By the mid-fourteenth century a troubling laxity developed within the Church that allowed members of religious orders to live outside of community, and thereby to have their talents lost either temporarily or permanently to the religious order that previously had housed and educated them.
This was the status of what was called an honorary papal chaplaincy, whereby an individual friar obtained a document to grant him papal approval to be exempted from his obligation to live in his religious community and to be bound by many of its regulations. As noble and as important as such a commission sounded, it was a honorary concession that did not have any direct connection with papal employment. It was a receipt of exemption from aspects of Religious obligations akin to those a papal chaplain would receive, and became a procedure that was soon grossly overused and abused, and especially once honorary papal chaplaincies began to be sold by Popes as a source of income.
The record of the administration of Matthew of Ascoli O.S.A. (Prior General 1359 until dying in office in 1367) contains the usual records of favours and exemptions sought, recommendations made, and punishments administered within the Augustinian Order. There is adequate evidence to suggest that Matthew of Ascoli tried to remedy the granting of honorary papal chaplaincies, which at that time was one of the greatest abuses against community life. In 1363 he obtained a bull from Pope Urban V by virtue of which those friars who had obtained the title of an honorary papal chaplain were made subject once again to their own regular Augustinian superiors. The initiative of Matthew of Ascoli did not successfully end the abuse, however, nor did a similar bull in 1373 that was sent by Pope Gregory XI to the superiors of all the mendicant Orders.
The Augustinian General Chapter of 1377 ordered the Procurator General to seek from the Pope information regarding the number and extent of the exemptions of papal chaplains. It is unknown whether the Pope replied and, if he did, what his answer was. It is known, however, that this practice not only continued but also increased, for to this privileged list of papal chaplains were added those who lived as chaplains with prelates and secular rulers. In so doing, a great harm was inflicted upon religious life, one that continued until the reforms instituted by the Council of Trent over two centuries later.
To give an example of this matter in 15th-century England, there is evidence from John Capgrave O.S.A., who was English Provincial from 1453 to 1457. He resisted the ever-growing tendency for personal independence by the Austin Friars, although his dislike is particularly evident in his attitude towards honorary papal chaplains. Provincial John Capgrave O.S.A. disliked the constant recruiting of his best men for the services of noble families. For example, John Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, employed the Austin Friars Robert Newark and Clement Wells. John Crowche served as chaplain to Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and John Hettingham, alias Byart, of Clare held the same position in the household of John Vere, Earl of Oxford. John South was assigned to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and John Tyson to Queen Margaret of England.
Some of these friars served as secretaries to these lords or as the educators of their children, others were used as military chaplains and went with the troops overseas or to the northern border of England. When a nobleman sought – no doubt usually with the recipient’s agreement – that an honorary papal chaplaincy be granted, there was little that a mendicant Provincial could do by way of resistance, particularly if the nobleman was a political force in society and also a benefactor of the religious order that the Provincial was leading.
The nobleman was seeking for himself the exclusive services and attention of a person whose religious order had selected and guided at its own expense from the age of possibly sixteen years until his emergence from three levels of university education as much as twenty years later. This privilege of higher education had been accorded to the most intellectually gifted friars him so that they could become faculty members in one of the Order’s regional or Provincial houses of formation (a stadium regionale or a studium provinciale), and to have any individual with this lengthy and costly educational benefit lost to the purposes of the Order so as to assist the goals of a nobleman or to educate his children was quite regrettable.
When faced with this possibility of having a friar seek an honorary chaplaincy, his Prior Provincial had nothing much with which to counter the proposal other than the moral suasion that the friar’s service to the ministry and goals of the Order was probably of greater lasting value than the needs of the nobleman. Such reasoning might sometimes have been efficacious; from historical evidence, however, it is certain that at times it was certainly ineffectual as well.
Even when these honorary papal chaplaincies occurred, they were not always beneficial to individual friar, as many of these chaplains needed financial benefices to maintain their external standard of living, and as a consequence their practice of the vows of poverty and obedience diminished considerably, if not totally. The granting of honorary papal chaplaincies, when considered together with the dispensation of male Religious to live henceforth as diocesan (i.e., non-Religious) priests exerted a significant pressure on the number of Religious priests active in religious orders during the Middle Ages.
For example, in England during the fifteenth century there was an estimated total of 35,000 Religious priests, of whom about 1,000 either received honorary papal chaplaincies (a minority of the 1,000) or moved across from Religious life to diocesan priesthood (the majority of these 1,000). In the above thousand men, 225 were Canons Regular of St Augustine (then the most numerous religious order in England), 181 Benedictines, 122 Cistercians, 36 Dominicans and 16 Gilbertines. The number of Austin Friars is not available but, on the presumption that the total number of Austin Friars was only from half to a third of the number of English Benedictines, during the 15th century possibly twelve to eighteen Austin Friars received an honorary papal chaplaincy or obtained permission to transfer from the authority of the Augustinian Provincial to that of a diocesan bishop.