The Catholic Thing
Luxuria Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Saturday, 25 May 2013
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An old joke: a novice is being led through the priory of an order of mendicant friars. Gazing in wonder upon all the large well-appointed rooms, the luxurious furniture, and the expensive plasma-screen televisions, he exclaims: “If this is poverty, I can’t wait for chastity!”  This little vignette was re-played recently for real, I’m told, as a major donor was being given a tour of a rather well-appointed priory of some “mendicant” friars in the East.

There is, as with many such bits of satirical humor, not only a grain of truth in the details, but also a deeper wisdom.  There is more than merely an accidental relationship between tiptoeing over the line when it involves one’s vows of poverty and feeling emboldened to stride boldly over the line when it involves one’s vows of chastity.  The medieval spiritual masters, with greater wisdom than ours, used to talk about the dangers of luxuria, of living a “soft” life surrounded by comforts. Pope Francis has recently warned of the same.

For my own part, I can’t help but think that the priest pedophile horrors may have been caused not only by the sexualization of the culture in the 60s and 70s, but that the inability to curb one’s appetites unleashed in those years — indeed, the frequent self-justification for violations of priestly vows — were prepared for by the excessive luxuria in which the clerical class often indulged itself in the 1940s and 50s: well-appointed seminaries, good meals, bishop’s “palaces,” swanky cuff-links, starched white shirts, all the trappings of the upper-middle class businessman.  Imagine Mad Men’s Don Draper as a priest, and you get the picture.

A European friend once remarked: “Your priests here in America, they’re so. . .bourgeois.”  They live comfortable lives in comfortable houses, drive comfortable cars and give their time to comfortable causes. The demands they make on their “flesh” are decidedly few and their comfortable accommodations to “the world” are many.

There are, of course,  also priests who live very modest, holy lives, but not nearly as many as there should be. 

Priests often proclaim in homilies that we must learn to move outside of our “comfort zones.”  They mean this phrase “spiritually,” that is to say “metaphorically.”  It’s a bit of jargon they’ve picked up from the course in psychology they took instead of preparing for the priesthood by reading the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. 

        Monks Merrymaking by John Cranch, c. 1804

Someone like St. Francis had a rather different attitude. When he heard “Go, sell all you have, and come follow me,” he just did it. And when he heard, “Francis, build my church,” he actually re-built San Damiano.  With Francis’s namesake Pope Francis, will we see a new model for the clergy?  On this model, if priests believe it’s important (as they keep insisting it is) to move out of our “comfort zones,” then perhaps they might begin by moving out of their literal comfort zones.   

When we hear about medieval monks “disciplining the flesh,” we think they might have been involved in some sort of self-flagellation.  For the most part, no.  It’s not that medieval monks and friars never engaged in such discipline; it’s merely that when they did it was meant to remind them continually of the sort of broader disciplines they should observe: a discipline of the mind and the spirit – of one’s whole life, including appetites, will, and intellect, towards God. 

In the Bible, when St. Paul talks about not giving-in to the desires of “the flesh,” he is not saying that the body is evil, any more than when he says that we should not give in to “worldly” desires, he is saying that the world is evil.  The world God created is good, “very good,” as is the flesh He created and in which he became incarnate.  The problem is when “the world,” instead of leading us to its creator, leads us away.  And the problem is when “the flesh,” instead of being a servant of the person, becomes instead our master, and we become the slave of our appetites and desires.

And take note, as soon as the lower appetites begin to master us, no one else will be permitted to. After the little infidelities against poverty and chastity begin, obedience can’t be far behind.  Indeed sometimes it’s the first to go.  “I don’t have to obey my superiors,” it is said.  “I don’t have to temper my willfulness.”  “Why in fact do they have all these foolish rules – rules  against all these perfectly normal ‘feelings’ and ‘appetites’?”  Yes, they are “perfectly normal” feelings and appetites.  But that doesn’t mean they should be indulged.  When we begin to think they should – they must be – the seeds for serious infidelity have been planted.

The Church has been here before.  Sometimes Catholics don’t realize how corrupt and “soft” the clergy had become before the Council of Trent.  Priests with little education and even less spiritual formation, comfortable sinecures and a mistress or two on the side:  Luther had plenty of grist for the mill. 

It was due to the reforms of the Council of Trent, in fact, that we have seminaries.  These were to be little monasteries, of a sort, where the monastic virtues could be cultivated, and the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience could be mastered.  They were to be places where young priests would learn what monasteries had known for centuries – namely, that “disciplining the flesh” means first and foremost not giving-in to the temptations of luxuria – of  “softness.”

If we are to see a “new evangelization” in the coming decades, it will require that bishops learn from the past the lessons of priestly renewal.  Those priests living out in suburban houses by themselves, alone: they’re a disaster waiting to happen.  Bishops, please bring them home to live in community with you.  Living together with his priests in a monastic community is what St. Augustine did in Hippo.  And he changed the world.

