to compare the sin against the vow of poverty with the sin of theft, and say that the same amount which would make theft a mortal sin would, if appropriated contrary to the vow, constitute a grave offence against poverty. With the exception of Palmieri (Opus morale, tr. IX, c. i, n. 123) and Génicot (Theol. mor., II, n. 98) moralists admit that as in the case of sins against justice, so here circumstances may be considered. While many persons consider the importance and the wealth or poverty of the community in which the offence is committed, we are of opinion that it is rather the extent of the vow that should be considered, since the act does not violate the vow by reason of the harm it causes, but by its being a forbidden appropriation. If the fault is aggravated by in justice it must, as an unjust act, be judged according to the usual rules; but when considered as an offence against the vow, its gravity will be measured by the condition of the person who commits it. Thus a sum which would be very large for a beggar will be insignificant for a man who had belonged to a higher class. The social position should be considered; is it that of the poor or mendicant class? One cannot without grave fault dispose independently of a sum which without grave fault one could not take away from a beggar. For many existing congregations, the matter will be that of a mortal sin of theft committed to the detriment of a priest of honourable condition. It follows that in the case of incomplete appropriation, we must consider the economical value of the act in question; whether, for example, it is an act of simple use of administration; and when the religious does nothing but give away honourably goods of which he retains the ownership, the amount must be very large before the reasonable disposal of it can be regarded as a grave sin for want of the required authorization. If the sin consists, not in an independent appropriation, but in a life of too great luxury, it will be necessary to measure the gravity of the fault by the opposition which exists between luxury and the poverty which is promised by vow.

Variety in the vows of poverty

The vow of poverty is ordinarily attached to a religious profession; a person may however bind himself to a modest and frugal life, or even to follow the direction of an adviser in the use of his property. The vow may be perpetual or temporary. It may exclude private possession, or even to a certain point possession in common. It may entail legal disability or be simply prohibitive. It may extend to all goods possessed at present, or expected in the future; or it may be limited to certain classes of property; it may require the complete renunciation of rights, or simply forbid the application to personal profit, or even the independent use of the property. According to the present discipline of the Church, the vow of poverty taken by religious always involves a certain renunciation of rights: thus the religious is understood to give up to his order for ever the fruit of his work or personal industry, stipends of Masses, salary as professor, profits of any publication or invention, or savings from money allowed him for personal expenses. The independent disposal of any of these would be contrary not only to the vow, but also to justice. We have, moreover, to distinguish in the religious life between the solemn vow of poverty and the simple vow. The latter may be a step towards the solemn vow, or it may have a final character of its own.

The solemn vow of poverty

The solemn vow by common law has the following special characteristics: it extends to all property and rights; it renders one incapable of possessing property, and therefore of transferring it; it makes all gifts or legacies which a religious receives, as well as the fruits of his own work, the property of the monastery; and in case property is inherited, the monastery succeeds in place of the professed religious, in accordance with the maxim: Quicquid monachus acquirit monasterio acquirit. Some orders are incapable of inheriting on such occasions, e.g., the Friars Minor Observantines, the Capuchins, and the Society of Jesus. The inheritance then passes to those who would succeed under the civil law in default of the professed religious. Sometimes before solemn vows are made by a religious, his monastery gives up its right of inheritance by arrangement with the family, and sometimes the religious is allowed to dispose of his share in anticipation. (As to these arrangements and their effect, see Vermeersch, "De relig. instit. et pers.", II, 4th ed., supp. VI, 70 sqq.) As long as monasteries were independent, the monastery which inherited in place of the professed monk was the house to which he was bound by his vow of stability; but in more recent orders, the religious often changes his house, and sometimes his province, and has therefore no vow of stability, except as to the entire order; in such cases, the monastery according to the common usage is the whole order, unless some arrangement is made for partition among provinces or houses. (See Sanchez, "In decalogum", VII, xxxii sqq.; De Lugo, "De institia et iure", d. iii, nn. 226 sqq.) We have already said that the religious of Belgium preserve their capacity to acquire property and dispose of it: their acts therefore are valid, but they will only be licit if done with the approval of their superior. It will be the duty of the latter to see that the rigour of observance and especially the common life do not suffer by this concession, which is, indeed in other respects most important for their own civil security.

The simple vow of religious poverty

The simple vow of poverty has these common characteristics: it leaves the capacity to acquire intact, and permits the religious to retain certain rights of ownership. In exceptional cases the simple vow may involve incapacity, as is characteristic of the last simple vows of the Society of Jesus. We have now to distinguish between the simple vow which is preparatory to the solemn vow, and the final simple vow.

