Secularization of Church Property

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The term secularization refers to the seizure by laymen or by the state of all or part of the permanent endowment of ecclesiastical institutions. The word was apparently first used in this sense in the negotiations concerning the Peace of westphalia (1648), though such confiscations formed a major part of the history of Church property since the early Middle Ages. This article will consider secularizations in three major phases: (1) the Church in the Roman Empire (to c. 500); (2) the Middle Ages (c. 500 to c. 1500); (3) the modern world (c. 1500 to the present).

The Church in the Roman Empire. From c. 200, the Christian churches acquired both an endowment in real property and a recognized juridical capacity to hold it (see church property). As all landlords, they therefore enjoyed the technical right of disposing of it or alienating it as they wished. However, Canon Law early imposed severe restrictions upon the alienation of property once given to a church. The roots of this canonical opposition were several. Roman law itself had distinguished sharply between profane and sacred property. The possessions of the gods or their temples were considered sanctified by their religious function and were not to be restored to secular purposes (Gaius, Inst. 2.22.9). Christian tradition also maintained a strict distinction between profane and sacred property, which Christ's treatment of the money changers in the temple had amply sanctioned (Mt 21.12). Moreover, the possessions of the churches were from earliest times considered the patrimony of the poor; the bishops and their subordinate officials, while exercising administrative control over the endowment, were in no sense its true owners and were strictly accountable before God for their stewardship. Alienating Church property for anything less than the most grave causes was equated with robbery of the poor. Furthermore, responsibility to the donors, through whose pious generosity the endowment of the churches grew, helped establish this principle of inalienability. The donors had made over their property with the expressed or implied understanding that it would help support the Church's work of intercession, for their own souls and the souls of all Christians. To turn it to other uses seemed to mean the silencing of a prayer and the betrayal of a trust.

Grave distrust of alienations was thus ingrained in the moral sense of the early churches, though not until the 4th century did the first explicit prohibitions appear. The earliest of them was the 15th canon of the Council of Ancyra (314), which forbade alienations of Church property during vacancies of the episcopal see. The Council of Antioch (332 to 341) gave the provincial synod of bishops the right to judge a bishop accused of appropriating Church property for his private interests. In 447 Pope leo i (Ep. 17) forbade the bishops of Sicily to alienate property, except for the good of their churches and with the consent of the clergy. In 502 Pope Symmachus applied a like prohibition to the Church in Rome. In Gaul the Council of Agde (506) required for alienations the consent of at least three neighboring bishops, and other Gallican councils in 517 and 533 insisted that the agreement of the metropolitan or of the provincial synod of bishops were to be first obtained.

The question of alienations was abundantly treated also in the constitutions of the Christian emperors. In 470 Emperor Leo I forbade all alienations of the properties of the church of Constantinople (Corpus iuris civilis, Digesta, ed. T. Mommsen and P. Krueger, 1.2.14). In a constitution dated between 491 and 517, Emperor Anastasius extended the prohibition to all churches in the patriarchate of Constantinople, but allowed alienations for reasonable causes (ibid. Justinian forbade alienations throughout the empire (ibid. 1.2.24; Corpus iuris civilis, Novellae, ed. R. Schoell and G. Kroll, 7, a.d. 535). He did, however, permit them for the sake of paying debts and tax arrears (Nov 46, a.d. 537), for the church's evident utility (Nov 40, a.d. 536) and for charitable purposes such as the redemption of captives and the alleviation of famine (Nov 7, a.d. 535).

The repeated prohibitions show that loss of Church property through episcopal malfeasance must have been a fairly common phenomenon. St. cyprian (De lapsis 6) had already castigated bishops who used their churches' holdings in their private interest. The Canons of the Apostles (see apostolic constitutions), reflecting conditions in the Eastern churches in the late 4th century, had to prohibit bishops from turning over Church property to their poor relatives. As stated in a Roman synod of 499, even candidates for the papal see had been known to cultivate support for their candidacy through promises of Church property. The chief abuse seems not to have been outright alienations but the granting of ecclesiastical property under easy leases (perpetual emphyteusis, beneficium, precarium, ius colonarium ). Laymen thereby acquired the use of and profit from the land, while the Church retained a distant and shadowy ownership over it. But in an increasingly tumultuous period, that ownership was easily forgotten.

It is, however, impossible to evaluate precisely the extent of these private secularizations. While common, they evidently did not prevent the churches from building up, in the period of the late empire, a rich patrimony, which, in subsequent centuries, attracted the greed not only of private individuals but of the state itself.

