The good and bad use of precious objects according to Catholic doctrine. The Church, protector of civilization against “simplicity”




Prof Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

with the collaboration of others

Proposition 4

The Gospel recommends detachment from the goods of the earth. 104 Thus, a truly Christian society should condemn the use of all that is superfluous for subsistence. Jewels, lace, silks and very expensive velvets, dwellings which are unnecessarily spacious and full of decorations, fine food, precious wines, ceremonious and complicated social life, all this is opposed to evangelical simplicity. Jesus Christ desired for His faithful a simple and egalitarian existence. The system of small property is conducive to that ideal. On the contrary, medium and large properties inevitably lead to the excesses mentioned above. The Gospel recommends detachment from the goods of the earth. This detachment does not mean that man should avoid their use, but only that he ought to use them with superiority, strength of soul and Christian temperance, instead of allowing himself to be enslaved by them.

When man does not act in this way but puts those goods to bad use, the bad is not in the goods but in him. For example, a drunkard’s evil is in him rather than in the precious wine that inebriates him. As a matter of fact, many people drink top-quality wines and do not abuse them. The same can be said of other goods. Music, for example, has suffered many abominable deformations in epochs of decadence. This is no reason to renounce it under the pretext that it corrupts. It is fitting to make good mu-sic, and the best, and to use it for good.

God has admirably arranged everything in the universe, and nothing is without its raison d’être. It would be inconceivable for gold, precious stones, raw materials for precious cloths and so on to constitute an exception to the rule. Just like beautiful panoramas, pure and fresh air, flowers etc., they exist by a design of divine goodness to rightly delight men’s senses. Furthermore, they are means to adorn and elevate the daily existence of men, perfect them culturally and make them know the grandeur, wisdom and love of God.

It was with this in mind that the Church always employed all those goods for that which she has of most sacred: divine worship. She would absolutely not have done so if it were a transgression of the will of her Founder.

And in all times she encouraged individuals, families, institutions and nations to follow her example with the same temperance, thus adorning and

dignifying the ambiences of domestic or public life for the spiritual grandeur and material good of men.

This is why she has been very fittingly called the mentor of culture, art and civilization.

One of the advantages of a harmonious inequality of goods is precisely in that it enables in the higher classes a particularly splendid flourishing of the arts, culture, courtesy, etc., which then flow through the whole social body.


1. The “simplicity complex”

How can one explain that so many people respectable for good behaviour welcome the contested proposition?

Whenever, in a given situation, a rich and corrupt social class is formed, it uses wealth to satisfy its depravity. Indeed, a depraved man can turn everything into an instrument or occasion for evil. While natives from some wild tribes will kill or steal because they are poor, some in civilized peoples steal because wealth gives them impunity.

Thus, from rich and corrupt classes arises an excessive and even extravagant luxury in which the more quintessential products of nature or human industry are brought together without the slightest appreciation for the real good of the soul and for the sole purpose of satisfying the endless quest for pleasure of the potentates of the time: nobles, bourgeois from good stock or “parvenus,” plebeian demagogues who attained the pinnacle of wealth and power. This abuse becomes all the more odious as it sometimes coincides with the existence of a class reduced to an unjust deprivation. Hence the fact that, for many, the word “luxury” always comes together with the idea of depravity and excessive concentration of wealth.

For easily understandable reasons, including indignation, often coupled with jealousy and resentment that quickly arise in our egalitarian environment, a reaction that we might call a “simplicity complex” is formed.

2. Simplicity” and the Protestant mentality

It is curious to note that the disputed thesis is very old and smacks of Protestantism. Similar reactions have already happened in other times. Some Protestant sects, reacting to the just pomp of Catholic liturgical ceremonies and the unduly plush personal life of certain bishops, established worship without art, splendour or expression of soul. To give another example, Protestant-inspired campaigns for total abstention from alcohol stem from the idea that evil is in the alcohol rather than in the drunkard’s weakness. Now then, Jesus Christ established wine as a matter for Transubstantiation. The Scriptures say that “wine drunken with moderation is the joy of the soul and the heart.” 105 Some alcoholic beverages were invented and/or are produced by religious orders; the happens with other goods.

3. The Church, protector of civilization against “simplicity”

Is there not some naïve optimism in the Church’s position?

The Church neither ignores human weakness nor exaggerates it. And above all, she confides in grace to make man truly temperate.

According to her doctrine, well employed by temperate man, the magnificent gifts of nature and art are means to elevate him to God. It is beyond doubt that they have been used in this sense by many people who lived in ambiences of a most refined luxury and have been raised to the glory of the altars, such as Popes, kings, cardinals, princes, nobles and other great men.

