It was the beach house that got to me this time.
When the priest abuse scandals broke in early 2002, inaugurating what Richard John Neuhaus called our “Long Lent,” I had been ordained for less than two years. My initial reaction was shock and anger. Even after the U.S. bishops had promised in the 1990s to “restore trust,” prelates had covered up abuse once more. I was ashamed at being associated, in many peoples’ minds, with depraved priests.When people tried to explain the problem away—it was such a small percentage of clergy, the issue was not limited to the Church—my answer was, “It doesn’t matter. We’re supposed to be better than that.”
Somehow, though, things gradually got better. When my pastor and I addressed the issue from the pulpit, the outpouring of support from our people was overwhelming. The bishops seemed finally to have dealt with the matter squarely. The John Jay report put an end to the Church’s silence, and the Dallas Charter became a model for the protection of youth for many other institutions. The response wasn’t perfect—as Cardinal Dulles, for one, explained in these pages—but the Church in the United States seemed to have turned a corner.
But one aspect of the issue remained hidden. One of the key actors in the bishops’ response was one Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington, D.C. There had been rumors about his behavior, including with seminarians, but nothing conclusive had been determined before he was elevated to one of the most visible sees in America.
In the summer of 2018, I moved to Washington to study moral theology at the Catholic University of America in preparation for seminary work. Soon thereafter, McCarrick was removed from public ministry due to credible allegations of abuse. This news seemed to confirm the rumors I’d heard, but being distracted by the transition from pastor to student, I paid it little heed. Then came the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which in its ghastly allegations seemed to return us to the dark days of 2002. Would we ever get past this? How deep was the corruption in the Church?
That was when I heard about the beach house at the Jersey Shore. McCarrick would bring seminarians and other favored individuals there, often finding an excuse to have one of them share his bed. This infuriated me—not simply what he had done there, bad as that was.I wondered why it was necessary for him to have access to a beach house in the first place. How many of the people whom McCarrick was called to serve could afford such a luxury? Why was he so privileged?
The beach house, owned by the archdiocese of Newark and available to McCarrick for his personal use, was one of many ways in which the cardinal partook of the riches he raised on behalf of the Church. As such, it spoke of a corruption that was deeper than I had suspected. How often had I read about priests who sinned not only against celibate chastity but against financial integrity as well? Over the years, there had been stories of payoffs to avoid lawsuits or embarrassing revelations to the press, embezzlement to support a lavish “priestly” lifestyle, and questionable behavior excused because of fundraising ability or extravagant gift-giving.
Up to this point, however, I had considered these issues the problems of other people—bishops, seminary formators, review boards, and so forth. Now I realized that I had to be part of the solution. The scandals, now reaching back decades, have tarnished the reputation of the priesthood as a whole. What did I, and my brother priests, need to do to restore trust and ensure the effective proclamation of the gospel?
I have come to believe that if there is to be hope of renewal in the priesthood, we priests must address this connection between lust and luxury, the failure to control desire in multiple areas of priestly life. Our dedication to Christ and to the service of his people must be evident in every aspect of our lives. But how? The history of the Church offers a possible answer.
Reform in the Church has often been grounded in the practice of voluntary poverty. In the third century, Anthony of Egypt relinquished his worldly goods and fled to the desert, becoming known as the “Father of Monks” and establishing a way of life that contrasted starkly with that of Christians who were growing too comfortable as their social status increased in the Roman Empire. There was also Benedict of Nursia, who, shocked at the decadence of sixth-century Rome, retreated to the wilderness and instituted a rule for monasteries, focusing on prayer and work, which remains a model for Western Christianity to the present day. In the thirteenth century, Francis of Assisi led a renewal in Catholicism by embracing “holy poverty,” and Dominic of Osma, founder of the Order of Preachers, realized that the wealth of the Church was impeding the proclamation of the gospel. In the sixteenth century, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, and others likewise renewed religious life by exchanging comfortable ways for a liberating austerity. More recently, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker and other lay movements have sought ways of life in which Christians entrust themselves completely to God’s providential care, not to wealth.
