Taking a vow of poverty does not and should not mean living in ignorance of the economic realities connected to community life and a mission of serving the world in the name of the church, Vatican officials wrote in a letter to members of religious communities.
"Gratuity, fraternity and justice" are the basic principles essential to "an evangelical economy of sharing and communion," said the prefect and secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
In early August Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect, and Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, secretary, published a circular letter on the use of financial resources by religious orders, telling the communities they must adopt modern budgeting and bookkeeping practices and ensure their expenditures are for ministries in line with their founding purpose and the good of the whole church.
"All members of the institute should be aware of the importance of working with a budget and estimates in the knowledge that these reflect the values and spirit of the institute," the document said.
Because the most pressing needs of the church and society may change over time, every order must "define which works and activities to pursue, which to eliminate or modify" and what new areas of ministry they should try to develop, it said.
Under church law, each order is required to have an "economo," or treasurer, and that person should receive specific training in budgeting and bookkeeping, but every member of an order must have a general idea of the community's assets and expenditures.
Too often, the letter said, assigning economic oversight to just one person "generated lack of interest about economics within the community, leading to a loss of contact" with the costs of the community's daily life and activity and "provoking a dichotomy between economics and mission."
Knowing what a community has and what it spends, the letter said, also will help "verify the real degree of personal and communal poverty" being lived.
Efficient monitoring, including professional outside audits, will help religious communities avoid simply covering deficits of a particular ministry or institutions without making a conscious choice to continue the mission despite its costs.
The circular letter was a follow-up to a symposium the congregation for religious held in Rome in March. Braz de Aviz told the Vatican newspaper Aug. 2 that, while the congregation planned for 400 religious to attend the symposium, "not only did 600 show up, another 500 could not get in."
The attendance, he said, demonstrates that "the problem is real," with some orders experiencing growth, others struggling to care for their aged and staff their institutions, and all of them sensing a challenge to increase financial transparency.
"We live in a culture that considers capitalism to be the law that governs the use of money," he said. "For religious, it should not be this way. It is the Gospel that must prevail."
In the circular letter, the cardinal and Archbishop Rodriguez asked religious orders to send in suggestions by Jan. 31, 2015, for new guidelines for "improving and making more fruitful the resources providence has placed at the church's disposal so that the mission of serving Christ and the poor would be more effective."