Neil Jordan: ‘Contemporary Monastic Economy’ by Isabelle Jonveaux

In Contemporary Monastic Economy, Isabelle Jonveaux (Head of the Institute for Pastoral Sociology (SPI), Western Switzerland, and Lecturer in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Fribourg) presents a sociological analysis of the economic activities of those who have adopted monastic life. The book draws on fieldwork and interviews with monks and nuns of various orders on different continents and ‘seeks to explore the responses and strategies of monks and nuns with regard to how they live their economic and monastic life without altering the latter’ (page 3). Thus, the book examines the ‘trade-off’ between the monastic life as devotion to prayer – traditionally characterised as fuga mundi – and the need to engage in work and economic activity, as monastics always have. The book is full of rich detail on this subject and offers an engaging and detailed account of various aspects of monastic economy, including domestic economy, understandings and perceptions of poverty, the use of e-commerce, the design and function of shops, processes of ‘heritagisation’ and differences (and inequalities) between male and female monastics in terms of the types of work and economic activity undertaken. However, it can also inform our understanding of purpose and value in business and work. This review is based on a reading of the book with these concerns in mind.

A theme that runs through the book is the tension between the idea of a life consecrated to God and the notion of work or economy, by which needs are supplied and resources managed. The central point is that since the monastery’s purpose is divine service rather than economic success, economic activities are subject to the norms of faith and the monastic identity. We are therefore given accounts of the ways in which work and economic activity are understood by monastics.

The author provides a brief history of the notion of work in monastic thought, showing how it became central to the monk’s identity, as expressed in the Benedictine notion of ora et labora. Though work had the capacity to distract monastics from devotion, it came to be considered as valuable, both as a means to instilling patience and humility – a form of ascetic practice, as it were – but also as an activity that can constitute a form of spirituality or prayer if carried out diligently and with love. Work is therefore valued not solely for its economic function but for its own sake and in this, monasteries depart from ‘rational’ business practice. This is reflected in the preference among many for ‘full employment’ of all members and the reluctance to ‘dismiss’ those who are inefficient. Indeed, this idea also stands behind the decision on the part of some monasteries to avoid mechanical methods of production, if such efficiencies would deprive a brother or sister of work.

Such an approach to work informs the practice of monastic economy, as ‘the economic activities of monasteries are determined by the meaning given to work’ (page 35). The book discusses various means by which monastics deal with the conflict between economic activity and their vocation, but the most interesting when considering issues of value and purpose in business and work is the strategy of integrating economic activity into monastic life.

Such an approach can involve some re-definition of economic activity in order to ensure that the work is consistent with Christian values, perhaps by regarding a product in an ‘extramundane’ fashion so as to focus on its value as distinct from its economic worth. Chapter 4 explains how this is achieved by nuns who produce and sell altar breads and explains that monasteries favour the sale of artwork. Art is considered to have a value and meaning of its own beyond its economic worth, such that selling the work is ‘less a search for income than the transmission of a value to the buyer’ (page 67).

More frequently, though, it is a question of ensuring that work and activity are informed by Christian values or those of monastic life specifically. The first of these, we might consider to be a commitment to the human aspects of economic activity, or what some of the monastics referred to as its ‘fraternal dimension’ as they seek to resist the anonymity and distance that can often reduce commercial transactions to their purely economic function. This might take the form of simply being present in a monastery shop to talk to customers, adding personalised notes to mail order items or selling the products of other monasteries. Where monasteries have guesthouses, they might encourage those staying to assist with chores (or, outside Europe, even pay for their stay by undertaking work). It is most clearly expressed in attitudes to any staff employed at monasteries. Typically, monastics will want to know each by name and will prioritise wellbeing, perhaps ceasing production in order to allow for days of reflection. Some aim to provide work for local or disadvantaged people specifically and will hire employees on a solidarity contract at times of high unemployment. This extends to a growing interest in social goods, in spite of the traditional monastic ideal of self-sufficiency, with some monasteries in Africa supporting social programmes aimed at helping those who have been dependent on charity to find a living. Rooted in the local environment, such monasteries seek to contribute to local development.

In addition, monastic economy is concerned with the environment and sustainability, not only out of a reverence and love for creation as its stewards, but also because of a commitment to stability of place. While traditionally monastics have sought to make nature conformable to the good of man, ‘ecological ordering is rather to enable future generations to continue to enjoy natural resources while establishing a respectful relationship with nature – out of respect for its Creator – as opposed to its destruction for economic purposes’ (page 194). This engenders a long-term view in which economic development is to occur gradually – potentially over centuries – which in effect constitutes an ethic of patience in business.

The central focus on prayer and fraternity – and what this entails in terms of providing meaningful work – means that monastics will often limit production, even if this means that they cannot meet demand. This approach, of limiting economic activity so as to realise both economic and religious benefits, together with their concern for nature, has given monastics a reputation for quality in their products, which are seen to embody the continuity of tradition and skill: ‘The importance given to quality stems as much from a religious decision-making to take care of the article produced, to transmit beauty and goodness, thereby continuing the work of divine creation, as from objective economic decision-making based on the conditions of the monastic economy’ (page 124).

All of this might suggest that there is something idealistic and insufficiently hard-boiled about monastic economy. Monastics themselves do not present their economic activity as a universal model, but their approach is – of necessity – profoundly rational in many ways. After all, they can only engage in social projects, provide work or even have a life of prayer if the monastery is able to exist in the first place. They therefore do apply pricing schedules (which aim to be ‘fair’ while reflecting the added economic costs of the values according to which they work), use technology (indeed, the monastic approach lends itself to innovation, as the author discusses in Chapter 9) and diversify activities in order to minimise risk. In seeking to make best use of nature, perfecting their techniques and treating it with respect, they are ‘rational pioneers of ecology’ (page 189).

This review has barely touched upon the richly illustrated discussions of the many ways in which monastics deal with the conflict between consecrated life and economic activity, or the multiple examples of how their values inform their work. Such illustrations show that work clearly does have a value beyond economic production and that economic activity is about more than simply generating wealth or maximising profit as quickly as possible. Both work and economic life can provide meaning, afford the development and sharing of knowledge and skills, shape and express identity, involve a range of responsibilities and provide us with opportunities and obligations to contribute to the good of others, to society more broadly and to the natural world – and should be informed by values of respect, fairness and patience. While these observations all emerge strongly from a study of monastic economy, they are not dependent on a monastic vocation for their salience. One need not be a monk or a nun to realise that ‘it is possible to maintain values which are often lacking in the capitalist economy, such as respect for people and working in harmony rather than in competition’ (page 181).

Although the book is a scholarly monograph, the writing is very accessible and the theorisation is of a fairly ‘light touch’ kind, such that those with no grounding in sociology can still follow the author with ease. I would fully recommend this fascinating book to anyone with interests in contemporary monasticism or wishing to broaden their reading on values and purpose in business, but the ‘library-level’ pricing typical of many academic publishers means that until such time as the book appears in paperback, the best approach might be to borrow the book through inter-library loans.


‘Contemporary Monastic Economy: A Sociological Perspective Across Continents’ by Isabelle Jonveaux, was published in 2023 by Routledge (ISBN: 978-1-03-207336-1). 178pp.

Neil Jordan is Senior Editor at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about Neil please click here.