Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The Gospel forbids those who would attain perfection to amass treasures, and to preserve their temporal goods: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.” “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundred-fold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”

The apostles and their first successors would not receive estates; they only accepted the value, and, after having provided what was necessary for their subsistence, they distributed the rest among the poor. Sapphira and Ananias did not give their goods to St. Peter, but they sold them and brought him the price: “Vende quæ habes et da pauperibus.”

The Church already possessed considerable property at the close of the third century, since Diocletian and Maximian had pronounced the confiscation of it, in 302.

As soon as Constantine was upon the throne he permitted the churches to be endowed like the temples of the ancient religion, and from that time the Church acquired rich estates. St. Jerome complains of it in one of his letters to Eustochium: “When you see them,” says he, “accost the rich widows whom they meet with a soft and sanctified air, you would think that their hands were only extended to give them their blessing; but it is, on the contrary, to receive the price of their hypocrisy.”

The holy priests received without claiming. Valentinian I. thought it right to forbid the ecclesiastics from receiving anything from widows and women, by will or otherwise. This law, which is found in the Theodosian code, was revoked by Marcian and Justinian.

Justinian, to favor the ecclesiastics, forbade the judges, by his new code xviii. chap. ii., to annul the wills made in favor of the Church, even when executed without the formalities prescribed by the laws.

Anastasius had enacted, in 471, that church property should be held by a prescription, or title, of forty years’ duration. Justinian inserted this law in his code; but this prince, who was continually changing his jurisprudence, subsequently extended this proscription to a century. Immediately several ecclesiastics, unworthy of their profession, forged false titles, and drew out of the dust old testaments, void by the ancient laws, but valid according to the new. Citizens were deprived of their patrimonies by fraud; and possessions, which until then were considered inviolable, were usurped by the Church. In short, the abuse was so crying that Justinian himself was obliged to re-establish the dispositions of the law of Anastasius, by his novel cxxxi. chap. vi.

The possessions of the Church during the first five centuries of our era were regulated by deacons, who distributed them to the clergy and to the poor. This community ceased at the end of the fifth century, and Church property was divided into four parts — one being given to the bishops, another to the clergy, a third to the place of worship, and the fourth to the poor. Soon after this division the bishops alone took charge of the whole four portions, and this is the reason why the inferior clergy are generally very poor.

Monks possessing Slaves.

What is still more melancholy, the Benedictines, Bernardines, and even the Chartreux are permitted to have mortmains and slaves. Under their domination in several provinces of France and Germany are still recognized: personal slavery, slavery of property, and slavery of person and property. Slavery of the person consists in the incapacity of a man’s disposing of his property in favor of his children, if they have not always lived with their father in the same house, and at the same table, in which case all belongs to the monks. The fortune of an inhabitant of Mount Jura, put into the hands of a notary, becomes, even in Paris, the prey of those who have originally embraced evangelical poverty at Mount Jura. The son asks alms at the door of the house which his father has built; and the monks, far from giving them, even arrogate to themselves the right of not paying his father’s creditors, and of regarding as void all the mortgages on the house of which they take possession. In vain the widow throws herself at their feet to obtain a part of her dowry. This dowry, these debts, this paternal property, all belong, by divine right, to the monks. The creditors, the widow, and the children are all left to die in beggary.

Real slavery is that which is effected by residence. Whoever occupies a house within the domain of these monks, and lives in it a year and a day, becomes their serf for life. It has sometimes happened that a French merchant, and father of a family, led by his business into this barbarous country, has taken a house for a year. Dying afterwards in his own country, in another province of France, his widow and children have been quite astonished to see officers, armed with writs, come and take away their furniture, sell it in the name of St. Claude, and drive away a whole family from the house of their father.

Mixed slavery is that which, being composed of the two, is, of all that rapacity has ever invented, the most execrable, and beyond the conception even of freebooters. There are, then, Christian people groaning in a triple slavery under monks who have taken the vow of humility and poverty. You will ask how governments suffer these fatal contradictions? It is because the monks are rich and the vassals are poor. It is because the monks, to preserve their Hunnish rights, make presents to their commissaries and to the mistresses of those who might interpose their authority to put down their oppression. The strong always crush the weak; but why must monks be the stronger?

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25