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (17)Add Comment
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, May 25, 2013
#1 In the early 1980's, I befriended a man who was a priest in one of those off-shoot Franciscan orders. When once I visited the motherhouse of the order, I remarked to him about how well-appointed it was. My comment to him was "individual poverty; corporate wealth."

#2 I once saw a billboard advertisement for the priesthood. It enumerated all of the perks that came with the "job" of being a priest. I thought to myself, "It's no wonder there's a dearth of vocations. Who's is going to give himself up to Christ's priesthood when he can get all these worldly perks while living the secular vocation?" I also thought that if someone were to ask me to design a billboard advert for the priesthood, it would go something like this: "You will have no wife or children, your time will not be your own; you will be asked to submit yourself to your bishop and go where he desires; you will make little money and have few vacations; there will be thousands of people at your parish who will look to you for help with their human and spiritual needs BUT your riches in heaven will be great." That, is what will attract the right men to the priesthood; not promises of 'la dolce vita.'.
written by Bangwell Putt, May 25, 2013
"Jesus said to him [the devil]: It is written, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."

Thank you to Professor Smith for bringing this passage to mind. We foolishly risk everything that is good. We figuratively approach the edge of the cliff; we lean over, so to speak, and expect God to save us from ourselves. So it is for everyone; priests are certainly not exempted.

One thought though: Noble simplicity gives glory to God. Fine materials last; simple design endures. We reject luxuria while preserving pure beauty.
written by ripRoar, May 25, 2013
"Those priests living out in suburban houses by themselves, alone: they’re a disaster waiting to happen. Bishops, please bring them home to live in community with you."

That won't work in our diocese because our Bishop lives out in a (big) suburban house by himself -all by himself- in one of the poshest neighborhoods in our city and presumably he likes it that way.
written by Howard Kainz, May 25, 2013
I think it's important to make a distinction between secular priests and religious priests who live in community and, in principle, "hold everything in common." A man could receive a vocation to the priesthood and celibacy, without being called to a vow of evangelical poverty. They can live very moderate "middle class" lives and still be very good priests. Different people receive different gifts.
written by Manfred, May 25, 2013
It has been argued that many of the changes following Vat. II have contributed to luxuria, beginning with the reduction of the Communion fast to one hour, the enormous number of granted marriage annulments in the U.S. and the toleration/acceptance of contraception and abortion as normative. With sodomite/lesbian "marriage" the "new Normal", which is unopposed by Church leaders in any substantial way, I can't imagine there could be any reason for the Church to continue to exist, except for the salvation of the few who will constitute the Elect. Recall that the Council of Trent was followed by hundreds of years of wars and persecutions. A Catholic is still not allowed to be the British Monarch today.
written by Jack,CT, May 25, 2013
A millionare on his own show weekly and
the winner of an Emmy: And a future
Saint,Bishop Sheen...venerable Bishop
Sheen,you see we should not "cookie
cutter" this issue.
written by Maggie-Louise, May 25, 2013
Our bishop lives 45 minutes away from our parish, so your suggestion is not applicable to all circumstances. Our pastor, who collects many icons and other art works, is the only priest in the area who will rush to the hospital at any hour of the day or night when another priest can't go because it's his day off.

Every now and then some Franciscans spend a weekend at our parish. At every visit, their hoods and their beards seem to get longer. I always think of the pharisees whom Jesus rebuked, because the length of their tassels were a source of pride. And they always look so unkempt in their baggy habits.

I'll take a well-dressed Dominican to a habited Franciscan any day, especially when that Franciscan keeps pulling his sweater open in front of the cameras to be sure his humble habit is seen by all.
written by Mack Hall, May 25, 2013
So, Dr. Smith, are you going to take a vow of celibacy, give up your house, and live in community in college, as was the norm in the past?
written by Tony, May 25, 2013
I'll second what the good Deacon says above, and add this to it: the men that I know, real men, are ATTRACTED by things that are difficult and strenuous. If you want men in the priesthood, tell 'em that they will be crucified. Otherwise you will get the "third sex" that the odious Shaw said the Anglican clergy consisted of.

By the way -- I know of a priest in Nova Scotia, where my family and I go for the summer, who has instructed the hospital NOT to call him after 6 PM, even though his rectory is practically next door, who does not vest for Mass, who resolutely refuses to do anything but the minimum for his people... But if you are a young priest (not that they have many) and you are full of zeal, you are sure to get cold treatment from the older ones.
written by Jack,CT, May 25, 2013
@ Mack Hall, BRAVO! well said........
written by lelnet, May 25, 2013
Yeah, I really do have to say that calling all the priests to move out of their parishes and into the residences of their bishops seems...problematic at best. How are they supposed to prepare themselves spiritually for Mass while they're fighting traffic?

Oh, right...they're supposed to also give up their cars. So. How will Mass continue to be celebrated, then, except in the Cathedrals?

