A Question of Poverty

One of my readers asked a very interesting question:

“…could a titled and wealthy aristocrat become a Catholic priest, then a Monsignor, then a Cardinal? Isn’t the vow of poverty supposed to govern?”

This is indeed a very interesting  question that delves into the curlicues of tradition, custom, practice, canon law, etc. of the Catholic Church. I post the answer separately here, instead of just a reply to the comment because it is, well… a long answer.

The simple answer to this question is: yes, a wealthy and titled person can become a priest in the Catholic Church and certainly can rise in the ranks to monsignor and to cardinal; as a matter of fact, he could become pope.

That is the simple answer; as is the case with a any 2000-year-old institution, things are more complex than that.

Historically, there is pleanty of precedence to wealthy and titled clergy, a quick example would be the Medicis of Florence, a family that not only had cardinals and popes, but actually considered it necessary, politically and strategically, to have members of its family high in the Church hierarchy. Please note that it did not involve, in most cases, becoming a simple priest or joining an institution of consecrated life (or as it is sometimes called, a religious or monastic order, i.e.  the Franciscans, Dominicans, etc), the former being a position of no power reserved for the sons of poor families, the latter expressly requiring a vow of poverty.  Nowadays, secular and political dynamics, a shift of where power resides and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council make  it quite rare that  a person of wealth or title would choose the path of the priesthood for the old reasons of power, politics and strategies. It would be (or should be), these days, out of a  strong religious inclination and devotion to the Catholic Church.

Now to the ‘legal’ heart of property ownership and aristocratic titles in the Church. The Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law  does not prohibit a person of wealth and title to enter the priesthood (ordination). Article 3 of the Code of Canon Law, Irregularities and Other Impediments, Canon 1040-49, does not list the ownership of property or possession of aristocratic title as an ‘impediment’. As a matter of fact,  canons that address the administration of property (church property), infer the right to private property and freedom to dispose of it.

Now having said that, the rules of property and title ownership as a priest depend on whether one becomes what is known as a ‘secular’ priest (saeculum, or of the world, also known as ‘ordinary clergy), or  is ordained within an institution of consecrated life (these priests are known as the ‘regular’ clergy), such as a monastic order (Franciscan, Benedictines, Dominicans, etc.) that have expressed and specific vows of poverty (in addition to chastity and obedience)  requiring physical renunciation of worldly goods—wealth, titles, etc.   Again, there is no prohibition of a wealthy or titled man/woman to enter such an institution, however they are required to renounce and dispose of that wealth as a condition of entering the institution. A secular priest–which  is the case of the protagonist of The Wolves of Pavlava, Thomas of Invernam–does not take specific vows of poverty and can retain his wealth and title.

Here is perhaps a better explanation, if not simplistic, of the secular priesthood and property, from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“In the language of religious the world (sæculum) is opposed to the cloister; religious who follow a rule, especially those who have been ordained, form the regular clergy, while those who live in the world are called the secular clergy. Hence the expression so frequently used in canonical texts: “uterque clerus”, both secular and regular clergy. The secular cleric makes no profession and follows no religious rule, he possesses his own property like laymen, he owes to his bishop canonical obedience, not the renunciation of his own will, which results from the religious vow of obedience; only the practice of celibacy in Holy Orders is identical with the vow of chastity of the religious. The secular clergy, in which the hierarchy essentially resides, always takes precedence of the regular clergy of equal rank; the latter is not essential to the Church nor can it subsist by itself, being dependent on bishops for ordination. (See CLERIC; REGULARS.) (Quote from New Advent, Editor Kevin Knight; Source: du Cange, Glossarium, s.vv. Saeculum; Clericus)

I am not going to go into the details of being a priest in a parish that is part of a diocese under the governance of a bishop/archbishop and incardination. It suffices to say that there’s also a difference between such a priest and one who is part of the Holy See administration (the Curia), where title and wealth take another dimension. I would just note that someone of Invernam’s family and means would not become a parish priest, and that his place in the hierarchy of the Church is where someone like him would aim for (and very likely end up).

As an aside, there is something of a parallel to the concept of ‘secular’ and ‘regular’ clergy in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the person of  Titus Galata in the novel. In the Eastern Orthodox Church we find the ‘black’ clergy–the clerics who are part of a monastic order and do not marry (it is only from their ranks that bishops, patriarchs, etc. are drawn); and the ‘white’ priesthood–priests who are allowed to marry,  but who are limitted to being parish priests and cannot rise in the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church.

A long answer, that generates more questions and answers, then raise more questions—we get here into an infinite fractal condition. But quite frankly, this is the type of question I love to answer.

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