Middle Ages. The first extensive secularizations of Church property by the state occurred almost simultaneously in the Eastern and Western churches in the 8th century.

Byzantium. In the Byzantine Empire, the controversy over iconoclasm, precipitated by the banning of images in the churches by Emperor leo iii in 727, included an attack upon the extensive land holdings of the Greek monasteries. The reign of Leo's successor, constantine v Copronymos (741 to 775), was marked by open persecution of the monks, the suppression of many monasteries, and the confiscation of their properties. The monasteries were great centers of image worship, and the strong iconoclastic convictions of the Isaurian emperors partially explain these persecutions and suppressions. But the emperors were attempting also to reorganize and strengthen the Byzantine state and army. Monastic wealth, for them as for many later rulers, offered a rich and easily appropriated resource for the fulfillment of their policies.

The West. In the Latin West, charles martel, the great Frankish mayor of the palace, initiated a similar policy of secularization in the interest of military reorganization. Threatened by the Arabs from beyond the Pyrenees, apparently engaged in changing the basis of the Frankish army from foot soldiers to cavalry, and needing estates to support the mounted fighters, Charles found the land of the churches essential for his task. Much obscurity surrounds this earliest Western example of extensive state secularizations. No contemporary writer refers to it. The oldest referenceand even this is doubtfuldates from shortly after Charles's death, in an interpolation preserved in the letters of St. boniface and probably attributable to the English Bishop egbert of york. Charles's reputation as a secularizer was not really established until the publication by hincmar of reims in 858 of the "Dream of Saint Eucherius." eucherius, Bishop of Orléans, reputedly saw in a vision Charles's body devoured by a dragon because he had dispersed the lands of the churches.

With few and late sources, it is difficult to fix the responsibility of Charles Martel in initiating or pursuing these secularizations. But there is no doubt that both Charles and his successors in the Carolingian line pursued fiscal policies that resulted in whole or partial secularizations of Church property. Their motivation was, to be sure, exclusively financial. There is no suggestion, as in later attacks upon Church property, of opposition to ecclesiastical wealth on moral or doctrinal grounds.

The Carolingians. Secularizations took three principal forms under the Carolingian rulers. The crudest was the appointing of laymen as administrators over vacant dioceses or as lay abbots over monasteries. This recourse enabled the Frankish mayors and kings to support their retainers without technically secularizing the ecclesiastical endowment. So widespread did this practice become that by the early 9th century churches and monasteries had to set aside special portions of their revenues, called mensae, for the support of the clergy and monks. The Frankish rulers also forced bishops or abbots to grant land under favorable terms to laymen. This benefice (precarium ) "by order of the king" (precarium verbo regis ) again diverted ecclesiastical revenues to the support of lay ministers or fighters, without technically secularizing Church lands. Finally, the Carolingians imposed heavy military levies and taxes upon ecclesiastical and particularly upon monastic estates. Even the "immunities" that the Frankish rulers granted liberally to churches and monasteries involved no true exemption from fiscal burdens, but only the privilege of themselves arranging for tax collections and recruitment.

Carolingian policy toward Church properties seems only rarely to have involved outright confiscations. The Carolingians preferred to use the administrative skill of the churches in managing the large estates. With royal favor, Church property seems even to have grown considerably after Charles Martel, constituting about a third of the cultivated land under his Grandson charlemagne. But the Carolingians did divert a substantial portion of the ecclesiastical revenues to the support of their army, while usually leaving title to the land and even the administrative responsibility for it to the churches. This shrewd exploitation of ecclesiastical wealth, utilizing the skills as well as the lands of churchmen, undoubtedly helped make possible the Empire's impressive expansion and considerable military success.

Post-Carolingian Period. In the late 9th and the 10th century, the renewed invasions by Northmen, Saracens, and Magyars and incessant internal strife led to the disintegration of the Carolingian state. The prevailing chaos also made possible a massive attack upon the ecclesiastical endowment that one historian (A. Pöschl) called "the great secularizations." The chief culprits were initially the feudal magnates. Lords such as Arnulf of Bavaria (d.937) seized the monastic lands for the support of their knights, and all over Europe the need and greed of the undisciplined petty nobility took a toll from the largely undefended churches. The emergence in Germany of a more effective state under the Saxon (919 to 1024) and Salian (1024 to 1125) kings and emperors helped curtail the more flagrant robberies. But the revived Empire itself, as the Carolingian state before it, still relied greatly upon the income from Church lands for the support of its administration and army.

