Q. While I realize that diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty, it is almost scandalous to see so many pastors in our area driving Cadillacs and other high-end automobiles, buying vacation homes, wearing Rolex wristwatches, etc. In every case I know about, these priests live in lower- to middle-class parishes, and — especially in the present economy — the vast majority of their parishioners live in much more difficult circumstances.
My teenage children have told me that their friends joke about our pastor’s annual change from one luxury car to another. I have also heard very specific questions from Protestant friends about some of our clergy living a lifestyle that doesn’t in any way resemble the example of Jesus.
To add to the problem, a good number of these high-living priests are conducting capital fundraising campaigns and asking for the full cooperation of their parishioners. I have found your advice on church matters in the past to be caring and realistic and am hoping that you can weigh in on this situation. (New Jersey)
A. If things are as you describe them, it is definitely a cause for concern. As you point out, diocesan priests (unlike members of religious orders) do not take a vow of poverty. They are paid a salary, from which they take care of their expenses. (Typically, a major share goes to automobile expenses and to income taxes — with a large chunk to Social Security, where priests are considered to be self-employed.)
In my diocese, there is a gradation in a priest’s salary, depending on the number of years ordained, and it tops off at about $30,000 a year. (A classmate of mine once observed, only semi-facetiously, that with a priest’s workload, he is paid below the national minimum wage.)
So, I have trouble figuring out how a priest could buy a Rolex — or why he would want to. My watch cost $9.66 at Walmart several years ago and has functioned perfectly ever since.
It’s true that a priest might have family resources or receive generous gifts from wealthy parishioners, but he is not free to flash this around. The church’s Code of Canon Law specifies in No. 281.1 that priests deserve to be compensated so they can provide for their necessities, but is quick to clarify in No. 282.1 that “clerics are to foster simplicity of life and are to refrain from all things that have a semblance of vanity.”
It would seem clear that lavish vacations and luxury vehicles not only show poor judgment but violate that canon.
One of my heroes was the now-deceased Bishop Kenneth E. Untener of Saginaw, Mich. He kept all of his worldly possessions in his modest car and moved continually around his diocese, staying for a month at a time at the rectory of each of his parishes.
While every cleric cannot be held to that standard, perhaps some of the priests of your acquaintance need to be reminded that the Christ whom they follow had “nowhere to rest.”
You might want to write to your pastor, telling him how his teenage parishioners feel about his choice of cars — anonymously, if you feel you have to, although a signed letter would be so much stronger.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.