If men were to stay away from everything that, for a well-balanced soul, would be a remote, – not near – occasion of sin, not only the pleasant productions of art and industry but also beautiful panoramas, which remotely can lead to dissipation, and regions whose riches can indirectly lead to laziness – it would be the death of culture and civilization.

4. Sanctity is not “simplicity”

But, someone may ask, does the Church not recommend penance and detachment from earthly goods? Did many saints not leave all these things in order to sanctify themselves?

The Church has certainly recommended that men abstain from goods of this world as a penance. The need for penance does not arise from some evil existing in those goods but from the disorder in human nature caused by original sin and actual sins. Abstaining from earthly goods is instrumental in mastering disorderly passions and keeping man on the path of hope. Other than this medicinal effect, penance is also done to expiate for one’s faults or our neighbour’s faults before God’s justice. Penance is indispensable to Christian life also in this sense.

Many are the ways that lead to Heaven. Some are exceptional and highly impressive: for example, giving up all riches. Others, less impressive, are for the majority: one of them is employing one’s fortunes well. But all these paths lead to God and have been trodden by saints.

An example taken from another domain will clarify this matter. St. Paul affirms the superiority of celibacy over marriage.106 The Church favours and glorifies perfect chastity in every possible way. And she establishes Orders and Congregations for both sexes for people to maintain it. She demands chastity from her ministers. Pius XII wrote a special encyclical to reiterate that celibacy is superior to the married state.107 In it, he praised the individual faithful who, wishing to dedicate themselves to Catholic Action were to remain celibate to serve the Church better.108 He cited as an example Contardo Ferrini, a 19th-century university professor beatified by Pius XI.

However, this exceptional way is meant only for a few. The immense majority will do the will of God by contracting the Sacrament of Matrimony and assuming the holy and respectable responsibilities of family life. And this is how many have made it to the altars.

Therefore, there is no contradiction between celibacy and marriage. Nor is there any between altogether abandoning riches in cloistered life and virtually using them in the world. Likewise, there is no contradiction between penance, which every Catholic must practice, and the progress of civilization, which enables the use of ever more excellent and abundant spiritual and material goods.

5. Proportionate luxury in all classes

One final observation is about the word, “luxury.” In Brazilian Portuguese, it has two nuances, one of them pejorative and akin to the concept of lust. But the word also has an honest meaning that we will emphasize here.

Upright luxury consists in abundance and refinement of the goods proper for human existence, subordinated to the laws of morals and aesthetics. Luxury is, therefore, more than the strict possession of the sufficient. A painting masterpiece, for example, is not necessary but is ancillary to a pleasant existence.

To what degree can man have, beyond the necessary, the ancillary? – To the degree that his patrimony’s situation permits, and as long as the accumulation of ancillary goods in his hands does not coincide with the misery of others. In that case, observing the requirements of decorum, justice and charity, he must give largely from what he has.

If someone enjoys luxury to the degree he can without failing in his duties toward neighbour, one cannot deem his luxury contrary to the rights of society or third parties.

Goods that make life particularly pleasant and decorous and are considered luxury goods should not be the privilege of a social class. In this sense of the word, luxury should also exist among small and medium-sized property owners and workers. Of course, we mean a proportional and authentic luxury, not one of showy and expensive gizmos a person would use for a few days to appear to belong to a class superior to his own. But luxury whereby man underlines his dignity and that of his class and shows he is proud to belong to it, however modest it may be. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the ideal of elevating the class of rural farm workers. An example of the possibilities of such elevation is the popular luxury of peasants in some regions of Europe, whose houses have sculpted oak furniture, velvet fabrics, golden jewels, all in authentic and flavourful peasant good taste.

How to attain this ideal in the present economic conditions, marked by the production of short- lived items? This is a problem for specialists to solve. The principle that an authentic popular luxury should exist corresponds to a need of human nature that one should recall and consider in one way or another.

6. Family luxury

Upright luxury should be a situation proper for the whole family and not just a single individual. So this luxury has something of a family continuity through generations and partly results from the transmission from father to son – as much as possible in all social classes – of durable and dignified objects. This is one of the most efficient elements in forming a family tradition; civilization should not be deprived of the precious advantages derived from it.

7.  Conclusion

Inequality in rural properties provides a means for the large and medium-size property owners to have the necessary wherewithal to organize, according to the ways of virtue and to the increment of Christian civilization, a particularly worthy and dignified lifestyle.

8. Inevitable criticisms of Church doctrine

Anti-clericals have always derided the balanced position of Catholic doctrine, which is equally distant from a Protestant-flavoured “simplicity” (opposed to civilization) and sensual amorality the use of earthly goods.

“Simplists” accuse the Church of compromising with the world’s sensuality by approving luxury, fine foods and wines.

For their part, the worldly accuse her of not tolerating men’s weaknesses and making their life impossible.

