The history of Church property is considered here according to the following periods: (1) the first three centuries (to 313); (2) the Christian Roman Empire (313–c. 500); (3) the Middle Ages (c. 500–1500); (4) the modern world (c. 1500 to the present).
First Three Centuries (to 313). To maintain its worship and its charitable activities, the Christian Church from its origins acquired, administered, and distributed property. Even before the death of Christ, the Apostles had accepted donations (Lk 8.3) and had kept a common purse (Jn 12.6). Christ Himself had directed His Apostles to be unstinting in their charity (Lk 6.29–30) and told them that they in turn could expect to be supported by those to whom they ministered (Mt 10.10; Lk 10.7). After Pentecost, the first converts in Jerusalem sold their possessions (Acts 2.45), gave the price to the Apostles, and "distribution was made to each according as anyone had need" (Acts 4.34–35). This passage was frequently cited with admiration by later ecclesiastical writers, but the communistic regimen it describes seems in fact to have been limited to the Church in Jerusalem. Christians in Antioch (Acts 11.29) and in the provinces of Galatia (1 Cor 16.1–2), Macedonia (2 Cor 8.1), and Achaia (2 Cor9.2) evidently retained private means, as they were exhorted to be generous in giving help to their impoverished brethren in Jerusalem. The same passages, however, leave no doubt that the obligation to support their own and sister churches rested upon all Christians. Tertullian (Apol. 38), writing in 198, described how Christians often paid to their churches a regular voluntary tax (stipes ) proportionate to their wealth. This stipes was probably analogous to the qorbānîm paid by Jews to their synagogues.
Ecclesiastical possessions initially consisted of movables—the sacred vessels used in worship, the liturgical oblations made by the faithful at the Christian services, and the charitable donations in kind and money to be distributed among the poor. Tertullian mentions an arca, or treasury, in which the community's valuables were kept.
It is uncertain when the churches first acquired real property. Christians seem to have worshipped in private homes and buried their dead in private cemeteries until about 200. In the Life (ch. 49) of Alexander Severus (d.235), attributed to Lampridius and preserved in the Augustan History, a Christian community is mentioned as the collective owner of its place of worship. The edict of Emperor gallienus in 257–258 (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 7.13), ending a persecution of the Christians, stipulated that their cemeteries should be restored to them. In a discussion of Church property from the first half of the 3d century, origen (Patrologia Graeca 13:1696–97) used technical terms—dispensator, or administrator, of real properties, redditus or ground rents—that make it almost certain that churches by then possessed income-producing lands. By the late 3d and early 4th centuries, similar references to ecclesiastical property became clearer and more numerous, leaving no doubt that the churches were landlords even before the conversion of Emperor constantine i.
The precise juridical title by which the often persecuted churches held their properties has long puzzled historians. In 1864 G. B. de rossi ingeniously suggested that the churches enjoyed the status of Roman funeral colleges (collegia tenuiorum ), to which Roman law conceded the capacity to own property. Rossi's thesis has been much criticized, chiefly because the Christian churches greatly differed from the funeral colleges in their internal organization and purpose. Recent research, however, has tended to favor his interpretation. The Roman state, viewing the churches from the outside and having little accurate knowledge of their internal constitution and purposes, may well have considered them analogous to the familiar collegia tenuiorum and, between persecutions, conceded them a right to hold property. It is also likely that ecclesiastical possessions were assimilated to the sacred property, the res sacrae et religiosae of Roman law (Gaius, Inst. 2.2–9), which meant that they could not be alienated or restored to secular purposes.
The Apostles were initially responsible for the administration of ecclesiastical possessions of the Church of Jerusalem, though they appointed seven deacons to relieve them of the burden (Acts 6.1–6). According to later sources, full authority over the possessions of each church fell to its bishop. justin martyr (1 Apol. 67.12), writing about 150, described the "president" or bishop of the community as receiving and distributing the donations of the faithful. St. cyprian (De Lapsis, 6) condemned bishops who used Church property for their private interests. In other words, well before the conversion of Constantine, supreme and unrestricted authority over a church's property rested with its bishop, although his personal possessions were sharply differentiated from those of his church.
The Apostles and the bishops were aided in administering property by the deacons, already mentioned in Acts6.9. The deacons had similar responsibilities according to the didache (a.d. 80–90; 15.1–2) and the writings of ignatius of antioch (a.d. 110–117; Ad Trallesios, 2–3). The 4th-century Legend of St. lawrence, the deacon of the Church of Rome martyred in about 268, recounts how a pagan judge ordered the saint to produce the treasures he, as deacon, was known to possess (he foiled his persecutors by producing the Church's poor). By the 3d century, Origen mentioned a still more specialized officer: the dispensator or oikonomos, responsible for the administration of real property.