Traditionally, the major distinction between religious and “secular” (that is, not in a religious order) priests is that the religious accept the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But all priests make promises of obedience to a bishop or a religious superior, and most priests in the Latin Rite are required to remain celibate. That leaves the vow of poverty as the distinguishing mark between religious and secular priests.
Why the difference? Because, historically, parish priests were often allowed to marry. To this day, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox priests (though typically not bishops) are permitted to marry before ordination. (This is true of permanent deacons in the Latin Rite as well.) Taking a vow of poverty while seeking to raise a family is difficult, if not unjust.
In the West, however, where celibacy has been enforced, priests were long expected to have their own sources of income, through a benefice, gifts from the faithful, or other means. It is only in recent decades that a steady salary, often uniform in a particular diocese, has become the norm, along with pension plans, health insurance, and other benefits.
In a wealthy country such as the United States, parish priests can be viewed as middle-class bachelors. With most of their expenses, including food and housing, taken care of, they have plenty of disposable income. Though the Church encourages them to give any excess to the needs of the apostolate and especially to the poor, this is left to the individual’s discretion. The result is that many priests can afford to go to nice restaurants, take expensive vacations, and engage in other indulgences.
Since the Second Vatican Council, however, the Church has called parish priests “to embrace voluntary poverty by which they are more manifestly conformed to Christ and become eager in the sacred ministry.” John Paul II, in Pastores Dabo Vobis, recommended that priests accept “austerity,” while Pope Francis has by example and exhortation challenged priests to live lives of simplicity.
Poverty, simplicity, and even austerity sound straightforward, but what do these terms actually mean for the parish priest? Certainly not the destitution of the involuntarily poor. In addition to having a roof over his head and three meals a day, the parish priest will also typically need a car and a cell phone in order to engage in ministry. Nor does he commit to the communal poverty of a religious community; many priests live alone, or with one or two other priests who have different habits and interests and rarely stay in a parish for more than a few years.
Perhaps a story told by Cardinal Dolan can explain the kind of poverty to which priests might be called. Dolan, visiting a Dominican friar, noticed that his room was austere. He asked the friar where he kept the rest of his belongings. The friar said that this was all he had, and then remarked that Dolan himself had only a suitcase with him. The Cardinal responded, “But I’m just passing through.” The friar replied, “Aren’t we all?”
Indeed, Vatican II stated that the spirit of evangelical poverty is something to which all Christians should aspire. Evangelical poverty begins with the understanding that all created objects are ephemeral, and the desire to use them for the glory of God and the aid of our brothers and sisters. As Ignatius of Loyola expressed the matter, “I should use these things to the extent that they help me toward my end, and rid myself of them to the extent that they hinder me. To do this, I must make myself indifferent to all created things, in regard to everything which is left to my freedom of will and is not forbidden.”
This dedication can deepen when we consider that we pursue evangelical poverty in imitation of Christ, who, St. Paul tells us, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). In the Incarnation, Christ stripped himself of his glory, accepting what Christopher Franks has called his ontological poverty: his self-abasement in humility before his heavenly Father in accepting the human condition. The French School of Spirituality describes this form of poverty as anéantissement, our “nothingness” before God. We should not take this to mean that we are worthless—not at all!—but rather that we are constantly receiving God’s gift of being. We adopt an attitude of trustful dependence in the face of our vulnerability in a fallen world, commending ourselves to God’s providential care.
Spiritual poverty must, however, be reinforced by some form of material poverty. Perhaps my possessions don’t “own” me, but that doesn’t mean that I am virtuous in my use of material goods or my openness to the poor. Jesus’s example is helpful here as well. He was born in a stable, and when he was presented in the Temple, his parents offered the gift of the poor. He told a would-be disciple, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:57). He and his disciples were dependent, too, upon a group of women as they journeyed from town to town. And he ended his earthly life stripped of everything that could be called his.
