05 November 2008

Dominican economics, or why I beg for books

Right on schedule, I have received my quarterly admonishment from an anonymous commenter on my persistent and annoying habit of pointing at my WISH LIST and hinting that books are a great gift for Dominican friars year 'round!

For the most part the usual objections for my "book begging" are made: annoying, unseemly, selfish, etc. Though this time around there's a twist I need to address. This time there's an accusation that my Amazon.com mendicancy violates my vow of poverty. . .ah, a wrinkle. The objection is not elaborated so I'm unsure how begging is a violation of poverty unless I am begging simply to be acquisitive, which I'm not. . .a Dominican student/professor without books is like a farmer without his tractor: no tools, no harvest.

I realize that most people in the world have no idea how religious live. So, I want to give you a down and dirty picture of the economic side of my life. Please keep in mind: I have chosen this life of my own free will and struggle to live it faithfully with God's mercy and the help of my brothers. The following description CANNOT be read as a complaint or whine about my life in the Order. IOW, this description is meant simply to show you how the brothers live. Nothing more.

The theory

First, we need to understand how Dominicans understand poverty. There is a long history here that I can't get into outside a semester long lecture. Here's the essential point: Dominican poverty is not the same as traditional Franciscan destitution. Meaning, historically, Franciscans have seen poverty as an end in itself, an achieveable goal to be pursued as a spiritual good. in imitation of Christ and the apostles. For Dominicans, poverty is merely a means to an end: to be freed up as much as possible to contemplate God's wisdom and share the fruits of that contemplation through preaching. In other words, Dominicans do not pursue poverty as a good thing simply to be poor. We are poor in order to be free to preach. We achieve a practical poverty by owning nothing personally and everything in common. Simplicity is not the goal either. Simplicity is also a means. Austerity is not a goal. Frugality is not a goal. Both are means. Dominicans are geared to be preachers. Our study, prayer, community life, our vows, our begging are all directed toward one thing: preaching.

The mechanics:

A friar is assigned to a house or a priory by the provincial. There is usually a ministry of some sort assigned as well: pastor, campus minister, professor, etc.

If he is working for a Catholic entity, his salary is usually given directly to the priory; i.e., the check is made out to the priory not the friar. This was the case with me in Texas b/c I worked for a Catholic university. My base salary at U.D. as a full-time campus minister was $17,000/yr. I received additional allowances (health insurance, etc.) from the university that raised that amount to not quite $30,000/yr. I also received stipends for Masses and confessions--all went to the priory common account (the basis for Dominican poverty).

Monetary gifts to individual friars are given to the community depending on the amount given (anything more than $25, usually). The quick "Irish handshake" of a $10 bill after Mass is usually spent that day for lunch. Stipends for retreats, conferences, etc. are turned in.

Usually, in any given house/priory each friar has an approved budget which governs his spending for the fiscal year. Included in this budget are common items like clothing, books, gas for the car, repairs, etc.

Friars are also given a monthly stipend as "pocket money." This amount varies from house to house, but it runs from $75-$120/month. This is money we use for Starbuck's, movies, lunch at Wendy's, etc.

Almost all friars have credit cards for large purchases such as airfare, on-line purchases, etc. The credit card bill is paid by the friar's house/priory and is accounted for on his budget. While in Irving, I frequently used my card to make purchases for my campus ministry activities, so it was not uncommon for my monthly bills to be upwards of $1,800. These costs were reimbursed, of course. My monthly bill now is well-under $250--no car (thank God!), no ministry. . .

As a student I am not permitted to work, so I am not directly contributing to my priory. This will change next year if I am taken on as a professor. All of my expenses are paid by my province.

Needless to say, we rely heavily on mendicancy (begging) for our livelihood!

Living conditions:

Living conditions for friars vary a great deal. We have a brand new priory in Houston, TX that is quite nice. Others live in regular houses in regular neighborhoods. Some live in large, European priories built hundreds of years ago. Others live alone or with one or two other friars, depending on ministry needs and personal circumstances. The priory in Irving is something of an exception to the rule in that it is a large community living in a newer building with relatively "nice things." Generally speaking, the older the building, the more austere the conditions.

Though this varies somewhat, friars get their personal items like shampoo, toothpaste, OTC meds, etc. from a common closet or room called a procurator's shop (or "proc shop")--usually procurred by the priory procurator in bulk at Sam's or some where equivalent. If friars want to purchase different brands or additional items, they pay with their monthly stipends. Haircuts are also paid out of the friar's stipend, thus the common do-it-yourself "high-tight" style of most friars who turn themselves over to the clippers of the house barber!

