Tag Archives: Gangra

The Council of Ancyra & the Moral Goodness of Property

There are Christians who seem to think that private property is at best morally suspect. While not necessarily arguing that, property is theft there is the suggestion that ownership is greed and the fruit of the poisoned tree. To be fair, there is patristic authority that can be marshalled for this position. But on close examination, the fathers’ criticisms of property pertain more to how it is acquired and especially how it is used and not to the moral goodness of property as such.

For St Maximus the Confessor, what is corrupted is not the thing itself but our understanding and so use of the thing.

It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. This being so, it is only the misuse of things that is evil, and such misuse occurs when the intellect fails to cultivate its natural powers (#4, Third Century on Charity).

We see a similar line of thought some 300 years earlier at Council of Gangra when the fathers condemn those who “take the matter of ascetic exercises as something to be proud of” and so “[dis]honor modest cohabitation of matrimony, and … despise wealth with justice and with the doing of good (Canon 21). While not beyond criticism, there is no suggestion here that property as such is theft. This shouldn’t surprise us if we recall the importance of property in ancient world. This is so even in the Old Testament. God doesn’t just call Abraham and make him the “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5) be confirms His covenant by giving to Abraham and his descendants land. “Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8).

With this in mind, let’s turn now to the canons on property (here) in the local Council at Ancyra (314). Here we get a glimpse of the how seriously the early Church took the moral goodness of property. The third and sixth canons give the loss of property and even the threat of such loss as a mitigating factor in reconciling apostates. Along with those who were tortured or jailed those who “had their property taken away from them … are not to be excluded from communion.” This extends not only to the laity but also “to the clergy.” The only requirement here is that the person demonstrate at the time “mournfulness over the occurrence in their whole make-up and their habit, and humbleness of life.” In other words, there must be some contemporary evidence of coercion.

Though generous the standard is not without limits.

The council makes a distinction between actual violence and civil fortitude and the threat of these. Apostasy committed to avoid the “threat of being imprisoned and punished, and of having their property taken away, or of being forced to change their abode” can be forgiven. Here reconciliation requires a six year long period of public penance before the individuals are re-admitted to Holy Communion. From the close of the council until Pascha (Easter) they may stay in the Liturgy only through the sermon (“as listeners”). After Pascha “they be obliged to serve three years as kneelers” at the entrance of the church asking for the prayers of the faithful. This is followed by “two more years (as co-standers)” when they may stay for the whole celebration of the Eucharist but not receive Holy Communion. Finally after this “they are to commune without an offering [i.e., additional penance], and thus to arrive at perfection.” To modern ears, this penance sounds harsh; however it is relatively mild for the time. As we read in third canon, it is meant as a correction for those who “were excluded by someone as a matter of excessive strictness, or … through ignorance.”

Given its status as local and not ecumenical, we ought not to make too much of the council’s comments on property which are, at best, tangential to the primary concern of reconciling apostates. Nevertheless, the off-handed way in which property is mentioned suggests the moral importance of property. One might argue that attachment to property made the faithful vulnerable to coercion. But the State’s willingness to exploit human weakness has never been the standard for determining Christian morality much less the willingness of the Church to forgive. Weakness, moral, physical or social, should rather inspire in us compassion and a renewed appreciation for the blessings that Caesar seeks to corrupt for his own ends and anything less than this is simply cruel.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Early Church Teaching on Economic Issues

There are several canons from ecumenical and local councils (here) that touch on economic matters. A keyword search turned up canons on “wealth,” “property,” “money,” and “usury.” Here are want to look briefly at those mentioning wealth and usury.

While I need to do more work on the historical and pastoral context in which they were written one of the things that struck me is that canons are not necessarily antithetical to the free market. This is different from saying that the canonical tradition advocates for a free market; it doesn’t. There is however a fundamental appreciation and respect for private property and on the use of “wealth with justice and with the doing of good” (Canon 21, Council of Gangra, AD 340). We can, and should, argue over the concrete meaning “justice” and “doing good” but clearly the council doesn’t condemn wealth as such. To borrow from St Maximus, it isn’t wealth but avarice which is the sin.

The canons on usury are also interesting. Unless he gives up doing so the Canons of the Holy Apostles (canon 44) deposes a “bishop, presbyter, or deacon, who takes usury from those who borrow of him.” Likewise Canon 10 of the Council of Trullo (AD 692), condemns clergy take interest from a loan are deposed “or what is called hecatostæ.” Looking back to Canon 17 from the First Council of Nicea (AD 325), the term hecatostæ suggest that by usury the fathers might have meant “ask[ing] the hundredth of the sum” as monthly interest.

While most of us would like a credit card that charged a simple interest rate of 1%/month, a gloss of the canon from Nicea suggests that fathers likely meant a higher rate. “If anyone shall receive usury or 150 per cent he shall be cast forth and deposed, according to this decree of the Church” (Ancient Epitome of Canon XVII). It is unclear whether this is a monthly or annual rate or simply a straight fee for borrowing money.

Whatever usury meant concretely at the time, evidently the bishops in the early Church were not content to limit their moral teaching on economic matters to general principles. They put numbers on the table and condemn specific business practices as unjust or contrary to “doing good.” While I’m neither a church historian nor a theologian, it seems to me likely that at least some of the bishops were economically literate. It also seems to me that at least some were familiar with the business practices of their day.

While the bishops place limits on the use and acquisition of wealth they don’t disparage wealth creation. At Gangra the bishops express their esteem both for monastic poverty AND material success seeing both as consonant with humility. As they write they “admire virtue with humility … continence with modesty and godliness, … anachoretic departures from mundane affairs with humility, … modest cohabitation of matrimony, and do not despise wealth with justice and with the doing of good.”

Yes they condemn usury but the canons cited don’t reject charging interest. Just as married life requires that the couple mix their labor with the material world to create the wealth needed to fulfill and to establish a home “built in the name of God” (Gangra) there are times when borrowing and lending money are necessary for the economic life of a community. This might be why Nicea doesn’t condemns interest payments as such but a very specific interest rate. Finally it seems to me unlikely that this was simply an arbitrary figure. Given the specificity of the canon it likely reflected an abuse of what was an otherwise acceptable practice leading credence to the possibility that economics the bishops understood business.