I'll begin by saying that we religious must respond to this and other questions with gentleness and honesty. That being said, the vows are interpreted and lived out according to the vision of the founder and law-giver of the religious community. There are instances when the founders did not forsee certain situations, because they did not exist in their time. In those cases, the community draws up a second document called a constitution. In the constitution the community addresses those questions that are not addressed in the rule.
For example, in my Franciscan family the rule is very clear. The friars may not own property either as individuals or as a collective. Situations arose that St. Francis did not forsee and the popes have given the Franciscans dispensations to own property collectively. However, these dispensations have been for specific reasons, in specific times and for specific regions of the order. They are not universal. The universal law remains intact. The Franciscan friars, regardless of the obedience to which we belong, may not own property individually or collectively.
What does this mean? It means that if you leave the community you may take with you only what the community allows you to take, because you do not own anything. Unlike Brother David's Carmelite Order where they may own books, for example, our friars may not own books. If a friar were leaving the community, every book that is in his posession remains behind. He may only take with him whatever clothing the community allows and nothing else, not even a habit.
What about those friars who remain in the community until death? Among Franciscans we have what we call a procurator. That's a designated friar who purchases what is needed by the friars. He puts such things as toothpaste, shampoo, razors, socks, underwear and so forth in a community closet. When you need something, you sign it out. If you need something bigger than a pair of sox or boxers, you must ask for permission from the superior of the hosue to purchase it. This includes a habit.
In my own community our constitutions specify that each friar may have two habits, one pair of work pants (pants are not worn beneath the Franciscan habit unless they are needed for health reasons), two work shirts, and one pair of shoes for work. Anything other than this you must have a good reason and the local superior can grant permission to purchase it.
What happens with things like eye-glasses, hearing aids and other prosthetic devices? St. Francis did not know about such things. Remember, he predates all of these things. What do we do? Franciscans look at the life of St. Francis for the answer, since it's not in the rule. In his life we find that he did receive medical care of his TB, his cataracts and his stigmata. He had special gloves made for him and special ointments for his wounds.
Based on that historical data we conclude that legitimate medical care and supplies are not property, but a human right that even St. Francis did not deny himself nor his brothers. That settles the issue. Prosthetic devices such as glasses, hearing aids and other are a right to the friar granted to him by natural law, since every human being has a right to medical care and the proper medication or equipment that such care involves.
In other words, there is no such thing as a religious rule or constitution that trumps natural law and human rights. Human rights can only be surrendered by the person to whom those rights apply. They cannot be taken away from someone against their will. Nor can any authority on earth legitimately demand that a person abdicate his human rights. This has to be voluntary.
Therefore, our friars have a right to have glasses unless they voluntarilly abdicate that right. We cannot enact legislation depriving them of that right.
For example, in my community we do not allow ourselves medical insurance, because the poor do not have medical insurance. Whenever possible, we apply for medicaid or whatever other medical benefits are available in the country in which we live. We make due with that. However, the constitution does not demand that a friar give up medical care. It only says that the friars shall have only that medical care that is normally available to the poor in the region where they live. We have houses in the USA, South America and Europe. In Europe and South America there are many more free clinics than there are in the USA. Our brothers who live there have more medical care than our brothers in the USA.
How do we do glasses in the USA? We provide for them using whatever medical benefits are available to us. We do what other poor people do. We purchase the glasses with whatever funds we have available.
For example, I wear glasses. I'm also the local superior. However, two other brothers in my house also wear glasses. In our state, we do not qualify for medicaid. The rule is very explicit. The superior is the mother of the house and must care for his brothers as a mother cares for her children. Since there are three of us who wear glasses, my duty as the mother of the house is to provide glasses for my brothers first. The superior must come last.
Even though the glasses are the property of the brother, because he has the natural right to have medical care and medical supplies . . . the rule of poverty is observed, because we procure the glasses in the same manner that any poor family does. We take turns. Someday, when we have the money, I'll go in for a check-up and maybe a new pair of glasses.
If they break, that's a whole other issue. You need them in order to function safely. You sacrifice something else. Isn't that what other poor families do also?
Br. JR, OSF :)