Article brought to you by: Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Monks Persecuted for Burying the Dead. Works of Mercy, Religious Freedom and Economic Liberty

By Deacon Keith Fournier
August 24th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors subpoenaed Abbot Justin Brown and Deacon Mark Coudrain.  If found guilty, the Abbot and Deacon will be subject to 180 days in jail and thousands of dollars in fines.The Monks of St. Joseph Abbey did not back down. They sought legal help. The lawyers from the Institute for Justice stepped in. "The state is trying to require them to abandon their calling as Benedictine monks. ... They want to sell wood boxes, not become funeral directors."

COVINGTON, LA (Catholic Online) - Those who read me know that I have a special place in my heart for Monks. I am not alone, the Lord does as well. In fact, any honest student of the history of the Christian Church should share this admiration and esteem. They have always been a source of great spiritual inspiration, renewal and encouragement for the entire Church. They have also played a prophetic role throughout Christian history, calling every baptized Christian to live their Christian vocation - no matter what their state in life - with heroic virtue.

This is part of the reason I took a special interest in the challenge faced by the 36 prayerful and hard working monks of St, Joseph Abbey just outside of Covington, Louisiana. They are followers of the Rule of St. Benedict, the father of Western Monasticism.  On All Saints day in 2007, they prayerfully decided, in response to the clear teaching of the Church to bury the dead, to begin making handcrafted caskets to sell to the public. As a Deacon of the Church in my 15th year of diaconal ministry, I know the importance of such tasks within the apostolate of the Church. I have the privilege of ministering to those who are dying and burying the dead. I know the importance of every detail concerning the passage from death to life.

As I have shared in my writing, I am a "revert" to the Catholic faith. My journey home led me through a Protestant Bible College and into a Benedictine Monastery as a very young man. There I not only recovered my Catholic faith, studied the early fathers of the Church, and fell in love with the ancient and ever new faith handed down to use from the apostles, but I studied Church history and lived the Rule of St. Benedict. That wonderful Rule makes it very clear in Chapter Four under a section detailing the "instruments of good works", that one of the "Corporal Works of Mercy" is "To bury the dead". Monks must bury the dead! In doing so, they stand as a prophetic sign of the call of every Christian to do the same.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church in a section concerning the "Works of Mercy" reminds us, "The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God: (CCC #2447).

The Catechism summarizes the longstanding teaching of the Church concerning respect for the bodies of the dead. This is rooted in our absolute Christian claim that these bodies shall be raised from the dead : "The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit." (CCC#2300)

The Monks of St. Joseph Abbey crafted caskets from wood to bury their dead brothers. They have done this for decades. On their  website they explain: "For more than 100 years, the abbey has maintained and cultivated an abiding spiritual presence in southern Louisiana that is manifested in our daily rhythms of prayer and witness through a life of simplicity. One physical symbol of the simple Benedictine life of prayer has been the pine caskets in which we monks are buried.

"Over the years, the abbey has been asked to produce these caskets for individuals and has done so only on a very small scale and to select friends. Today, in an effort to support the needs of the abbey and to help maintain its communal life and apostolates, we are beginning to make available to the general public a line of cypress caskets under the name Saint Joseph Woodworks. We also hope that this enterprise will serve as a witness, to educate the greater community to the true meaning of death as taught by our Catholic faith."

In 1992 one of their wooden caskets became the place of repose for Bishop Stanley Ott of Baton Rouge. Then in 1997 Bishop Warren Boudreaux of Houma-Thibodeaux was buried in another Abbey-crafted coffin. The beauty of the monk's craftsmanship touched the faithful who began to request their beautiful product. In 2007 they built St. Joseph's Woodworks and began to offer caskets to the public. The proceeds from this work helped the Monastic community provide for themselves and thus live the motto of the Benedictine vocation "Ora et Labora", prayer and work.

This kind of initiative and charity should be welcomed in a Nation which respects the Free Exercise of Religion and offers the Free Enterprise System as a vehicle for citizens to pursue happiness, right?  Well, not for the Monks of St. Joseph Abbey. Complaints were filed against the Monks by a Funeral Home in the local area which was threatened by the competition. They alleged that "illegal third-party casket sales place funeral homes in an unfavorable position with families." The competitor went to Court and obtained a "cease and Desist" order against the Monks.