Donations and revenues maintained worship, supported Church officials, and aided the poor. St. Paul had insisted upon the right of those who ministered to churches to be supported by them (1 Cor 9.13–14), and widows too were to be maintained by the churches (1 Tm 6.3–18). Justin Martyr (1 Apol. 67) mentions as recipients of aid orphans, captives, travelers, and the poor.
No estimate can be given of the extent of Church property in this early period, but undoubtedly it remained small. Still, the fact that these often persecuted churches were able to acquire and manage property, maintain a budget, and support their religious and charitable services within a hostile social milieu is no small tribute to their dedication, energy, and precocious administrative skill.
Christian Roman Empire (313–c. 500). The socalled Edict of Milan (313) and the official establishment (380) of the Christian Church within the empire affected its property holdings in three ways. Ecclesiastical wealth, particularly in land, grew enormously. The historic patrimony of the Church, functioning as a major factor in economic and social history, must be considered the product of the 4th and 5th centuries. Church property also acquired a clarified, standardized, and privileged juridical status throughout the empire. And the churches themselves developed more specialized and effective administrative offices and techniques in managing their enlarged endowments.
Through the generosity of the Christian emperors and the growing numbers of the faithful, the patrimonies of such ancient and honored churches as rome, alexandria, antioch, carthage, and Milan soon reached prodigious size. The Roman church owned lands and estates scattered over the Mediterranean world from Syria and Egypt to Gaul. On the other hand, churches in such newly Christianized areas as Gaul seem to have possessed only modest holdings. No estimate can yet be made as to the extent of ecclesiastical land. It undoubtedly varied among regions, but it was substantial in its totality.
By the 5th century, the churches were also fully recognized as corporate persons before the law, able to acquire and manage property without impediments or restrictions. Their holdings were also privileged. The emperors of the early 4th century exempted them from the property tax (Codex Theodosianus 16.2.15), from the annona or grain requisition (Codex Theodosianus 11.1.1), and from the obligatory services or corvées known as the munera sordida. These and other privileges, many of which are preserved in Book 16 of the Theodosian Code, served as a precedent and model for the Church's later claims to tax immunities and exemptions.
While the bishop's personal possessions were rigorously distinct from those of his church, he still exercised almost absolute control over his church's holdings. He directly administered all ecclesiastical properties within his diocese and collected all the revenues from them. This almost modern system of financial administration—based upon a unified patrimony, single budget, and salaried clergy within each diocese—reflected the favorable economic conditions of the late empire, notably the still lively commercial exchange and abundance of money.
Although he was the supreme administrator, the bishop was supposed to conform to a growing number of regulations set by councils, emperors, and popes, concerning his use of property. According to the Council of Antioch (ch. 24 and 25; a.d. 332–341), bishops were forbidden to alienate their church's holdings. In a famous decretal of 494, Pope gelasius i (Ep. 14.27) advised the bishops of Lucania to retain one-fourth of their revenues for themselves and to spend one-fourth for the clergy, one-fourth for buildings, and one-fourth for charity (for clerus, cultus, and caritas ). Churches in Gaul and Spain followed slightly different formulas for allocating revenues, these having been defined by the councils of Agde (ch. 36; a.d. 506) and Braga (ch 7; a.d. 563). But churches everywhere devoted a substantial part of their revenues to social and charitable services, in fact, completely relieving the state of responsibility for them. The social service of the churches has been and is one of the major justifications for ecclesiastical wealth.
Administrative offices also developed greatly under the Christian Empire. From the 4th century, the archdeacon assumed the role of the bishop's chief lieutenant in property administration, and he continued to fulfill this function in the Middle Ages. Widely in the East and occasionally in the West, the oikonomos also served as property administrator. Another clerical official, the defensor ecclesiae is mentioned in 452 (Novellae of Valentinian, 35 in Codex Theodosianus ), and such "defenders" were still the chief administrators of the patrimony of the Roman Church under gregory i the Great (590–604); 14 of them are mentioned in his letters. Lay defensores, responsible for defending churches in lawsuits and suggestive of the later medieval advocatus, are cited in 407 (Codex Theodosianus 16.2.38) but disappear after 438; their historical importance is that they represent an early penetration of laymen into the ecclesiastical administration.
