In J.F. Powers’ 1963 National Book Award winner Morte D’ Urban, the acceptance of lavish gifts sets the protagonist, Fr. Urban Roche, into a spiral of spiritual conflict. In this comic masterpiece, Fr. Urban, a priest in a fictitious religious order that is noted in history “for nothing at all,” is an ecclesiastical hot shot who enjoys lobster and champagne, all for the good of the order, of course. His vow of poverty is more of a theoretical goal rather than a lived reality. Fr. Urban says of his adherence to his vow “to the spirit, though, rather than the letter.” The acceptance of gifts, however, puts him in questionable ethical situations and leads him to live a lifestyle of a bachelor rather than a priest.
After accepting a tract of land so the order could build a golf course at their retreat house in order to attract “the right kind of people,” Fr. Urban is knocked out by an errant golf ball shot by his very own bishop. Only in his convalescence, and when he takes leadership of the order, does he realize how living the high life of luxury pulled him away from his true spiritual purpose as a priest and a leader.
Corruption in the Church around money and material goods is of course nothing new. In the mountain villages of northern Italy, there exists a dumpling-type delicacy called strangolapreti, translated in English as “strangle the priest.” Legend tells the tale of how hungry priests, coming to the Council of Trent (1538), ate so many dumplings that local cooks felt the need to replace the more expensive ingredient of meat with spinach.