Observing a religious community means witnessing the interaction between modern, economic society and a fragment of the pre-economic society that still persists in the modern world. Before the advent of the free market, feudal systems divided society into two classes: those who give orders and those who follow them. In the Middle Ages, riches were often considered signs of greed. The thought that vice necessarily accompanies wealth shaped medieval societies around a moral, non-economic basis. When serving others became infused with the possibility of personal gain did capitalism develop.
Today, the religious life avoids large accumulations of wealth, not because economic progress is immoral, but because it is intrinsically temporal, and the religious seek to radically orient their lives toward their heavenly destination.
This has led to monasteries accumulating wealth and engaging in commerce to support themselves and (more importantly from their point of view) to fund their outreach to the poor. In his annual Acton University lecture titled “Markets and Monasticism,” Dylan Pahman provides research that demonstrates the wide variety of commerce – and wealth accumulation – among Eastern Orthodox monks – while tea, beer, and religious articles are just a few examples of products made for purchase by Roman Catholic communities.
This forgotten aspect of monasticism has been rediscovered in recent years. Time magazine called monks “the original hipster entrepreneurs.” The article notes the breadth of business taking place at monasteries and convents today:
In addition to monastic beer, there's also Mystic Monk Coffee, made by Carmelite monks in Wyoming; coffins, manufactured by monks from a different St. Joseph's Abbey in Louisiana; a greeting card business, run by the Benedictine monks of Conception Abbey in Missouri, and Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, which sells high-quality dried mushrooms to fancy restaurants and local connoisseurs, just to name a few.
Our Sunday Visitor describes purchasing such products as way “to partake in the fruit of monks’ and nuns’ labors.” This exchange helps all parties involved. Through commerce, Pahman says, monasteries found that they “need the world and the world needs them, too.”
Participating in the economy improved monastic life
Taking a direct role in commerce has helped those in the consecrated life in a more personal way. Members of at least one religious community have said that shifting from an entirely top-down form of economic decision-making has helped the nuns better understand their stewardship of the community’s resources, given them renewed passion for their activities, and even deepened their unity by enhancing their respect for one another’s views.
Typically in monastic life, one superior member – an abbott, mother superior, etc. – takes charge of the community’s wealth and distributes money to the members on the basis of need. Yet this author knows of at least one community of consecrated women that found this process inadequate to their peculiar circumstances. As a result, this particular community, with blessing, is slowly moving away from centralized to decentralized authority over money – we might even say, moving toward individual liberty. The community will allot a monthly allowance to each member, who then has the freedom to budget her own spending. Each house was also given authority over its communal spending.