The 4th century witnessed also the first protests concerning ecclesiastical wealth. On moral and religious grounds, critics such as lucifer of cagliari were already condemning the luxurious living of many clergymen. The pagan ammianus marcellinus (Rer. gest. 27.3.14) similarly castigated clerical affluence. Even the Christian emperors, faced with mounting fiscal needs, curtailed some of the ecclesiastical tax exemptions in the 5th century (Codex Theodosianus 16.2.40; 5.3.6; Corpus iuris civilis, Codex Iustinianus 1.2.11), though the privileged status of Church property was never fully abrogated. The age of the Christian Roman Empire, in other words, bequeathed to the Middle Ages not only a large and well administered ecclesiastical endowment, but also the tenacious social and moral problems connected with it.
Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500). The patrimony of the churches was profoundly affected by the new economic, social, political, and intellectual conditions of the Middle Ages, and in its turn it greatly influenced the course of medieval history. The decline of commercial exchange and the growing scarcity of money in the early Middle Ages no longer permitted the support of the clergy of each diocese through salaries paid by the bishop. Just as lay lords had to maintain their dependents through direct grants of land (fiefs), so the bishops from at least the early 6th century were distributing from their formerly unified patrimonies grants of land, called beneficia or precaria. The recipient of a benefice enjoyed the usufruct, or income, from the property granted him; but he could not alienate it, and with his death it was supposed to revert to the bishop. The ecclesiastical patrimony also was divided through the need to establish and support rural churches as Christianity, originally urban, spread through the countryside. From about the 4th century in Italy and from the 5th in Africa, Gaul, and Spain, local churches were acquiring and holding their separate patrimonies. Like the benefice, the endowments of local churches remained under the bishop's supreme, if often remote, supervision.
From the 5th century too, monasteries held their own separate endowment. From the 7th century on, many of the great monasteries were able to obtain from kings, emperors, popes, and the bishops themselves partial or complete exemptions from episcopal supervision. From the 9th century, even the bishop's own cathedral clergy acquired a distinct endowment. The portion of the church's lands set aside for the support of the chapter was called a mensa, or table. The canons might keep it integral, living a common life by the income it provided; or they might divide it among themselves as separate prebends or livings. Exactly comparable to this separate table, and likewise dating from the early 9th century, were the portions, similarly called mensae, set aside from monastic patrimonies for the support of the monks (as distinct from the abbot). Similarly too, the monks might keep their mensa unified. But by the late Middle Ages the practice developed of providing separate livings for the great monastic officers (the obedientiaries) and even for the monks themselves. This clearly abusive practice was hard to reconcile with the Benedictine ideal of individual poverty.
Feudalism. An even more serious threat to episcopal authority was the extension, in the early Middle Ages, of the proprietary church. This was a church owned by a layman (frequently its founder), who exercised a quasiepiscopal authority over it. He supervised and managed its endowment, appointed the priest who served in it, and often collected fees for the spiritual services performed. The proprietary or private church was once thought to be a specifically Germanic institution, but it is now recognized as common to Latins, Germans, and even Greeks, and is peculiarly a product of the economic and juridical conditions of the early Middle Ages.
The development of the tenurial system of feudalism also confused ecclesiastical and lay property and often subordinated churches to laymen or lay interests. Bishops were inevitably drawn into the feudal hierarchy; they gave and received fiefs to such an extent that historians sometimes speak of a "feudalization" of the Church and its endowment in the early Middle Ages. Laymen also came to exercise extraordinary authority in the administration of supposedly ecclesiastical property. The lay advocatus or avoué, for example, of the Carolingian Age, acted as a kind of policeman upon ecclesiastical estates, defended the churches in lawsuits with outsiders, and often claimed exorbitant payments for his services.
Because so much of the ecclesiastical revenue was diverted to laymen, it is difficult to calculate exactly the extent of Church property in the Middle Ages, although a rough estimate can be made. In the age of the barbarian kingdoms (6th and 7th centuries), the churches and monasteries effectively owned—in the sense of claiming the major portion of rents—about 10 percent of the land, and exercised a shadowy lordship over considerably more. Under the Carolingian rulers, Church property seems to have grown considerably, reaching 33 percent, probably its peak, by the late 9th century. The chaos of the 10th century was accompanied by extensive pillaging of the Church's property, reducing it by the early 11th century to about 20 percent. The great religious revival of the 11th century, which climaxed in the gregorian reform, effected a partial recovery, raising the percentage to about a quarter of Europe's cultivated lands. From the mid-12th century, the portion of ecclesiastical property became largely stabilized and even slightly declined, reflecting growing lay opposition to its continued growth and, perhaps, a cooling of ardor among the faithful. In the later Middle Ages, after the black death (1348), the increase of lay piety brought another increase, but hospitals and confraternities (many of which remained under effective lay control), rather than churches or monasteries, benefited.
