The major debate during the Fifth Day in The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco concerns whether Christian orders (and Christians in general) should renounce worldly possessions and live in poverty. The debate revolves around the renunciation of luxury and worldly possessions by Saint Francis and the Franciscan order. This attitude was widely perceived as a rebuke to other existing monastic orders and prelates that had become increasingly wealthy.
The debate in the novel reflects actual historical controversies over how poverty was interpreted in the Franciscan order and how it was discussed. The main arguments in the debate focus on the lives of Jesus and the apostles. All participants in the debate argue from Biblical evidence, claiming that members of the order should attempt to follow the lifestyle of Jesus and his early followers, but some argue that the apostles owned farms and others, including William of Baskerville, argue that Jesus led a life of poverty.
The Conclave met to debate an assertion made by Franciscans assembled in 1322 at Perugia. They had claimed that Christ and his Apostles had never owned any property in order to set an example of how to live a perfect life. The Franciscans also asserted that this was Catholic doctrine. Pope John XXII subsequently condemned the thesis and called the current Conclave to bring the matter to a brotherly resolution.
The Franciscans argued that before the fall, all things were held in common and that only after the fall was ownership of things divided.
The Inquisitor representing the Pope argued that the Franciscan interpretation was contrary to scripture because the disciples had owned farms in Judea and Christ himself had owned property (clothes, food, a purse, and money to pay tribute).
The debate then shifted from whether Christ was poor to whether or not the Church should be poor.
In short, the debate that is explored in this book is about poverty and the relation of Jesus to possessions and material wealth. The debate divides the Franciscans, who make poverty part of their very identity, and the Papal envoys, who clearly do not share the same attachment to poverty as their Franciscan brothers do. The importance of this debate is highlighted when Brother Jerome links the belief in Christ's poverty to the very core of what it means to be a Franciscan:
Would his lordship the Cardinal del Poggetto want to consider heretical the belief in Christ's poverty, when this proposition is the basis of the Rule of an order such as the Franciscan, whose sons have gont to every realm to preach and shed their blood, from Morocco to India?
The issue is of course that if the relationship between Jesus and material possessions can be established, this should set a precedent for how the church should have or not have material possessions. As the Papal envoy clearly has conspicuous wealth and the Pope himself was known to be an incredibly rich and powerful man, the debate is about whether the Roman Catholic church is right to hoard material possessions or whether they should seek to court poverty and dispense with riches. The debate therefore seeks to discern how Jesus responded to riches in order to set a precedent.