Dower, RELIGIOUS (Lat. dos religiose).—Because of its analogy with the dower that a woman brings to her husband when she marries, the name “religious dower” has been given to the sum of money or the property that a religious woman, or nun (religiosa), brings, for her maintenance, into the convent where she desires to make her profession. It is not a question here of the more or less generous donations made by the young woman or her family either to the convent or to some of the good works that it carries on, nor of the amount paid in for the support of the postulant or novice until the time of her profession, but of a sum (usually a fixed one) set apart for the support of a religious who, by her profession, has become a member of the community.
The custom of religious dower was not in vogue in the ancient Church. Introduced occasionally for nuns under solemn vows (the only vows that existed in ancient times), it became gradually the rule in all communities, particularly in congregations under simple vows, these being now the most numerous. According to common ecclesiastical law, every convent had formerly to be provided, at the time of its foundation, with the resources necessary for the maintenance of a fixed number of nuns, not less than twelve. These were received gratuitously and without dower and, although in no wise prohibited from presenting the monastery with a portion of their property, were supported out of the revenue assigned to the monastery for this purpose. That is why the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV, c. iii, De regul.) established in this regard the following rule: “Let only such a number [of religious] be determined, and henceforth maintained, as can be fittingly supported, either by the proper revenue [of each house] or by the customary alms” [in the case of mendicant orders]. The determination of this number belongs to the bishop, who, if there be occasion, will act together with the regular superior (Gregory XIII, Constitution, Deo sacris, December 15, 1572). The Council of Trent does not speak of religious dower. However, from the end of the sixteenth century the prescription relative to the fixed number of religious had fallen into desuetude, and the dower came into use; and this for two reasons. The first was the acceptance of “supernumerary” religious, that is of a larger number than the resources of the convent warranted; hence it was but just that the amount required for their maintenance should be demanded of them. The second reason lay in the decrease of the resources of the ancient convents and in the absence of property for the many new houses founded towards the end of the sixteenth century. An evidence of the simultaneous existence of these two causes is found in the general decree of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, September 6, 1604 (in Bizzarri, Collectanea, 269), ordaining that the supernumerary religious should deposit a dower equal to twice that of the others and amounting to at least 400 ecus (about $400). This was the minimum, and each house was to set its own figure, to be regulated according to circumstances. Though deposited at the time of receiving the habit, the convent did not acquire possession of the dower until the ceremony of profession, and if the novice left before being professed, it was restored to her (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XXV, cap. xvi). Dispensation from solemn vows was, it may almost be said, unknown, and the obligatory restitution of dower had not been provided for in the case of a religious leaving her community; it was the result of equity rather than of law. But since the decree “Perpensis” of May 3, 1902, which requires of all religious under solemn vows a probationary period of three years under simple vows, this restitution has become a rule. Article X says: “The dower established for each monastery should be deposited before the profession of simple vows”; and Article XII continues: “If a sister who has professed simple vows retires from the monastery, either after being dispensed from her vows by the Holy See or after sentence of dismissal (before the solemn vows), the capital of her dower is to be restored to her, but not the interest.”
Such is also the general rule for congregations under simple vows. Stipulations concerning the dower are very clearly set forth in the “Normae”, rules in use by the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars for the approbation of religious under simple vows, published June 28, 1901, ch. vii, articles 91-94. Each congregation of nuns should settle in its statutes the dower, equal in all cases, for the choir religious; it should even establish a lesser dower (but the same for each one) to be deposited by the lay, or assistant, sisters. The superior cannot receive a religious without a dower or with an insufficient dower, except by permission of the bishop, if the congregation be diocesan, or by that of the Congregation of Religious, if the institute be approved by Rome. The required dower must be duly pledged to the congregation prior to the taking of the habit and must be deposited shortly before the profession. Thus deposited, such a dower cannot be alienated, that is, it cannot be used by the congregation in whatever way it may deem fit, as, for instance, to meet building expenses or discharge debts, but must be prudently and advantageously invested. Even though the funds be administered by the mother-house or the provincial, the income from each dower must be given to the house where the religious resides who brought in that dower. Although no longer the property of the nun, the dower becomes entirely the property of the institute only at the death of the subject, for whom, until then, it must remain set apart, so that, should a religious withdraw from a community either on the expiration of her temporary vows, or after a dispensation, or finally on account of dismissal, the capital of her dower must be restored to her.