In Europe and in U.S. formation houses individual friars do not have cars assigned to each friar. Most friars in regular U.S. priories have a commonly owned car assigned to them. When a friar moves to a new assignment, "his car" usually stays behind.

My personal living conditions:

The priory here used to be the seminary for the Italian Dominican provinces, meaning the living conditions are akin to a university dormitory. It was built in the middle of the 16th century and served as a monastery for Dominican nuns for years.

Each friar has his own room (or "cell"). My cell is approx. 10'x16'. Each room has a cold water sink. No A/C. Radiator heat. Each is furnished modestly with the basics. No closets or dressers.

Bathrooms and showers are "down the hall." We have 12 bathrooms/showers for about 85 friars. Four washers, three dryers. There is a laundry service that most of the guys take advantage of. . .I don't.

We eat our meals in common. Lunch and dinner are prepared by a two person kitchen staff. Meals are very modest. This is not common in the U.S. except for our formation communities (the novice houses and seminary houses, which tend to have 15+ friars). For the most part, American OP's take turns cooking for the community. Housekeeping chores are also divided and assigned. We have one employee here who sweeps, mops common areas and keeps the bathrooms clean.

I have very few "street clothes," preferring to wear my habit as much as possible. In the U.S. among an older generation, the habit has become a liturgical garments worn only for common prayer and Mass. Generally, in this generation the habit is seen as a symbol of ecclesial power and avoided in order to foster a sense of "we're with the regular folks not above them." Undoubtedly, that phase in our history was necessary to undo some of the abuses of authority that plagued the American church. A younger generation has rejected that reasoning, pointing to the lose of identity in the community and has chosen to revive the symbol of the habit as a sign of consecration and dedication. "Habit Wars" in religious communities are coming to a close as it is becoming more and more evident that orders who eschew the habit are dying on the vine from lack of vocations. No doubt, at some future moment, the habit will again come to represent authority and power and its use will need to be reassessed. For now, I wear mine and don't spend money on clothes.

Now, books. Most priories in the U.S. have small libraries devoted to basic texts in theology, philosophy, scripture, etc. Irving has one of the best libraries in my province simply b/c the friars there were professors at the University of Dallas for more than 50 years. The library here is also an excellent basic library for historical study in the areas we generally work in.

If the priory is associated with a university, the library is usually very good. The formation houses in Washington, St Louis, and Oakland have excellent. libraries. The student brothers in St Louis have access to one of the best divinity libraries in the country at St Louis University Pius XII Library.

The library here at the Angelicum has an excellent collection of primary and secondary books on Aquinas, medieval theology/philosophy, and ancient philosophy. Most are in Italian or Latin. Books on more contemporary topics like philosophy of science, modern epistemology, metaphysics, contemporary theology are not available. So, I have to buy them or ask you to.

My book budget for this academic year is $900 or 700 Euro. Academic books are more expensive than non-academic books like paperback novels, non-fiction works. The least expensive academic book I've purchased in Rome costs me 28 Euro. Do the math. Not pretty, is it?

I do not buy books willy-nilly nor do I waste my budget on books that are available in the library. So far, I have begged and borrowed needed books. I haven't resorted to stealing. . .yet?

I usually buy used books on-line, but this means paying shipping, which can be anywhere from $4 to $12 depending on the currency used. Also, if the total amount of the books exceeds around $70, I have to pay customs. So far, I've paid about $30 in customs.

Now, I repeat: I am NOT complaining or whining about this situation! I am simply trying to lay out a picture for you of how things work economically for Dominicans. Frequently, I get emails or combox comments about how easy my life is from people who nothing about how I actually live. Yes, some components of my life are easy compared to others. Certainly easier than the homeless, the truly destitute, and probably easier than the lay students here who have to commute from outside b/c living in Rome is outrageously expensive. But this relative ease in some areas of my living conditions comes with a trade-off in austerity, an austerity that I have freely chosen and accept gratefully as part of my vocation.

Now, why should anyone reading this blog on a regular basis help me by buying books? The Dominican spiritual tradition is summed up in the neat phrase "to share the fruits of our contemplation." For Dominicans, contemplation is not about sitting cross-legged on the floor thinking about the universe. Contemplation for us is an active ministry, that is, it is the intellectual activity of pondering the "multi-form wisdoms of God" and then sharing any insights we have with others.

An essential part of our contemplation is an engagement with the world of ideas through the work of others--scholars, mystics, scientists, etc. Dominicans believe that God's grace builds on the given nature of the individual, forming, changing, growing that person into the perfect version of who that person is made to be. So, each of us is graced in exactly the way that his or her nature demands for perfection. This means that I am directed by my gifted nature and God's grace to contemplate the wisdom of God found in philosophy, theology, literature, and science; more specifically, to think about and write about how these multiple wisdoms work together as a coherent whole. In light of scripture and the magisterial ministry of the Church ,I preach a gospel message that is both "traditional" and "contemporary," or, at least I try to!

