The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty

Q: The pastor of my sister’s parish just bought a new car.  The car he traded in was only two years old.  He’s now driving one of the nicest cars in the whole parish. How can a priest keep buying new cars like this if he vowed poverty when he was ordained? -Rick

A: Many Catholics and non-Catholics alike erroneously believe that all Catholic priests are obliged to live in poverty, but in fact this is not the case. Some clergy have made vows of poverty, while others have not. At the same time, some Catholics take a vow of poverty even though they are not and will never be ordained to the priesthood. Readers may find that the actual situation is surprisingly complicated!

There are some religious institutes whose members are required to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (c. 573.2). Occasionally additional vows particular to their institute are required as well. Carmelites, Dominicans, and Jesuits (to name only a few) fall into this category. Members of such institutes generally receive a small monthly stipend, perhaps $100 per month in the U.S., for personal expenses. With this tiny amount they can buy a birthday gift for a relative, or go to a restaurant occasionally for lunch, or get a pack of cigarettes. They often have full-time jobs, maybe as university professors or hospital administrators, and as such they earn full-time salaries-but they cannot touch this money as their paychecks are immediately turned over to their religious superiors. The cars they drive, the houses they live in, and sometimes even the clothes they wear are not the property of the religious themselves, for these things as a rule belong to their religious institute.

Before one starts flipping through the code to find more details on this subject, it’s important to realize that there is actually very little law in the Code of Canon Law pertaining to religious institutes. This is because each institute has its own specific body of law-called proper law-which pertains only to its members, no matter where in the world they happen to live. An institute’s proper law must be approved either by the Vatican, or (in the case of small, local groups of religious) by the diocesan bishop in whose territory they reside.

The proper laws governing religious institutes can vary dramatically. This is generally due to the historical period in which an institute was founded, and/or to its intended purpose. The Benedictines, for example, have been in existence for well over a thousand years, while the Legionaries of Christ were founded only in the 20th century. The first group lives a generally monastic life, while the other is normally involved in active ministry. Consequently, their systems of governance and rules of conduct are very different-because the original purpose of each institute, as intended by its founder, was radically different from the other.

Many — but not all — members of religious institutes are also ordained to the priesthood. We have all probably encountered priests who were from the abovementioned institutes, or perhaps Cistercians, Augustinians, or Redemptorists. All of these men are both members of their institutes, and ordained clergy at the same time. If the rule of their religious institute requires its members to vow poverty, then it’s a safe bet that these clergy have done so.

At the same time, there are many other members of religious institutes who are not clergy. This obviously includes all sisters and nuns, like the Sisters of Mercy or the Poor Clares. There are also numerous religious institutes of men who are not priests-like the Christian Brothers, for example. To make things even more confusing, there are some institutes which include among their members both ordained priests and men who are not ordained. Some Franciscans (for example) are unordained brothers, while others are priests. Since they all ordinarily wear the same Franciscan habit, it’s impossible to tell just by looking whether a Franciscan is “Father Tom” or “Brother Tom.” But regardless of their status as clerics or laity, if these religious are full-fledged members of their institutes (i.e., if they have spent the requisite number of years as aspiring members and eventually made their full profession), and if membership in their institutes requires them to take a vow of poverty, then they ordinarily will have vowed poverty in accordance with their rules.

Unfortunately, it gets even more complicated! There are some institutes, called Societies of Apostolic Life, whose members are not required to make any vows at all (c. 731.1). To cite some examples, the Paulist fathers fall into this category, as do the priests of the Fraternity of St. Peter. Externally, it appears that they live together exactly like those religious who have vowed poverty, but in fact the proper law of their institute does not require them to take such vows. They are priests, but they have not vowed poverty.

And finally, we cannot ignore that category of priests which is the largest by far: the diocesan clergy. Your average pastor or assistant pastor is not a member of a religious institute at all! Rather, he was ordained specifically for active ministry in a particular diocese. He is under the authority of the diocesan bishop, who usually is the bishop who ordained him. Diocesan priests do not make vows. They receive a salary-a very low salary, it is true, but ordinarily one which permits them to live simply yet with dignity. As canon 281.1 notes, clergy deserve the remuneration that befits their condition, since they dedicate themselves to the ecclesiastical ministry. This remuneration should provide for the necessities of life. And when they reach the age of retirement, or must step down from their ministerial positions because of illness, they are to be suitably provided for (c. 281.2).

Note that while priests are entitled to some monetary compensation for their ministry, those who have not vowed poverty are not barred from having certain legitimate outside sources of income. A priest may come from a wealthy family, for example, and if he has not made a vow of poverty in a religious institute, he may inherit money and property from his relatives. Priests who have not vowed poverty may also freely choose to invest their income as they see fit, and so they may lawfully own stocks or shares in mutual funds.

At the same time, however, the Church does want her priests to live luxuriously. Canon 282.1 states clearly that the clergy are to follow a simple way of life, and are to avoid anything which suggests worldliness. Lavish vacations, expensive designer clothing, and luxury vehicles would probably fit into this category. Elsewhere the code asserts that the clergy are to shun everything that is unbecoming to their state in life (c. 285.1). One could argue that extensive casino gambling, for example, would hardly be befitting someone who has embraced the clerical state and thus given his life to God.

And priests are not to engage actively in any sort of business (c. 286). This does not of course pertain to the typical sorts of efforts made to raise revenue for the parish church or school. Rather, it forbids priests from having any sort of part-time job “on the side.” A priest could not spend his day off selling real estate or performing in musical concerts for hire. While he is of course permitted to have hobbies and pastimes of his own, he is not to engage in them solely for the purpose of earning money from them.

So what does all this say about the pastor of Rick’s sister, the one who just bought another brand new car? Well, there is certainly no canonical prohibition preventing the clergy from owning cars, even new ones. Rick states that it is “one of the nicest cars in the whole parish,” but even this is not necessarily a violation of the law. True, if the car is far more luxurious than is really needed, it may have been an instance of poor judgment on the part of the priest. But if the pastor bought a sturdy new car because in his judgment it is important for him to have reliable transportation, his choice would certainly not be reprehensible. Some years ago I met a diocesan priest who invested a huge sum of his own money in a new SUV, because he was concerned that if he were called out to visit a dying parishioner during a snowstorm, he wanted to be able to get there. He was therefore driving an extremely fine vehicle, not because it in itself gave him pleasure, but so that he might be able to minister to the members of his parish in even the worst weather conditions. One could say that his decision to purchase the car was more selfless than selfish!

The bottom line is, our priests are required to live simply, but they have not necessarily taken a vow of poverty. They have the right to appropriate compensation for their ministry to us, which of course is beyond price in any case.

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