This pillaging of the ecclesiastical endowment and diversion of ecclesiastical revenues to secular ends directly contributed to the spread of moral and spiritual abuses in the 10th-century Church. Deprived of adequate means of support, clerics were sorely tempted to use their spiritual powers for material profit. simony, rather than representing an occasional moral failing among the 10th-century clergy, seems to have served for many of them as an essential means of support. Understandably, the gregorian reform of the 11th century sought with some success to reconstitute the ecclesiastical endowment, and councils and popes from that time on tried energetically to defend it from all further encroachments. Thus, in 1123 the First lateran council, first of the ecumenical councils to be held in the West, reiterated the traditional condemnation of alienations (ch. 22) and prohibited all lay control of ecclesiastical appointments (ch.18). In 1139 the Second Lateran Council forbade lay ownership of churches, altars, or tithes. In a strong reaffirmation of the Church's claim to tax immunity, the Third Lateran Council in 1179 permitted taxation of Church property only with the consent of the bishop and clergy. In 1274 at Lyons, Pope Gregory IX required papal approval for alienations, and in 1296 in the bull clericislaicos Boniface VIII allowed taxation of the clergy only with papal approval.

Later Middle Ages. From the 12th century to the end of the Middle Ages, the Church remained strong enough to protect its endowment against major losses. However, the same period was marked also by the appearance of the first extensive attacks upon the Church's right to hold property. In the 12th century, the albigenses, walden-ses, and other heretics violently condemned ecclesiastical wealth and called for a return to the apostolic poverty of the first Christians (see poverty movement). At the same time, satirists such as giraldus cambrensis and walter map were ridiculing the alleged avarice and high living of the monks and the fiscal machinations of the Roman Curia. The chorus of criticism was swelled in the 13th century by the protracted debate concerning the Franciscan rule and the degree of poverty imposed by it (see poverty controversy). Radical segments of the Franciscan community, the zelanti and the Franciscan spirituals, castigated propertied monks and friars and declared absolute poverty to be the sine qua non of true spiritual living.

In the 14th century, three great rebels against the medieval ecclesiastical order william of ockham, marsilius of padua, and John wyclifgave these criticisms their most systematic and forceful expression. Starting from quite different premises, all three agreed in conceding to the state supreme dominion over Church property. In his Defensor Pacis (1324), Marsilius declared that Church property not needed for worships, for the support of the clergy, or for the helpless poor could be used by the "human legislator," or state, for the common welfare and defense. John Wyclif (d. 1384) was considerably more radical. Advancing the theory that grace alone conveyed rights of dominion and of ownership, Wyclif categorically denied to the papacy, monks, friars, and other "sects" as he called them, any claim to power or property. The lay magistrate was God's vicegerent and alone could exercise true dominion. Moreover, the lay magistrate had the positive responsibility of supervising the Church, assuming control over its endowment, and correcting the terrible abuses that the sects were perpetrating.

Some few efforts were made in the late Middle Ages to realize these proposals. In 1371 the English parliament heard with some sympathy the proposition that the Church's property could be legitimately used for the defense of the kingdom, but it avoided direct secularizations. In 1376 the commune of Florence, then at war with the papacy, actually set about confiscating and selling Church property to finance the war, but with the restoration of peace they abandoned the policy. There were also a few suppressions of poor or decayed religious houses, and the transference of their endowment to other, stronger houses or to new establishments such as university colleges. Such suppressions were permitted by Canon Law, and flagrant violations were avoided. The relative stability of the ecclesiastical endowment in the later Middle Ages stands in surprising contrast to the frequent and extreme theoretical attacks upon it. Virtually all the criticisms, policies, and proposals that the Protestant reformers advanced in regard to Church property had been anticipated by the rebellious thinkers of the closing Middle Ages.

Modern World. Confiscations of ecclesiastical property accompanied the Protestant reformation from its origins. luther himself, in his To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), denied all temporal dominion to the priesthood, denounced the fiscal abuses of the Roman Curia, and impassionately summoned emperor and nobles to protect the German people from Roman extortions. The theme was taken up with singular violence by Ulrich von Hutten and helped inspire the Knights' War of 1522, a direct, though ultimately unsuccessful, attack by the impoverished knights of the middle Rhine upon the ecclesiastical principalities. Denials of the Church's right to property were implicit also in the radical social movements of the early Reformation, the peasants' war (1524 to 1525) and the anabaptist revolt at Münster (1534 to 1535).