Successes and Failures. The history of ecclesiastical property is intimately connected with both the successes and failures of the medieval Church. Ecclesiastical estates made a major contribution to the economic growth of Europe, particularly in the early Middle Ages. In a barbarous and socially chaotic period, ecclesiastical managers were literate, disciplined, relatively enlightened, and able to take advantage of the administrative continuity and enlarged resources that community ownership made possible. Monks such as the cistercians were the great practitioners of farming in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, these same characteristics of ecclesiastical management—discipline, conservatism, rigidity, and engagement with other concerns—were to prove obstructive to economic progress in the more stable society and buoyant economy of later periods. Meanwhile, monasteries served as early centers of credit in the countryside, and the military-religious order of the templars, founded in the course of the crusades, was a pioneer in banking. The history of medieval banking and taxation is, in fact, inextricable from the history of ecclesiastical finance. Moreover, the Church's rich endowment alone provided for the medieval community its hospitals, orphanages, and social services. And it can never be forgotten that ecclesiastical wealth made possible those magnificent achievements of medieval culture—the cathedrals, universities, and systems of thought they engendered.
But ecclesiastical wealth also cast shadows over the moral and spiritual life of the medieval Church. There was acute maldistribution of ecclesiastical revenues; inadequate support for the lower clergy led many of them to exploit their sacramental powers for material profit; extravagant revenues went to the great prelates and abbots; and there was a growing institutional paralysis in correcting the imbalance. The splintering of the ecclesiastical endowment and the erosion of episcopal authority introduced chaos into property administration. Up to the 11th century, lay owners of private churches and lay overlords and vassals were chiefly responsible for diverting the revenues from the priests who served the people to other uses. The Gregorian Reform of the 11th century sought with no little success to free the Church from this pernicious lay domination. Meanwhile, the private churches themselves survived. Many were acquired and retained by monasteries, which monopolized their revenues and appointed miserably paid vicars to serve in them. Laymen often retained rights of advowson or presentation over parochial churches, assuring them of a strong and not always beneficent influence over clerical appointments. Furthermore, by the late Middle Ages the practice was widespread of delivering monasteries and abbeys to laymen in commendam; the laymen were supposed to protect the interests of the commended institutions, but they often ruined them. The increase in the number of commended abbeys seemed a resuscitation of the private church, and the familiar evils associated with this were resuscitated too (see commendation).
While the Gregorian Reform curtailed without entirely eliminating direct lay control over the Church, episcopal supervision continued to be obstructed and ecclesiastical discipline threatened by the unrestrained growth of exempt monasteries, chantries, collegiate churches, and hospitals. Since the bishop was unable and often unwilling to maintain discipline, such characteristic abuses as pluralism (the simultaneous holding of several benefices) and absenteeism proliferated; income was thereby diverted from the support of the people's ministers to those who contributed nothing to their spiritual welfare.
Unfortunately, the growth of papal taxation must be recognized as a major factor in this breakdown of clerical discipline. To be sure, the medieval papacy was slow to emerge as a financial power, and the amount of its revenues has often been grossly exaggerated. As late as the 12th century, papal income from all over Europe seems to have amounted to a paltry 810 silver marks, whereas at the same time, Normandy and England together provided their common ruler 85,000 marks. Papal revenues on the eve of the Reformation amounted to only 450,000 ducats—well below the contemporary income of the Kingdom of Naples.
The Holy See, which assumed primary responsibility for financing the crusading movement while simultaneously pursuing a great-power policy in Europe, was for most of the Middle Ages severely strapped for funds. But rather than curtail its aspirations, it took to exploiting its spiritual authority for fiscal ends. The age of papal fiscalism was the period of the avignon papacy (1305–77). and its greatest architect was Pope john xxii (1316–34). Papal taxation developed with extraordinary rapidity and complexity. The popes imposed a variety of claims whenever a benefice changed hands: the spolia or the inheritances of bishops who died intestate; vacancies or revenues from unoccupied benefices; annates or common services, from one third to one half of the first year's revenue of a benefice; expectancies or fees paid for appointment to benefices not yet vacant. Exemptions and dispensations from canonical obligations, chancery fees, tithes, and traffic in indulgences were exploited in unseemly fashion for revenue. Many of these claims the Holy See had to dispute or share with bishops and even kings, and given the difficulties of collection, only a small portion of the revenues ever reached Rome. But the mounting fiscalism weighed heavily upon the lower clergy, angered laymen who resented the flow of bullion to Rome, promoted an often virulent anti-clericalism, undermined episcopal authority, and disrupted ecclesiastical discipline.