Yet Jesus was not entirely destitute. Thomas Aquinas points out that Jesus did not imitate John the Baptist’s austerity, because their missions were different. John drew people to the wilderness for a baptism of repentance; Jesus came to bring good news to the poor and so met them where they were. He was not averse to enjoying the hospitality of others, whether with his friends at Bethany, with Simon the Pharisee, at a wedding in Cana, or at a feast celebrating Matthew’s conversion. He was even called a glutton and a drunkard! But he went wherever his ministry took him, always ready to move on to the next place: “Let us go to the other towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came” (Mark 1:38).
In one of the best-known Gospel stories, a rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus first tells him simply to follow the commandments. The man replies that he has done that, but he is searching for more. Jesus responds: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.” This passage has inspired saints and religious over the centuries. It has also sometimes been used to support the view of two “classes” within the Church: one composed of those who just follow the commandments, and the second of those who are “perfect” and follow the evangelical counsels. Thomas Aquinas, however, notes that the call to be perfect is addressed to everyone, and that perfection does not subsist in the counsels but in charity. Though we are warned that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom, it is not impossible; Thomas points to the example of Abraham, who was rich but walked before the Lord and was perfect.
In addition, we sometimes miss the key point about the story of the rich young man: Selling possessions and giving to the poor is not an end in itself, but a step that the young man must take in orderto follow Jesus. His poverty will be an instrument of freedom in responding to the call to discipleship.
Ultimately, the path of discipleship leads to the Cross, to the act of complete self-giving. Fear of death—our unwillingness to accept that we are not, in the end, truly the masters of our fates—encourages the illusion that nothing can touch us if we just accumulate enough goods. But there is no profit if one gains the whole world but loses one’s soul.
Priests are called to offer a countercultural witness to the consumerism that degrades the environment and produces what Pope Francis calls our “throwaway culture,” which extends to our attitude toward other people, too. How easily we cast off friends, spouses, or children when they become an inconvenience! We so often view others as obstacles to overcome or instruments to achieve our desires. Priests are not immune.
Evangelical poverty thus provides us with a potential solution to the continued crisis in the Church. By refusing to “appropriate” things or people, we can curb what Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust for domination, which tempts us to view ourselves as lords over others instead of accepting the lordship of Christ. Poverty can help free us from what St. John calls “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16)—breaking apart what the scandals have shown are the links among covetousness, unchastity, and the abuse of power.
How is this to be lived out? Fasting is a start: Physical hunger reveals our dependence on the created order, the needs of those who do not have enough to eat, and our spiritual hunger for God. The virtue of liberality, of generous (and prudent) giving, is another step. One theologian has recommended what I like to call the “Zacchaeus 50-50 plan.” Recall that when Zacchaeus encountered Jesus, he was not required to give away everything he had—half was enough. What if, when we were planning a purchase, or maybe a vacation, we were willing to give the same amount to the poor?
Evangelical poverty also supports the development of the virtue of religion, which means giving to God what he is due. We owe him everything, so we can never completely fulfill our duty. But that debt should engender filial fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom. This type of fear is the reverential awe that we experience as we stand before the Lord and recognize our dependence on him for all that we have and are, an attitude practiced through evangelical poverty.
Our experience of God’s goodness in these ways brings us to authentic hope. The spirit of poverty fosters the eschatological hope for the renewal of the cosmos. For poverty is ultimately based in knowing that we are made for so much more than the satisfaction of our physical appetites, and that, ultimately, the Church’s wealth is Jesus Christ: “Seek ye first the Kingdom, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matt. 6:33).
In the end, in evangelical poverty we joyfully accept our dependence on God and see all created things as gifts. “Freely you have received,” Jesus tells us; “freely give” (Matt. 10:8). As disciples, we are liberated to offer ourselves, and our possessions, in service of the gospel and of the people for whom Christ offered his life. That sounds like a rich life indeed.
Timothy J. Cusick is academic dean at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary.
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