It'd certainly clear up the vocations crisis right quick, though, what with necessitating closing almost every parish church in the world...not nearly so much need for priests, in that situation.

But as we preen before the world over how very humble we are, we might wish to give a care to the salvation of souls.

I've seen how the typical parish priest lives. To any laymen who would condemn them as a class for extravagance in lifestyle, leisure, comfort, fashion, transportation, etc, I would commend a close study of Matthew 7:3-4.

Possession of expedient means by which to discharge one's rightful duties (such as, in the case of a parish priest, visiting the sick and imprisoned, counseling the faithful, hearing confessions, and celebrating Mass in one's assigned parish) is not a sin. Indeed, even _comfort_ is not a sin. Pride, on the other hand, is...and few in the Church today are nearly so Proud as those who are persistently ostentatious about their "humility".
written by Randall B. Smith, May 25, 2013
The Author Replies:

Mr. Hall,

I am married, so no, I will not take a vow of celibacy, as I hope you'll understand. What I will take, however, is a vow of chastity. Indeed, when we get married, we all do.

Would I give up my house and live in community at the college? In a minute! Is that option available to me as it was to, say, C. S. Lewis at Magdalen College, Oxford? Not in the slightest. It hasn't been available to most American academics ever in American history, thus it has, in our lifetimes, never been "the norm." In fact, a short study of history would reveal, it has never at any time in history been "the norm." Would I personally enjoy it? Yes. And my wife? She would too. Do we often house students? Yes. Any other questions about my personal life? I'm not sure what bearing any of that has on the question at hand, but you asked.

Do those of us who are not clerics need to take seriously the evangelical counsels, and in particular what is required of us by the Gospel spirit of poverty? Absolutely. Does that mean every American should sell his car? That doesn't seem self-evident to me. Does it mean that we really ought to give some thought to whether we all need really, really expensive cars when there are horrendously underfunded schools in American cities and rural areas? And when the U.S. government is going trillions into debt to pay for corporate welfare so that some executives can drive some very, very expensive cars? Yes, in my view, it does.

By the way, while we're talking about the overpaid, do colleges and universities charge too much and do university professors usually live soft, bourgeois lives? Absolutely they do. Relevance? Do those facts falsify anything I've suggested above? Even hypocrites can be telling the truth.

As for the private lives of priests, there are certainly sometimes logistical problems (relatively minor in the United States) of getting from a local seminary or monastic residence to one's parish for mass and the sacraments, but they are usually minor compared to the relatively serious dangers and temptations that constantly assault many Catholic priests living alone in parish rectories. Priests, as a general rule, should be living in community with other priests. Period. Full stop. Prof. Kainz, I have no doubt you realize that the secular clergy, although they are not avowed monks, are also not meant to be hermits. And simply because they are not regular clergy does not mean that they should not take themselves to be guided by a rule. As for mendicants and Benedictines, they are regular clergy, bound to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Those vows either mean something or they don't. If men who have pledged themselves to such vows can't give an example to the laymen who have not taken such vows, then who in heaven's name can? Who in heaven's name will?
written by Father Jim, May 26, 2013
Excellent article Dr. As a priest in a diocese of over a million Catholics and relatively few priests many of us live alone. Though we cannot, thank goodness, all live with the bishop I think it important to remember that the Lord sent out his disciples 2x2 and never alone. Too much temptation to imitate the surrounding culture. There are several priests in my diocese who have chosen to live with neighboring clergy for many of the reasons you stated above. Chances are, if we live like bachelors and single laymen, we'l eventually begin to behave like bachelors and laymen.
written by Louise, May 26, 2013
Randall, the idea of a priest living somewhere other than his parish rectory is one I'm not fond of...the parish quickly loses the sense of family that should define it. I understand the problem of the priest living alone and agree it is not good...perhaps when there is only one priest in the parish several neighboring priests could group together in each rectory on a rotating basis? I don't know; maybe that's too complicated but I know what a parish is like when its priest is not making his home there and it is not good.
written by Jack,CT, May 26, 2013
With all do respect Father Jim,I would
hope your "Spiritual and Religous"
Life would not be so defined by the
mere real estate that surrounds you!
written by Kiko, May 27, 2013
Having read both the article and the replies together, I don't seem to get the same sense as "Jack" that the concern is just the "real estate that surrounds you." ... unless that is meant metaphorically and I have missed it. The sense that I get is that there is much in this world that distracts us from our Creator ... that the degree of detachment from "worldly" things (even worldly happiness or contentment) will most likely determine our "Blessedness" ....our beatitude. And while it is true that Jesus Christ points this out to us himself, it is also true that we can learn this from flawed people around us .... even ourselves. Even our Pope.
written by Jack,CT, May 28, 2013
@Kiko,I meant it literally.
I hear what you are
saying and apreciate
your perspective and
respect it.

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