Maarten Van Dijck, Jan De Maeyer, Jeffrey Tyssens, Jimmy Koppen, eds., The Economics of Providence: Management, Finances and Patrimony of Religious Orders and Congregations in Europe, 1773-c1930 / L’ économie de la Providence: La gestion, les finances et la patrimoine des orders et congrégations religieuses en Europe, 1773-vers 1930 (Leuven University Press: Leuven, 2012). ISBN 978 90 5867 915 4. (Softback, 371 pgs).
Reviewed by Dr Martin J. Broadley: Manchester University, 2013.
The book consists of sixteen chapters, nine of which are in English, the remaining seven written in French. This review will restrict itself solely with the former. The study emanates from a desire to bring together new and some of the classic approaches to the financing, management and patrimony of the religious orders and congregations between 1773 and 1930. As a result the fourteen chapters each use distinctive methods of approaching the theme. The geographical scope is centred on the core Catholic countries of Belgium, France, Italy and Spain. But this is not to the exclusion of studies that include: Ireland, Portugal, Luxembourg, Ireland and Great Britain. The volume covers a wide range of related topics including: an examination of income and the apostolate, the legal aspect of congregational patrimony, the relationship with urbanisation, management structures, accounting, identity and authority. The introduction sets out the current research interest in the subject and provides an analysis of each subsequent chapter. The following definition not only synthesises the topic of research and explains its raison d’être, it also emphasises how and why this is an important piece of research: ‘The finances, management and patrimony of orders and congregations are a fascinating research project, from a political point of view as they were the subject of many political controversies, but also from a societal point of view’ (p. 7). The study of the subject in this particular instance roots the religious orders firmly in the era of the industrial society 1773- c1930. In doing so it is breaking new ground. Research into the history of orders and congregations has been reticent vis-à-vis finances and accumulation of patrimony. This is as a result of several factors; one is that economics has been viewed as being of a secondary matter to that of the spiritual calling. The sacred/secular dichotomy surrounding economics and patrimony of the Church became a very real issue during the time of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The articles making up this present study put forward the hypothesis that commerce and administration are no less important, and are in fact inseparable from an effective exercise of a religious order’s charism. Studies in finances and building projects allow analysis of micro-environments – such as is represented here. In the nineteenth-century the majority of religious orders and congregations were involved in charitable work and education, and therefore active in society. In being so they were also consumers, who engaged builders and tradesmen etc. This by necessity meant their being enmeshed in the society in which they lived and served. This particular study illustrates very clearly how the economics and patrimony of an institution is a key way to study its interaction with society. The apparently ‘worldly attitude/activity’ of the orders in relation to monetary matters is defined as the ‘economics of providence’ (p. 7). This seems an apt term to describe the inter-relationship that must necessarily exist between the ‘spiritual’ work that is being carried out inescapably in ‘this world’. The wealth, patrimony, industry and legal position of the orders formed important links in the Church – State relationship. Thus the relationship between individual institute or order extends beyond the immediate environment and takes on a national significance. Added to this is the fact that charitable work and education are per se highly politicised topics.
The volume seeks to answer two questions in particular: how were the revived orders and new ones financed? Secondly, how did they acquire the needed infrastructure for their specific apostolate? These factors were set against times that were not beneficial either financially or legally. In seeking to answer these questions it is noted how, ‘The more open archival policy of the religious institutes is possibly a crucial factor in the currently rising interest in the subject’ (p. 17). This comment identifies one of the book’s greatest strengths – the amount of archival material that has been consulted by the contributors in the course of their research (over forty archival repositories are acknowledged). Although there is a common theme the nature of this book is not in any way monolithic or repetitive. As one reads each chapter one quickly comes to appreciate how each individual institution or order had to work within the confines imposed by the circumstances of time and place. More importantly one sees the vital and central role that economics and patrimony played; without it the religious organisations would simply not have been able to survive, let alone operate. They became adept in employing, and it has to be said amassing, the ‘economics of providence’ in order to put it at the service of the society they wished to serve. It is evident that certain members of congregations enjoyed definite business acumen. This book is a series of micro-studies; as such it poignantly and admirably demonstrates the importance of financial records and related archival material and how these can be used in numerous ways to throw light on the societal and political aspects of the history of religious orders and congregations. The two fundamental questions posed in the Introduction: how did the revived and new congregations finance themselves, and how did they acquire the necessary infrastructure, have been fully answered.