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