There is no way to avoid this twofold reproach of the impious. In this regard, Our Lord said that St. John the Baptist came in “fasting and penance,” and they said “he has a devil.” And because he eats, the Son of Man is called a glutton.109

* * *

But, someone may ask, does the parable of Lazarus and the bad rich man110 not prove precisely that opulence leads to perdition?

That text from the Gospel is actually instrumental in showing that not every opulent man is condemned, but only bad ones. The parable shows us the rich man in hell. Lazarus, the good poor man, goes to the bosom of Abraham. Now then, who was Abraham? According to Scripture, he was a man who lived in opulence.111 The good poor resting alongside the good rich: behold a moving image of social peace.

Pontifical texts

The good and bad use of precious objects according to Catholic doctrine

“Thus it would not be fair to judge it [the goldsmith profession] useless as such or even harmful or see it as an insult to poverty, almost a challenge to those who can have no part in it. Undoubtedly, abuse can easily happen in this field more than in others. All too often, despite the limits that right conscience sets to the use of wealth, one sees some people show off a provocative luxury devoid of any reasonable meaning and intended only to satisfy vanity, thereby ignoring and insulting the sufferings and needs of the poor. But on the other hand it would be unfair to condemn the production and use of precious objects inasmuch as they fit an honest end according to the precepts of moral law. Everything that contributes to the splendour of social life; everything that highlights its joyous or solemn aspects; everything that makes the perennity and nobility of the spirit shine in material things deserves to be respected and appreciated.” 112

Ostentatious clothing: an evil. Sharp and beautiful attire: a good

“If on the one hand vain ostentation should be condemned, on the other hand, it is entirely normal for man to be concerned with stressing life’s extraordinary circumstances through the external brilliance of his attire and thereby express his feelings of joy, pride and even sadness.” 113

A typically popular existence should also have life and splendour

“It is here that folklore acquires its true meaning. In a society that ignores the most wholesome and fertile traditions, it strives to maintain a living continuity, not one imposed from the outside but arising from the depth of souls for generations, who see it as the expression of their own aspirations, beliefs, desires and regrets, glorious memories of the past and hopes for the future. The inner resources of a people are naturally reflected in the ensemble of their customs, tales, legends, games and parades, where they display the splendour of their costumes and the originality of their groups and figures. Souls that remain in permanent contact with the harsh demands of life often have an instinctive sense of art that, working with a simple matter, obtains magnificent results. In these popular festivals, where good and genuine folklore has its due place, everyone enjoys his common heritage and is further enriched if he consents to give his contribution.”114

Exaggerated and corrupt luxury, a cause of social struggles

“Hence the general situation which We note: with some the desire to acquire riches or to increase their patrimony knows no bounds; others no longer know, as formerly, how to bear the trials which are the usual result of want or poverty; and at the very hour in which rivalries between the rich and the proletariat become a fierce struggle, a great number seem to wish to excite further the hatred of the poor with an unbridled luxury along with a shameless corruption.” 115

The Church praises perfect chastity even for the laity

“And while this perfect chastity is the subject of one of the three vows which constitute the religious state, (cf. CIC, can. 487) and is also required by the Latin Church of clerics in major orders (cf. CIC, can. 132 § 1) and demanded from members of Secular Institutes, (cf. Apost. Const. Provida Mater, art. III, § 2; AAS XXXIX, 1947, p. 121) it also flourishes among many who are lay people in the full sense: men and women who are not constituted in a public state of perfection and yet by private promise or vow completely abstain from marriage and sexual pleasures, in order to serve their neighbour more freely and to be united with God more easily and more closely.

“To all of these beloved sons and daughters who in any way have consecrated their bodies and souls to God, We address Ourselves, and exhort them earnestly to strengthen their holy resolution and be faithful to it.”116



104 Cf. Luke 14:33.

105 Eccli. 31:36.

106 1 Cor. 7:25-35.

107 Pius XII, Encyclical Sacra Virginitas, March 25, 1954.

108 Cf. Papal texts of this Proposition.

109 Mt. 11:18-19.

110 Lk. 16:19-33.

111 Gn. 13:2.

112 Pius XII, Address to the 4th National Congress of the Italian Confederation of Goldsmiths, Jewellers etc., November 9, 1953, in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XV, p. 462 [our translation].

113 Pius XII, Address to the 6th International Congress of Master Tailors, September 10, 1954, in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XVI, p. 131 [our translation].

114 Pius XII, Address to the Meeting of the “Estates General of Folklore,” July 19, 1953 – Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XV, p. 220 [our translation].

115 Benedict XV, Apostolic Letter Sacra Propediem, January 6, 1921 – Editora Vozes Ltda, Petrópolis, p. 19 [out translation].

116 Pius XII, Encyclical Sacra Virginitas, March 25, 1954 nos. 6-7 at