Pope Francis' recent admonition to clergy to not drive luxury cars because it sends the wrong message to the people has stirred up passions.
The pope urges clergy to drive modest vehicles, which is consistent with his philosophy to live without excessive materialism and to identify with the poor.
In a story reported recently, a priest in Columbia received a new Mercedes Benz from his family and in respect to the pope's message decided to sell it. He did not say what he was going to do with the money. In another case, a priest recently offered to donate a 25-year-old Renault and was probably shocked when Pope Francis accepted the donation.
The pope has hit a nerve here -- not just for priests and nuns, but for all of us in the clergy. I don't think the issue is only about choosing the right kind of car for the environment -- although I'm confident he would give a nod on that reason as well. The broader issue for American clergy has to do with deciding how far clergy may enjoy the financial and material benefits of our culture without losing their credibility, while serving the rich and the poor?
In 2009, I attended a meeting of clergy in Florida. The economy was sinking, and I saw people standing on highway ramps holding signs begging for jobs. As I left the meeting, I saw the senior clergy's car, a spotless, shiny and relatively new Cadillac. I stopped in my tracks. I became angry and, frankly, embarrassed and appalled at the sight of that car.
When clergy drive luxury cars are they diminishing their own credibility and status? Does it give the wrong appearance that our values are not aligned with the poor? Should we be concerned about those kinds of images? Cars in America are not simply about transportation. They are cultural symbols and an extension of our identity.
Is there such a thing as the appropriate clergy automobile?
I already know that clergy will take me to task by saying, "What I drive is my business." They will also remind me that Pope Francis is a Jesuit and that order takes a vow of poverty and, furthermore, not all clergy in other religions are required to make that commitment. They would be correct and I wholeheartedly agree that clergy have the right to live in respectable homes, wear nice clothes, send their kids to college, socialize with their congregants, go on vacations, save for their retirements and live a lifestyle that enables them and their families to fit in to the community they serve. Clergy and leadership should work in partnership to develop financial packages that fulfill these goals.
Yet, clergy should think carefully about a perception that not only distances them from those they serve, but gives the impression they are in competition with the more wealthy segments of the congregation. This behavior can cause others to lose sight of the good work they perform.
Perception is reality. When a clergyperson drives a luxury car or is excessively materialistic then how can he or she preach from Scripture the lessons of holiness that teach about sharing a portion of one's wealth with the community and leading a life as a humble servant of God? The pope is right to point out this disconnect.
Clergy who serve congregations cannot have it both ways. The attention and respect they desire as teachers and practitioners of the religion itself puts them and their families in a difficult position. The public they serve has an ideal that they should serve everyone regardless of their economic status. Clergy in all major faiths subscribe to this as well. Clergy families have the same issues and needs that other families have, but they have to be thoughtful about how far they can go to exercise their free will to purchase high end consumer goods, which, like it or not, can create envy and resentment.
In Proverbs 27 it is written: "As a refining pot clarifies silver, and a crucible purifies gold, so what you value reveals your true nature." It all comes down to a matter of priorities and values, not just for clergy but for all of us. Remember, "Your good name is your greatest treasure, your reputation more precious than silver and gold."
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.