Radix malorum est cupiditas*, or so we’re told. Now I’m hardly the prodigal son – you don’t work for the Herald if you want to live like Elton John – but I don’t exert the tightest control over my finances either. So I was a little unnerved to find myself awarded the singular honour of trying to survive on a priest’s stipend for a week. Frugality is all well and good; penury is a different matter altogether.
Curiously, no one at the Herald actually knew how much the stipend was. The implication seemed to be that it wasn’t very much. And that I might personally benefit from the process. Ha.
There is a persistent stereotype that Catholic priests never have any money. Well, no, that’s not quite right. Actually, there’s a persistent stereotype that Catholic priests always complain that they don’t have any money.
You’d think they would – the basic stipend is between £7,000 and £9,000. That’s about £135 to £170 a week, less than what I spend on rent and bills. What would I eat? How would I live? Where would I live? Was I going to have to sleep under my desk for a week?
I clutched at my head as Hollywood’s tiny, plaintive string orchestra of pathos began to play inside my skull and I flashed back to my student days. A week-long experiment at university – not one I’d care to repeat – scientifically demonstrated that, once you’ve dealt with the trifling matter of paying off the landlord (or bribing the bailiffs, should you have reached that stage), it’s perfectly possible, if somewhat uncomfortable, to survive on less than £1.50 a day.
But survive is the operative word: it’s really not much fun. For that kind of money you don’t get to take public transport; you don’t get to use your mobile phone; you don’t, I recall, get to eat a lot of fruit or vegetables. Instead you mostly subsist on an I-laugh-inthe-face-of-scurvy diet of economy white bread and supermarket own-brand baked beans.
A little digging, though, revealed that priests’ circumstances aren’t quite as dire as I’d first imagined. Firstly, many, though not all, priests receive a regular if small supplementary income from saying Masses. Secondly, parish priests receive the contents of the collection plate twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, which, in large or wealthy parishes, can amount to several thousand pounds.
Most importantly by far, however, is the simple fact that priests don’t suffer from the same key financial considerations that afflict the rest of us. A quick “where does the money go?” poll of Herald House staff revealed, uncontroversially, that our biggest expenses are, in no particular order, rent or mortgage repayments and the associated utility bills and running costs, food, family and saving for the future.
But not for priests. They live, almost to a man, in Church accommodation, so they pay no rent, bills or council tax. Food is provided most of the time. Saving for a pension is not essential – retired priests continue to receive the basic stipend – and, with the exception of a small number of ex-Anglicans, priests have neither wives nor children. The stipend, therefore, is simply spending money.
This combination of a very modest wage with almost complete freedom from normal financial concerns – something that’s usually only the preserve of the mega-rich – seems to produce two distinctive patterns of behaviour.
On the one hand, a number of priests – mainly those of the older generation – confessed to a degree of financial ineptitude on the scale normally only seen in the board rooms of top American corporations. Many went straight from school to seminary to parish and have had little or no experience with money.
“Oh, I’m hopeless with money. Utterly hopeless. But I do have a rather good treasurer who just puts cheques in front of me to sign,” they murmur, apologetically (and trustingly). This group also includes the religious, who take a vow of poverty. “It’s no use talking to me about money – I’m a member of an order,” a Jesuit told me. “You need to talk to one of the millionaires – a parish priest.” On the other hand, younger (well, under 50) and more recently ordained priests are, relatively speaking, far more fiscally savvy. Being a priest is no longer seen simply as a vocation. It is also a job, and the Church increasingly recognises that priests must be adequately remunerated if they are to feel appreciated.
Far fewer people come directly to the priesthood now than 50 or even 20 years ago; many, if not most, of the priests being ordained in Britain today will have had careers outside the Church, often well-paying ones. Not only are they used to managing money, they’re also used to having a disposable income to spend as they will in their leisure time.
And what do they spend their money on? “The same as everyone else,” one young priest told me, tongue ever so slightly-in-cheek. “In reverse order of importance: gym membership, shopping, restaurants, holidays, fags, booze.” For many priests, the single biggest drain on resources is saving to go away on holiday – priests receive six weeks’ leave a year. Since the dawn of the cheap package holiday we expect to be able to vacation abroad, preferably in the sun. Priests are no exception, though this wasn’t always the case: it’s hard to imagine 30 years ago Fr Flaherty putting on his Bermuda shorts and paddling around in Alicante.
If it seems unreasonable to grumble about having to save to go on holiday consider that the nature of their job means that it is difficult, if not impossible, for priests to spend much of their time off quietly at home. Parish life (for which read parishioners) tends to intrude. So instead of being rained on in Margate, our priests can now be found enjoying a wellearned rest on beaches all across the globe. (Of course every silver lining has its cloud: now, however far you travel, you always risk bumping into the long arm of the Church. Like in Nashville, Tennessee, memorably.) All of this, however, is not meant to suggest that priests are rolling in money – far from it. But they are, overall, genuinely happy with their lot. One seemed to capture the mood when he said: “There’s no real cause for anxiety. We’re fed, there’s a roof over our heads, and a guaranteed salary. I really can’t complain. In fact, I have to admit, I think we do rather well.” So there you have it. The stereotype of the penniless – and complaining – priest seems utterly unjustified and the Herald’s social experiment – reducing me to abject poverty – was something of a failure. I managed to stay in budget just by cooking a bit more and drinking a bit less.
But one thing did become abundantly clear. Once bread and butter costs – food, shelter, security – have been dealt with, living on a restricted budget not only forces but frees you to simplify your life. If there’s no way that you can compete in the prevailing “bigger, better, faster” culture you don’t even need to pretend that you’re trying. Pressing concerns are suddenly revealed as trivial; insecurity over social status diminishes or disappears. And you can’t buy that kind of peace of mind.
*Money is the root of all evil – Prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.