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Catholic Priests and Religious are "Social Parasites"?
By N.D.C. Wansbutter, Esq.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Durendal Blog

"Several months ago, I published an article entitled "Marriage is Overrated" which received some attention from certain discussion boards. One commentator at "Fisheaters" in particular, going by the screen name "Vetus Ordo" wrote, in reference to claim that 1/4 of people are called to be priests or religious, that " ... we would have a huge bunch of social parasites. An economic nightmare."[1]

I found this claim rather extraordinary coming from a Catholic, althemoreso that no one on Fisheaters voiced opposition or disagreement. I had, obviously quite wrongly, thought that such rhetoric was reserved to the Protestants and that Catholics took it as "read" that priests and religious are anything but parasites. Interesting that the commentator used the phrase "social parasite" -- was this intended to suggest that suggest that the clergy add nothing to the social life of a community and only suck the life from it?

For a parasite is, according to my Apple's "Dictionary",

(1) an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host's expense. (2) derogatory a person who habitually relies on or exploits others and gives nothing in return.

Let us assume that it can be fairly said that priests and religious rely on the faithful. Can we say that, in terms of the social life of a community, that they "give nothing in return"? In terms of the priests, can one truly say that baptising our children, offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, presiding at weddings, and otherwise tending to the spiritual welfare of the people, nothing? Certainly no Catholic would claim such a thing -- I shall assume then that Mr. "Vetus Ordo" meant that priests and religious are economic parasites only, and hence the claim that if 1/4 of the population were to devote their lives to Christ in this way, it would result in an "economic nightmare" because they give back nothing financially while relying on or even exploiting the faithful for any monetary income.

Allow me, then, to break down the definition of "parasite" into its two parts and see if either accusation "sticks". 

First: do priests and religious "habitually rely on or exploit others" or "live in or on a host (the faithful)"?

It is certainly true that the Church relies, in large part, upon the support of the faithful. And, indeed, it is even one of the Seven Precepts of the Church that the faithful must "contribute to the support of the Church". But does it follow that the priests and religious exploit the faithful or "live on" the faithful as a parasite does?

Certainly, when one considers religious, the answer must be no. On the contrary, when one looks at history, many monasteries (certainly in the Middle Ages) were fairly self-sufficient and even supported the faithful such that in some instances one might say the faithful lived on the monasteries. During the 5th - 10th centuries Benedictine monasteries were extremely important to the continued life of society and agriculture was one area that they excelled, clearing and cultivating large tracts of land. [ii] It was certainly common that monasteries would have grounds upon which they would grow at least some of their own food and the larger monasteries engaged in trade with their neighbours. At all times monasteries have provided food and clothing to the poor to at least some degree. Not only Monks, but nuns produced food and drink for the monastery. Nuns would also partake of embroidery, spinning, weaving, and illuminating manuscripts. [iii]

Priests may indeed rely more heavily upon the support of the faithful for their existence, as is proper to their position. So I think the defence of priests against the charge of "parasitism" may fall more heavily on the second factor. However, it should be recalled that in the Middle Ages, the only time that humanity came close to 1/4 of the population being religious or cleric, the great majority (probably as much as 9/10ths) of vocations were as lay brothers or sisters. As such, I would argue that if we got closer to the sorts of numbers I mentioned in "Why Marriage is Overrated", the greatest increase in numbers would be monastic.

Second: do priests and religious give nothing economically in return?

This has already been partially answered in my description of why religious brothers and sisters do not "habitually rely on or exploit" the faithful. I would add to this that many a monastery in fact produces goods that "give" to the economy since they can be bought/sold. Take, for example, the famous Trappist beers of Belgium such as Chimay. Illuminated manuscripts might not be as popular today as they were in the Middle Ages, but I imagine they would still sell, as would other well-known monk/nun products as cheese, chocolate, bread etc. Monks and nuns have always been involved in caring for orphans and teaching in schools -- both activities that contribute to the economic life of a community by preparing the young to pursue their own jobs and not live as beggars or on welfare.

Turning to the priest: one might argue that he produces no consumable good, and therefore gives nothing economically in return. However, this is to have an extremely one-dimensional and materialistic view of economics. The priest offers great spiritual and intellectual services. For one, in a time period where a greater proportion of the faithful go into religious life, more priests are freed to take positions as university professors and educators rather than rushing from one Mass centre to another. Certainly, it is not "nothing" to give the young the intellectual tools with which to pursue careers of their own?

Further, one must consider how good spiritual health of a population can benefit an economy. I would argue that part of the reason for the financial woes of our age is the mass turning-away from God. Whereas a people who have priests to guide them and forgive them their sins will be more economically viable since, as Our Lord teaches us "Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you." (Matthew VI, xxxiii)

Given all of the foregoing, I suggest that even if 1/4 of the population were living and priests or religious, it would be -- far from an economic nighmare -- a stable economic situation and likely one that features a stronger economy than that which we are now "enjoying" in a climate when even among trads the percentage of vocations may be counted on one hand.

Posted on the Feast of All Saints, a.D. MMXI

[1] See
[ii] See Woods, Dr. Thomas E., Jr., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, Regnery Publishing, Washington, DC: 2005, specifically, Chapter Three: How the Monks Saved Civilization
[iii] See the Rule of St. Benedict, for example Chapters 36 and 37 which order due care for the sick, the old, and the young; Chapter 48 which emphasises the importance of manual labour; Chapter 50 and 51 which deal with monks working in the fields."
Vetus is famous!
It's a well deserved response and defense of religious life.

I posted Wansbutter's original article  entitled "Marriage is Overrated" here at FE. I remember being personally disgusted by Vetus Ordo's statement. Somehow, I never got around to actually making it public and commenting my displeasure. Mea culpa. Mea culpa.
I wouldn't have been able to offer as good a response as Mr.Wansbutter, but the statement deserved at least a rebuke.
Someone's buttmad.

If I recall correctly, Saint Paul says that ministers ought to be supported in the work they do. That is fine. But it doesn't change the reality that most diocesan priests in the 21st century live cushy lifestyles and don't have much real work in the day. They don't get paid much in salary, but more than make up for it in other ways like stipends and deathbed donations. Millions of dollars, by the way, that go to lawyers tasked with the covering up of pedo crimes. And, of course, the perpetuation of heresies, blasphemies and mediocrity in general.

Vetus Ordo lives in Portugal, which is culturally more saturated in Catholicism than any of us jokers in the Anglosphere.

At any rate, I wouldn't want to live in a world where 1/4th of everyone was like Father Frank of Saint John Wayne Gacy parish, or Sister Wendy of the Order of Rainbow Stoles.