The oddly symbiotic relationship between Catholicism and decadent lifestyles has long stood at the centre of arguments levelled at the Church by its opponents. For centuries, critics of Catholicism have looked upon the gold-leafed, stone-encrusted, high-vaulted ceilings of cathedrals with disdain, as they call out the hypocrisy of a church which claims to worship a humble God in such lavish surroundings. The derision that the incongruity of these glamourous, yet sacred, places engenders has only been intensified by the historic reports of the comfortable lifestyles sustained by the Church’s leaders. Rumour has it that Pope Paul II died in 1471 from gorging himself on Cantaloupe melon, and more recently, the Vatican is said to have opened a luxury goods store where Church officials can indulge in designer goods to their hearts’ content. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus taught his disciples to ‘save up for yourselves treasures in heaven’; ironically, the Church’s pontiffs and regional chiefs show little concern when it comes to satiating their appetites for earthly luxuries.
The Pope of the poor
Shortly after his election in 2013, Pope Francis spoke to the media, declaring his aspiration to be the leader of a ‘poor church, for the poor’, and overtly rejecting the ruling style of his predecessor, Benedict, who throughout his reign earned himself the title of the “Prada Pope”. In a series of sharp and decisive moves early on in his papacy, Francis experienced a little success in his efforts to cleanse the Church of its flashy exterior. The high-profile suspension of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his position as Bishop of Limburg in 2013, on the grounds of his financial misconduct and overspending, set in place the frugal stance which the Pontiff has held for throughout his papacy thus far. Indeed, Francis’ own personal preference for the more ‘every day’ has been well documented by journalists in Vatican City. The Pope prefers to holiday in Rome than to recline at the truly resplendent Palace of Castel Gandolfo (which he has opened up to the public) and is often seen sporting a black Swatch watch, a far cry from the Rolex which would peep out from underneath the cuff of John Paul II’s cassock.
Priests and politics
Yet, in spite of his best efforts to renounce the glamourous accoutrements that adorn the Church, it doesn’t seem that Pope Francis has been entirely successful in beckoning in a new era of financial sobriety for Catholicism globally. The international press has cited the case of spending by the Catholic Church in Hungary as evidence of this denomination having thus far failed to sever all of its ties with capitalism. It has been reported that Viktor Orbán’s far right, national-conservative party, Fidesz, has recognised the greed of the Catholic leaders there and has exploited it to enhance its own political gains. In Hódmezővásárhely, where Fidesz holds regional power, the party has reportedly diverted taxpayers’ money away from social services and towards the clergy, allowing them to begin construction on a third church in this very small community of worshippers, and renovate existing chapels. In return, it has been suggested that the party silently demands priests use their voices to encourage voters to make choose Fidesz at the ballot box. Father László Németh of Hódmezővásárhely obeyed this tacit expectation, and has received huge criticism for his suggestion that his parishioners should feel a moral obligation to vote for Orbán’s right-wing populists based on the financial opportunities it has afforded the church.
Not all Catholics?
In the American Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia, a vocal group of parishioners have launched a boycott. The group, Lay Catholic Voices for Change, are refusing to donate funds or contribute to collections to the diocese until the issue of financial mismanagement is addressed. And perhaps this will agitate change. But I can’t help but regret devotees of a faith seeing no alternative way to clean up the image of their church than to renounce what it is they believe in.