Must Catholics be poor?

Pope Francis greets a child during his visit to a slum in Rio in August (CNS)

“Must Catholics be Poor?” is the title of Fr Dwight Longenecker’s article in Aleteia for October 25. It’s a good question and one that should haunt all Catholics – not because making money or enjoying (in moderation) the fruits of it is wrong per se, but because Christ himself led a life of poverty and we should, as much as we can, try to imitate him. This doesn’t mean that because he said “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” we should decide to be homeless. But, as my dear brother said on the day he died, “There are no pockets in a shroud” and we do well to remember that.

Longenecker’s article comes straight after the news that Pope Francis had summoned German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van-Elst to Rome for a discussion as to why he is alleged to have spent $43 million dollars renovating his offices and accommodation. When I read about the poor chap’s extravagance (actually “poor” is the wrong adjective here), including a free-standing marble bath, I was secretly amused as much as scandalised; he seems so profligate it is almost beyond scandal. Could he have lost his marbles? In his defence, I read that the bishop said that others were also involved in the financial decisions. Even so, how on earth did he think that a Pope who had taken the name of a saint famous for his abject poverty and who insisted that his friars beg for whatever they needed, would countenance such excessive spending?

In his article Longenecker points out that most Catholic priests are diocesan priests who do not take a vow of poverty, as members of religious orders do. They may inherit family money or make money from speaking and writing – but they “are still not expected to live extravagant lives of luxury” and expensive housing, clothes or cars are discouraged. They should live “modest and unassuming” lives. However, he hints that many priests and bishops still live extravagantly and “have fallen into the trap of vanity, greed and materialism like so many in our society.”

Well, I don’t know who he is thinking of, but Longenecker writes from America and it may be different over there. I have not read of cases of conspicuous clerical consumption over here, which is just as well, given the financial struggles of the laity. When I think of a clerical standard for simple living, our late parish priest comes to mind. He took austerity in a literal way. He slept for seven years in a sleeping bag on top of his vestment chest while his church was being built; he drove an ancient Mazda, donated by a parishioner; he always dressed as he put it, in “dead men’s shoes” i.e. the clerical garb given away after the death of a fellow priest in the diocese. Fortunately the parish saw to it that he was fed. He spared no expense in building a beautiful church but couldn’t see the point in spending anything on himself. He always reminded me of Chaucer’s “poor parson”. Pope Francis would have heartily approved.

The article goes on to argue that lay people who have a gift for making money should do so – but then use it “as a means to do good in the world”. As he says, many rich Catholics are very generous – “but what if we all lived that way?” What indeed. There should not be one standard for the clergy and another for us lay people. If we can’t live like Mother Teresa, who travelled with one spare cheap sari and a plastic bucket to wash it in, or St John Bosco, who once fell into a ditch and then had to stay in his bedroom while his cassock dried out, we can all find ways to cut out wastefulness in our lives.