Reformation. Meanwhile, the Protestant reformers and princes were proceeding to a more systematic and permanent spoliation of the older churches and monasteries. In 1523 the town of Leisnig, on Luther's advice, required that all ecclesiastical possessions be joined together in a "common chest" to be administered by an elected board of ten laymen. Zurich, under zwingli's influence, dissolved all religious houses and directed that their properties be given over to the support of education and the relief of the poor (Dec. 5, 1524). In 1523 and 1524, numerous German towns (Frankfurt am Main, Schwäbisch-Hall, Magdeburg, Ulm, Strassburg, Bremen, Nünberg) took similar measures.

The princes quickly followed. In 1525 albrecht of brandenburg-ansbach, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, renounced his vows, secularized the order's extensive territories in East Prussia, delivered them to King Sigismund I of Poland, and received them back as a hereditary fief. By the late 1520s, most German Protestant princes within the Empire were adopting policies characterized by the entire suppression of religious orders and confiscation of their lands, the secularization also of episcopal properties considered superfluous, and the imposition of a strict lay supervision over the remaining endowment of the Church.

Against this mounting flood, the Catholics were able to take little effective action. At the Peace of augsburg (1555), Emperor charles v implicitly recognized all secularizations accomplished before the earlier Peace of Passau (1552). He also included in the treaty, over Protestant objections, the provision that if any Catholic priest after 1552 abandoned the old religion, he must also give up all benefices or territories he may have held by virtue of his ecclesiastical office. This was the famous "ecclesiastical reservation." It became almost at once a source of friction between the Catholic and Protestant parties within the Empire and was a major issue in that climactic event of the German Reformation, the thirty years' war (1618 to 1648). The Treaty of Westphalia that closed the war sanctioned all secularizations up to Jan. 1, 1624, but reaffirmed the ecclesiastical reservation for all later apostasies from the old faith.

Outside the Empire, in Denmark, Frederick I (1523 to 1533) permitted nobles to reclaim property given by their ancestors to the churches, and under his successor, Christian III (1534 to 1558), the work of secularization was carried to completion. In Sweden, the Riksdag (Diet) of Västeras (1527) decreed that the "surplus revenues" of the bishops, chapters, and monasteries should be transferred to the crown, and that the nobles could reclaim all land given to religious houses since 1454. In England, even before the formal break with Rome (1534), Cardinal wolsey, the minister of henry viii, between 1524 and his fall in 1529 secured the canonical suppression of 29 religious houses. Henry, after breaking with Rome, embarked on the suppression of all the English monasteries (1535 to 1539). In 1535 "visitors" were appointed to investigate the monastic houses of England, and they claimed to have discovered rampant vice. In 1536 smaller houses with annual net income of less than £200 were dissolved, and in 1538 and 1539 the larger houses were similarly suppressed. The former monks were given small pensions and the properties sold for benefit of the royal treasury. This secularization proved final. Even during the Catholic restoration under mary tudor, no effort was made to recover the monastic properties. In the bull Praeclara (June 20, 1555), Pope Julius III allowed the purchasers of the formerly monastic lands to retain them in peace. [see reformation, protestant (in the britishisles)].

The Protestants, however, were not alone in associating religious reform and secularizations. In 1537 a commission of nine high ecclesiastics, including four cardinals, presented a report to Pope Paul III, the Consilium de emendanda ecclesia, which proposed a quite radical program of reforms, including the suppression of all houses of the conventual friars. Even in Russia, a group of reformers known as the Trans-Volga elders and led by Nil Sorsky tried to persuade Tsar Ivan III (1462 to 1505) to secularize Church lands. Ivan did secularize the monastic lands of the territory of Novgorod, which he had conquered in 1478, but he left Church lands elsewhere in Russia intact.

The Enlightenment. In Catholic countries, attacks upon Church property gained momentum during the age of absolutism and then of enlightened despotism (c. 1648 to 1789). The high notions of royal power characteristic of the absolutist age freely conceded to the king ultimate dominion over Church property, and in this the defenders of the "Gallican liberties" of the French church concurred (see gallicanism). louis xiv (1643 to 1715) intervened at will in Church affairs, dominated appointments, and diverted revenues; his finance minister, J. B. Colbert, seems to have contemplated a systematic secularization. By the 18th century, the progress of the enlightenment and of physiocratic and liberal economic thought associated with it engendered a new wave of criticism of Church property and new demands for its confiscation. The principle of mortmain (the inalienability of Church property) was anathema to the liberal economists, since it prevented the reorganization of agricultural production in the interest of greater efficiency and in response to the forces of a free market.

