Pope Francis summoned a German bishop to Rome and suspended him from office while an investigation into his expenditure is completed. Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst is alleged to have spent $43 million renovating his offices and accommodation.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis has famously abandoned the Pope’s traditional lodgings in the Apostolic Palace for a modest suite of rooms at the Vatican hostelry, has said he is discouraged when priests drive posh cars and has called for the clergy to live simply. Pope Francis takes his Jesuit vow of poverty seriously, and bearing the name of St. Francis, who loved “Lady Poverty,” he leads by example on the issue.
However, not all priests and bishops take vows of poverty. Most Catholic priests are diocesan priests; they promise to obey their bishop, but they do not make vows of poverty. Canon law has some clear guidelines for the clergy regarding wealth: Canon 281.1 allows for clergy to receive proper remuneration for their work as befits their condition in life, and those who are not vowed to poverty are allowed other forms of income. A priest may inherit wealth from a family, invest his wealth in stock and bonds or receive income from other work linked with his vocation like speaking or writing.
If they are blessed with more wealth, clergy are still not expected to live extravagant lives of luxury. Canon 282.1 says clergy are to observe “simplicity of life and refrain from all that indicates vanity.” Indulgent vacations, expensive clothing, extravagant housing, and posh cars are discouraged. Canon 285.1 says clergy should shun anything that is unbecoming to their state in life.
Therefore, a priest or bishop may enjoy a good life, but should avoid extravagance and excess. All their needs should be met in an adequate and modest way so they have no material worries and concerns. Their chief concern is to serve the Lord. They may enjoy suitable leisure activities, and if their means allow there is nothing wrong with them owning and enjoying modest material pleasures.
Most priests I know do live a modest and unassuming lifestyle. However, a good number do not. Despite the instruction to “foster simplicity of life,” why do so many of our priests and bishops still live extravagantly? They have fallen into the trap of vanity, greed, and materialism like so many others in our society.
Greed, vanity, and materialism is not limited to the clergy. The clerical call to “foster simplicity of life” is so that the clergy might be an example to all Christians. The laity are not called to poverty, but they are called to be good stewards of their wealth, and all Christians are called to avoid materialism, greed, and the snare of great riches.
Contrary to popular opinion however, this does not mean that the laity need to be poor or to give all their money to the poor. I’m of the opinion that the laity should accumulate as much money as they possibly can. If a man has the gift of making money, he should work hard, be shrewd, conduct business honestly, and make as much money as he can. Then he should ask what all the money is for.
A layman who makes a great amount of money should use his blessings to advance the Lord’s service. Think what the Church could accomplish if the wealthy considered their wealth the means to do good in the world! We would build new churches and schools. We would build clinics for women in crisis pregnancies. We would serve the poor with training schools and programs of assistance. We would build and staff nursing homes for the elderly. We would fund films, television stations, and radio stations to proclaim the Gospel. The list could go on and on!
What if the rich laity were to work with the poor clergy to accomplish great things for God? Many Catholic philanthropists do give generous amounts, but what if we all lived that way? If the clergy led by example and fostered simplicity of life, then the laity might respond with the sort of hilarious, radical generosity that Catholics have been known for down the ages, and perhaps one of the reasons the laity are not as generous as they once were is because the clergy are living lavishly.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is Pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.