According to the State of Louisiana the Monks were violating the positive law by fulfilling the eternal law. The competitor cited a statute and insisted that no-one could sell "receptacles ... where human remains are ... placed for disposition" without paying fees, passing an exam, serving an apprenticeship and obtaining a funeral director's license. What is clear is that the coffins offered by the Monks were a threat to other manufacturers because of the lower price and the superior quality of the workmanship. The rest is subterfuge and bureaucratic nonsense.

These men are MONKS! The Monastery was going to be required by the regulations to become a funeral parlor rather than a monastery. The insanity of such an asinine approach is evident to anyone with any common sense. Efforts to amend the unjust regulations were met with fierce lobbying by economically interested parties. The Benedictine Monks were threatened with injury to their livelihood, an inability to care for their own brothers, and civil and criminal penalties - all for following the teaching of the Catholic Church.

The "Social Teaching" of the Catholic Church is a response to the admonition in the 25th Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew concerning our obligations to live the faith, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' (Matthew 25:47) It addresses one of many foundational teachings of the faith, we are commanded to bury the dead!  For the Christian, the sacrificial act of Joseph of Arimathea in offering the tomb within which the disciples interred the Body of Jesus - and from which he would be gloriously raised - has hallowed every tomb. It has also made the act of burial and the offering of such a place of repose an extraordinarily holy act. It was over the tombs of the early Martyrs that the Christians gathered to celebrate the Holy Eucharist!

The "Compendium of the Social teaching of the Catholic Church" in a section treating economic matters explains: "The Church's social doctrine considers the freedom of the person in economic matters a fundamental value and an inalienable right to be promoted and defended. "Everyone has the right to economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all, and to harvest the just fruits of his labour".This teaching warns against the negative consequences that would arise from weakening or denying the right of economic initiative: "Experience shows us that the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged 'equality' of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen".(Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church # 336)

The Good News is that the Monks of St. Joseph Abbey did not back down. They sought legal help. The lawyers from the Institute for Justice, a public interest Law Firm in Virginia which focuses on cases involving economic liberty, stepped in. They now represent the Monks in a lawsuit which argues that the State law violates the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Jeffrey Rowes, the group's senior attorney, said, "The state is trying to require them to abandon their calling as Benedictine monks. ... They want to sell wood boxes, not become funeral directors."   

We invite our readers to lend their voice to the growing chorus supporting the Monks. As Abbot Justin Brown recently explained: "The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey have been making caskets for over a hundred years.  People who ask for them want to share in that noble simplicity that our coffins express. We're not a wealthy monastery and we need the income that Saint Joseph Woodworks could generate for the health care and the education of our own monks.To sell caskets legally, the monks would have to convert their monastery into a "funeral establishment" which means adding all sorts of needless equipment for things like embalming human remains.  Further, the monks would have to apprentice with a cartel member for a full year and then take a government-approved casket test."

"Curiously, in Louisiana it is perfectly legal to bury a human body straight into the ground.  You can also wrap a bed sheet around a human body and bury it.  And you can make your own casket.  Or you can use a casket made by a friend or stranger - so long as you don't pay for it. But it's illegal to pay for a casket.unless that casket is made by a member of the cartel. This March, the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors subpoenaed two members of the Saint Joseph Abbey - Abbot Justin Brown and Deacon Mark Coudrain.  If found guilty, the Abbot and Deacon will be subject to 180 days in jail and thousands of dollars in fines.

"To clarify: The funeral cartel in Louisiana is attacking monks that make simple caskets for people that want them, which helps cover the cost of the monks' monastic lifestyle.  And for the "sin" of selling these caskets, the monks face crippling fines and even jail.If monks are being attacked, nobody is safe. Economic liberty is important to everyone.  Yet countless entrepreneurs today are being kicked out of work or threatened with fines and jail because powerful industry insiders have teamed up with politicians to make laws that create cartels."

For more on the monks' lawsuit, click here for their wonderful story

Article brought to you by: Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)