The Critics. With growing abuses came growing criticisms. Such thoroughly orthodox writers as peter damian in the 11th century, bernard of clairvaux and peter cantor in the 12th century, dominic in the 13th century and alvaro pelayo in the 14th century were unsparing in their denunciations of lax clerical morality associated with excessive clerical wealth. In the tradition of secular letters, the goliards and other satirists of the 12th century, later humanists such as erasmus, pilloried the fiscal interests and devices of the Roman Curia. Ominously, ecclesiastical wealth attracted the violent strictures of heretics: the albigenses, waldenses, Franciscan spirituals, lollards, and hussites. John wyclif (d. 1384) categorically denied the Church's right to own property and called for the lay magistracy to secularize ecclesiastical holdings and reform the Church. His ideas anticipated by 150 years the essential program of the reformation.
Ominously too, the ever more powerful secular states of the late Middle Ages encroached upon Church property. The effort of philip iv to tax the clergy of France led directly to his famous dispute with Pope boniface viii and the papal humiliation at Anagni (1303). By the late Middle Ages most of the powerful kings of Europe were able to extract "free gifts" from their clergy almost at will, to limit papal taxation within their frontiers, and to inhibit the export of specie to Rome. The popes had little choice but to enter into concordats with the lay rulers, as with Francis I of France in 1516, and thus concede to the lay lords a practical supremacy over their territorial churches (see gallicanism). The Reformation, in its attack on ecclesiastical property and undermining of Church unity, only brought to a climax trends that had long been in evidence.
Modern World (c. 1500 to the Present). The history of Church property in the modern age is largely the account of a radical transformation in the Church's financial basis and fiscal administration. Much of this story concerns the progressive secularization of church property by the Protestant princes, enlightened despots, French revolutionists, and liberals of the 19th century. The Church itself, in the counter reformation, attempted to correct the abuses and institutional paralysis that had bred such disasters. The common effort of the reforming popes of the 16th century, of the Council of trent, and of such model bishops as St. Charles borromeo of Milan was to restore the bishops' disciplinary authority over churches, religious institutions, and clerics within his diocese, and thus to correct the longstanding misuse of Church revenues. This aspect of the Catholic reformation enjoyed real success, but neither the reforming popes nor the Council of Trent was able to limit the baneful influence that the Catholic princes exerted over their territorial churches (see josephinism; church and state). By the 18th century, maldistribution of revenues, inadequate support of the lower clergy, a careerist and spiritually lukewarm upper clergy—the classical syndrome of abuses—had come again to disfigure the churches of the old regime and to invite the condemnations and secularizations of the revolutionary period.
The collapse of the old regime in the revolutionary and liberal epochs, the gradual emancipation of the churches from the tutelage of princes, even the secularization of their historic patrimonies, proved in many ways an unexpected blessing. The churches had to seek out a new basis for their economic support, and more and more the continuing donations of the faithful, rather than property, rents, or obligatory tithes, have provided it. The Church in the United States probably provides the best example of the new fiscal basis of ecclesiastical life. The yearly budgets of some American dioceses, with gigantic educational and charitable as well as religious activities to support, run to tens of millions of dollars. While no exact figures are available, only a minute part of these huge operating revenues comes from rents or investments. The American churches have, to be sure, acquired large physical possessions in buildings and land, but little additional revenue is provided by them. The Church in America could not live without the weekly freewill offerings of the faithful. It is not an exaggeration to say that the fiscal basis of the modern American Church, dependent as it is upon the continuing and free donations from the faithful, more nearly resembles that of the pre-Constantinian Church than that of the Middle Ages. That the Church should have become a great landlord in the medieval past is understandable. A bastion of organized social life in a tumultuous age, it had little choice but to assume the responsibilities of property management. Its stewardship was on the whole good, and civilization was served by it, but the role caused frequent and deep injury to its spiritual life. The modern Church, on the other hand, must rely for its support primarily upon the free donations, the good will, and the love of its members, and this has proved a liberation.
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