Debt and the Religious Life

+JMJ+

A priest friend of mine left a very thought-provoking status on Facebook today.  To no one in particular, he said:

I have been receiving more frequent requests to help prospective seminarians and religious pay off their college debts. The orders they are entering are not allowing people to enter until they are debt free. While I am pleased to help as I am able, I do feel that it is appropriate for the candidates to work very hard to pay a large portion of their debt before entering. They did, after all, incur the debt so it is primarily their responsibility. Besides, working hard is good preparation for every vocation including priesthood and religious life. Secondly, I do not think it is right for the orders to leave it all to the candidates. Many of these orders are very good at marketing and fundraising. It would seem reasonable that they could provide SOME assistance.

This comment has received SO MANY “likes,” but in subsequent comments it also led to some great discussion, the crux of which I’d like to explore here today. Let’s start with this story:

Woman Starts Crowdfunding Page To Enter Religious Life

First of all, I think that this woman is embodying precisely what the priest was talking about when he suggested “it is appropriate for candidates to work very hard to pay a large portion of their debt before entering.” She may not be paying these loans out of a salary and in that sense not “working,” but she is taking huge initiative and responsibility all the same.

Yet it begs the question: should religious orders even require for aspirants/postulants to be debt-free?

Let’s look at why vs. why not:

WHY

  • The evangelical counsel of “poverty” is a required vow in this case and many others. This has long been understood to require those seeking entrance to be debt-free.
  • If a community were to accept a postulant who still had debt, they would be assuming the financial responsibility on behalf of that individual. This can be ‘dangerous’ in the simple sense that formation takes a long time and many people will not persevere in religious life… or perhaps not in the community they originally started with. This is a huge risk that the community would take. On the more negative side, such a policy would open up the community to abuse from those who wish to settle their debts (remember: even bankruptcy doesn’t erase student loans) but may not have any intention in staying with religious life.
  • Putting requirements, even heavy ones such as “NO DEBT,” at the outset assures that only those who are truly committed to responding to the call of religious life will pursue it.  Formation directors are not alien to the idea that presenting obstacles helps them weed out candidates from the beginning.  Those who are truly sincere in the their desire will keep knocking (think of Therese of Lisieux making a visit to the pope for permission to enter the Carmel at age 15) and knocking and knocking until that door is opened.
  • Religious communities also stipulate that one must be in good health to enter. There are lots of great reasons for this– and health is much less under one’s control than student loans. So why should they budge on the latter?
WHY NOT
  • College tuition is THROUGH THE ROOF and way out of control in this country. Even those who pursue a ‘modest education’ by today’s standards can easily come out of a bachelor’s degree with $100,000 of debt.  What may have seemed like a small obstacle a hundred (or fifty or even twenty) years ago, is now almost an insurmountable problem– for almost everyone.
  • There might have been a time when young people were encouraged to pursue religious life or the priesthood by family members, their local parish or even their parochial schools.  Nowadays (as has been the case many times throughout history), even emotional support for vocations is lacking. Parents who are averse to the idea of their son/daughter entering religious life may close their pockets entirely.  Even if their contribution would have been modest, it would have been a contribution and might have inspired others to do the same.
  • The old support systems are failing. When young men and women were encouraged by society to choose a vocation (religious, technical, marriage or otherwise) before the age of twenty, it was easier for young men and women to tailor their education and lifestyle to that of religious life.  My Alma Mater and many colleges/universities like it that were run by religious orders/congregations established houses or tracks of study for students who wanted a college education, but simultaneously wanted to prepare for the priesthood.  They would live in community and begin their formation at 18, effectively beginning their seminary while pursuing their degree.  As long as they stayed in formation, tuition wasn’t a question.  But obviously this sort of arrangement isn’t working anymore.
SO WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
 
If you want my personal opinion (which– who wouldn’t?), I don’t think that religious communities *should* feel compelled to waive the debt-free requirement, but I’m not opposed to them contributing financially if they so choose. Obviously, there is no “cure-all” for this problem– a good solution would use lots of different means and ideas. But it seems that religious communities are presented with an opportunity to get creative about how to handle this problem (at least until the bubble breaks like it did with the housing market and then we can all scramble to put it all back together).  Through the Facebook discussion, a few ideas came to light:
  • Communities could just suck it up and shoulder the burden.
  • The government could write-off the loans.
  • The government could allow loans to be deferred, as it does for continuing education or service.
But I don’t see any of these things happening. So what about…
  • If a college/university that also has a seminary or religious house agreed to write-off tuition debt for any alumnus who joins their order/congregation within a decade of graduation? (Notre Dame, I’m lookin’ at you…)… or perhaps a Catholic College Consortium could be created which would afford the same benefit if their alumni entered any sort of religious life, perhaps with a more restrictive time constraint like 5 years? I’m sure there are some actuarial components I wouldn’t understand, but in that way they would all agree to share the burden.
  • … if religious communities invested in community homes for those seeking to enter? This way, like-minded women/men could live rent-free while they worked in secular jobs to pay down a significant portion of their loans.  Formation could even begin at this point, with the house being supervised by a formation director or another sister/brother with that special apostolate. I just worry about the person who, like myself (had I not gotten a scholarship), might not consider religious life until after college, only to find that they suddenly have a degree in philosophy and theology that will never give them the earning potential to pay back that $200,000 price tag within a reasonable amount of time.
  • Similarly, work-study programs could be forged whereby women/men could live with the community (instead of separately) and perform labor tasks.  This was a common arrangement back when educational standards prohibited some people from becoming full members of orders/congregations.  Lay brothers and sisters would work the kitchens, grounds, etc. in return for their keep.  If orders/congregations used aspirants to staff their kitchens etc., they could use the money they saved on outside employment to pay down the aspirant’s debt. Obviously this option is not available to some communities, but for some it might prove highly beneficial.
But here’s the one I love the best:
  • We need a new organization. Remember the Knights of Columbus and their great insurance plans? I think the time has come for a group to meet the needs of this particular crisis.  Of course, the start-up funding would be great, but what if there were an organization which would take control of loans for religious/priestly aspirants and defer the payments until 1) the person exits the community, upon which regular payments schedules could resume or 2) the person makes final vows or is ordained, upon which the full payment of loans would be required?  In case 2, the loans could be payed by the community, any money the individual had left in the bank, family, parishes, crowd-funding, etc. Maybe the organization would also fund-raise, Kickstarter style, like the woman in the above article is doing for herself.
As I said, it’s a really complicated problem– and there is no one ‘right’ answer. But it is something that has to be dealt with. The questions are: how? and by whom?
So, what do you think? 
Who is primarily responsible for this debt? 
Is it right for religious communities to maintain these strict requirements?
Given the current tuition problem, what are the best ways to get creative with solutions? 
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