The simple vow in preparation for the solemn vow

The Decree "Sanctissimus" of 12 June, 1858, with the subsequent declarations, constitutes the common law on the subject of this simple vow. (See Vermeersch, "De religiosis institutis etc.", II, 4th ed., nn. 61 sqq., pp. 178 sqq.) This vow permits the religions to retain the ownership of property possessed at the time of his entrance into religion, to acquire property by inheritance, and to receive gifts and personal legacies. The administration and usufruct and the use of this property must before the taking of the vow pass either to the order (if it is able and willing to approve of the arrangement), or into other hands, at the choice of the religious. Such an arrangement is irrevocable as long as the religious remains under the conditions of the vow, and ceases should he leave the order; he seems authorized also to make or complete the resignation which he may have omitted to make or complete previously. Except so far as he is affected by the decree of the Council of Trent, which forbids novices to make any renunciation which would interfere with their liberty to leave their order, the religious who is bound by this simple vow may, with the permission of his superior, dispose of his property by a donation inter vivos, and apparently has full liberty to make a will. But the Decree "Perpensis" of 3 May, 1902, which extends to nuns the simple profession of orders of men, without mentioning a will, declares simply that women are not permitted to make final disposition of their property except during the two months immediately preceding their solemn profession.

The final simple vow

With the exception of the Society of Jesus, in which the simple vow of formed coadjutors entails the same personal obligations and the same disability as the solemn vow, the final simple vow is known only in religious congregations, and the practice differs in different congregations (cf. Lucidi, "De visitatione SS. liminum" II, v, sec. 8, nn. 319 sqq.), and very often resembles that of the vow preparatory to the solemn vow; but according to the Regulations (Normœ) of 28 June, 1901, the transfer of property by donations inter vivos cannot be licitly made before the perpetual vows; after these vows, the complete renunciation requires the permission of the Holy See, which reserves to itself also the right to authorize the execution or modification of a will after profession. Any arrangements made before profession for the administration of property and the application of the revenues may be subsequently modified with the consent of the superior. In diocesan institutes, there is no question of the capacity of the religions; but the bishops generally reserve to themselves the right of approving the more important acts of administration.

The Peculium

Certain goods, for example sums of money, independent of the common stock, and made over to the religions to be used without restriction for their private wants, form what is called the peculium. Only that which is irrevocably put out of the power of the superior is contrary to the vow of poverty; but all peculium is an injury to that common life, which since the earliest times was considered so important by the founders of religious communities. The Holy See constantly uses its efforts to abolish it, and to establish that perfect common life which provides that there shall be in the convent one common treasury for the personal needs of all.

Possession in common

The vow of poverty does not necessarily or as a general rule exclude the capacity to possess in common, that is to say, to have a common stock of property at the common disposal of the possessors, provided that they do not dispose of it in any manner Contrary to the accepted rules and customs. It is a great mistake to argue from the vow of poverty that it is just to deny to religions this real common possession.


I. Historical

BUTLER, The Lausiac History of Palladius (Cambridge, 1899), a critical discussion together with notes on early Egyptian monachism; CARRIÈRE, De iustitia et iure (Louvain, 1845), 195 sqq.; DE BUCK, De sollemnitate votorum, præcipue paupertatis reliqiosæ epistola (Brussels. 1862); LADEUZE, Etude sur le cénobitisme Pakhômien pendant le IVe siècle et la première moitié du Ve (Louvain, 1898); MARTÈNE, Comment, in reg. S. P. Benedicti; SCHIWIETZ, Das oriental. Mönchtum (Mainz, 1904); THOMASSINUS, Vetus et nova eccles. discip., I. iii.

II. Doctrinal

BASTIEN, Directoire canonique à l'usage des congrégations à væux simples (Maredsous, 1911); BATTANDIER, Guide canonique pour les constitutions des sæurs à væux simples (Paris. 1908); BOUIX, Tract. de jure regularium (Paris, 1858); DE LUGO, De iustitia et iure, d. iii, s. 4 sqq.; MOCCHEGGIANI, Jurisprudentia ecclesiastica ad usum et commoditatem utriusgue cleri, I (Quaracchi, 1904); PASSERINI, De hominum statibus, I, In Q. clxxxvi, art. 7, pp. 519 sqq.; PELLIZARIUS, Manuale regularium, tr. IV, c. ii; tr. VI, cc. ix and xiv; PIAT, Prælectiones iuris regularis, I (Tournai, 1898), 239-69; SANCHEZ, In Decalogum, l. VII, especially cc. xviii-xxi; SUAREZ, De religione, tr. VII, l. VIII; ST. THOMAS, II-II, Q. clxxxiv, a. 3; Q. clxxxv, a. 6, ad 1um; Q. clxxxvi, aa. 3 and 7; Q. clxxxviii, a. 7, c.; VERMEERSCH, De religiosis institutis et personis, I (Bruges, 1907), nn. 237 sqq.; II (4th ed., 1910), suppl. vi.

About this page

APA citation. Vermeersch, A. (1911). Poverty. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Vermeersch, Arthur. "Poverty." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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