That preaching ends up here (yes, along with a lot of other cranky stuff too) for your benefit (I hope). So, when readers buy books for me they do several things at once:

1). They give me pieces of God's multiple wisdoms for contemplation.
2). They help me to improve my own nature by helping me better understand God's revelation.
3). That improved understanding is conveyed in my thinking and my preaching.
4). Insofar as these homilies help them grow in holiness, they contribute to their own growth.
5). They relieve me and my budget of the burden of buying one book so I can get another.
6). My book benefactors are at the top of my daily prayer list!

Therefore (finally!), if you read these homilies; if these homilies help you grow in holiness or just make you think; if I what I think and say here does anything at all to make your relationship to God better, then buy me a book! :-)


  1. thanks for the explanation!!

    I always wondered how priests who were supposed to be "poor" could drive such nice cars!

  2. Mom, we have to distinguish between religious priests and secular priests. I am a religious priest in that I have taken a vow of poverty and belong to a religious order. Secular priests or diocesans do not take a vow of poverty. They work for a specific bishop in a specific diocese. Most parish priests are diocesans. Technically, they are self-employed and pay SS taxes on their income. Religious orders generally pay SS taxes as well but do so voluntarily.

    Fr. Philip, OP

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  4. It seems that the whole vow of poverty thing is a common misunderstanding among some people. As an employee of an 'evil oil company' I know what its like to be misunderstood by outsiders.

    Query: How does the tonsure hair style fit in with Dominicans and is it still in any great use?

    Lastly, I love religious who proudly (the good pride, not the deadly sin pride) wear their habits. It reinforces my Christian hope in these often troubling times. Thank you.

  5. Aspiring,

    What is this "finished with the books" of which you speak? :-)

    Depends on the book. Generally, I keep reference books that I use frequently and books in my field that I will need for teaching...mostly to be photocopied for students.

    Others go to the Please Take One table in the priory. When I left Irving, I put several grocery bags full of books for the novices to rummage through. When people send me novels, I put them in the reading room.

    I haven't sold any books back to a bookshop since I joined the Order.

    Fr. Philip, OP

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  7. Aspiring, you're very kind! Yes, a cashier's check should work. I can get our bursar here to cash it and order the books through our bookstore. That way I won't have pay shipping or customs and students get a 10% discount!


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  9. Dear Fr,
    We'll gladly buy some books for you. We work with a religious order (our son is in the seminary) and I am constantly amazed at how little support we get. I always hear people praying for vocation but then when it comes to helping out these same people wish us well... It’s just like the bible says - imagine that? :) Some take the attitude "you asked for it." I guess they are right, we did. We volunteered, with our son, to share in his poverty. Anyway, I'm glad to see this post which shares a little bit of what we experience too. May God bless you and your work. Oh, btw, we have a daughter who wants to be a Dominican sister when she is old enough. She is 15. Please pray for her. Her name is Molly, and she is in a hurry to grow up. I try to tell her to enjoy being 15 - it's such a special time in her life when things are more carefree and exciting.

    Sicerely in Christ
    Broken Alabaster
    (You're invited to come and see us!)

  10. MaryH! Thanks so much...you're an angel...tell Molly I will most certainly pray for her vocation...


    P. Philip Neri Powell, OP, PhD
    Largo Angelicum 1
    00184 Roma

    Thanks again...Fr. Philip

  11. Anonymous11:00 AM

    The realities are good to share - thanks! My sons were amazed to discover that their monthly allowance is roughly the same as that of a family friend who is an Augustinian.

    (Despite knowing this, my HS aged son still asked me about becoming an Augustinian...)

    The local Augustinians wear their habits --- and I wish I could tell you that this makes a difference, but the children in our religous ed program were CLUELESS about the concept of a religious order (7th graders).

    I'm glad of the sign though...when I recently recieved the Annointing of the Sick, I was heartened to see one of my Augustinian colleagues walk through the door (between a trip to the gym and the grocery store) in his habit. It spoke volumes...

    Keep begging for books...

  12. I'm shocked! a Dominican who doesn't request any literature from the wonderful preacher, Fr. Vincent McNabb? :)

  13. Mr. Aleman, he is very well represented in our library! :-)

  14. I know this is an old post, but I was wondering if, as far as you know, things work similarly for Dominican sisters?

    I am in the early stages of discerning a possible religious vocation and am curious to learn more. Thanks.

  15. J,

    I couldn't tell ya...I know almost nothing about the inner workings of the sisters and nuns.