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 continued and 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.
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