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.