Imbued by such liberal ideas, the enlightened despots of the 18th century initiated policies of systematic expropriations. In Austria, Emperor joseph ii set out in 1782 to suppress monasteries and by 1786 had dissolved no fewer than 783 of them; his brother Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1765 to 1790), pursued a similar program of josephinism. Polish monastic properties were confiscated as a result of the second and third partitions (1793 and 1795). In 1764 catherine ii the Great secularized the monastic lands of Russia. A major victim of these enlightened secularizations was the Jesuit Order. In connection with its missionary activities, the order had achieved some commercial prominence in the colonial trade and reputedly owned secret caches of great wealth. The jesuits were expelled from Portugal in 1759, from France in 1762, and from Spain in 1767; and their property, which proved disappointingly small, was seized. In 1773 in the brief Dominus ac redemptor noster, clement xiv sanctioned these highhanded policies and suppressed the order in the entire Church.

Revolution and Aftermath. The french revolution added new force to this policy of secularization. The National Constituent Assembly on Nov. 2, 1789, declared that all Church property belonged to the nation. In the Concordat of 1801 with napoleon i, pius vii had no choice but implicitly to accept the loss. The advance of the Revolutionary armies spread this policy of secularization to other European areas. In the Empire, the treaty of Lunéville (1801) gave the left bank of the Rhine to France, but the dispossessed German nobles were to be compensated by the ecclesiastical principalities on the Rhine's right bank. In 1803 the recess of the Diet of Regensburg secularized the lands of four archbishoprics (Mainz, Trier, Cologne, and Salzburg) and 18 bishoprics; and 16 Catholic universities, numerous collegiate churches, and abbeys were suppressed. Much of the surviving endowment of Lutheran churches was also taken. This spoliation again proved permanent. The Congress of Vienna (1814 to 1815) took no action to restore the ecclesiastical principalities or to compensate the dispossessed churchmen.

The coming of peace and the restoration of the old ruling houses in Europe brought only a short-lived pause in the attack upon ecclesiastical property. After 1830 the more liberal regimes, particularly in Latin Europe, were again closing down monasteries and taking their lands: Spain (1835 to 1837), Portugal in 1833, Switzerland in 1834 and 1841. The kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia suppressed religious corporations in 1855. Newly unified Italy similarly suppressed religious houses in 1866 and seized and sold all Church lands in 1867. In 1870 Rome itself was taken. The French Third Republic, in its passionate crusade against clericalism, suppressed all unauthorized religious corporations in 1901 and in 1905 vested control of Church lands in congregational assemblies (associations cultuelles ). The Communist Revolution in Russia (1917) resulted in a complete confiscation of Church property.

After World War I, however, this attack upon the Church and its property abated considerably in most areas of Europe, reflecting new and more favorable attitudes towards religion and the successful diplomacy of pius xi. Pius was able to secure the reestablishment of religious orders and freedom for the churches to acquire and administer property through numerous treaties, concordats, and agreements: with Italy, 1929; the Third Reich, 1933; Latvia, 1922; Poland, 1925; Romania, 1927; Lithuania, 1927; Czechoslovakia, 1928; and Portugal, 1928. These agreements helped stabilize relations between church and state and bring a new and welcome era of relative peace. But the Church still had to suffer renewed depredations under the many Communist regimes established after World War II.

Conclusion. Perhaps the most striking feature of the history of secularizations since the Middle Ages is the continuity of this policy under regimes of such contrasting political coloration. Protestant, absolutistic, liberal, and Communist governments have all feasted upon the spoils of the ecclesiastical endowment. It might of course be argued, although with some cynicism, that fiscal need and greed, rather than any considerations of political philosophy, social welfare, or religions reform, have been the principal reason for confiscations. Certainly Church property many times has offered to hard-pressed regimes a fiscal resource through which the government could be strengthened and the loyalty of subjects purchased. But these secularizations must also be considered a reflection of the low moral prestige of the Church over much of the modern period, which allowed many persons to believe that its spoliation was an act of progress. The ultimate justification for, and the ultimate defense of, ecclesiastical property is the quality with which the Church fulfills its mission of worship, charity, and education.

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[d. herlihy]