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Cars, Congregations, and Conspicuous Consumption

Poor Pope Benedict. The current issue of Time magazine, highlights four “ways the pope is cleaning house,” and labels the pope emeritus the “Prada pope” for his “lavish apartment” and “custom red shoes.” Elsewhere, the Huffington Post mentions Benedict’s “luxury cars” that “included a custom-made Renault, a BMW X5, and a Mercedes.” The context is Pope Francis arriving at Castel Gandolfo in…a Ford Focus.

Happily, Francis’s stern message of the prior week is getting around. As a Reuters story says:

  As part of his drive to make the Catholic Church more austere and focus on the poor, Francis told young and trainee priests and nuns from around the world that having the latest smartphone or fashion accessory was not the route to happiness.

"It hurts me when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model car, you can't do this," he said.

"A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world," he said.  

This teaching is for all Catholics, not just priests and nuns. It is of course more embarrassing for the Church when its clerics and religious spend exorbitant amounts of money on luxury goods. But it really should be obvious from our church parking lots whether we are in fact a church of the poor…or not.

The Church’s teaching about property, about modest use of goods, and of the necessity of putting surplus at the disposal of others is not new. It’s old. It’s all over Scripture and the patristic writers. It’s in Aquinas, who distinguishes between natural and artificial wealth. It’s in all the modern social encyclicals—take Pope Paul VI's straightforward claim that "the superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the service of poor nations" (Populorum Progressio, no. 49) or Pope John Paul II's scathing criticism of "superdevelopment." It’s in the Catechism—paragraphs 2405 and 2407 are pretty clear. It’s entirely practical—that is, a person could go out and start living it out tomorrow. It is amazing to me that the American church sometimes pretends that this teaching simply doesn’t exist. Of course, the Church doesn't teach that everyone is supposed to be St. Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day. But it does teach that simplicity should govern the lives of all Christians, and it does warn us—all of us—against conspicuous and never-ending consumption.

It is sometimes objected that this represents a misunderstanding of economics. Some say: Pope Francis could employ more people if he had three luxurious cars. But this objection would only be relevant if the alternative to luxury spending were hoarding (which the Bible is also against). Francis doesn’t say: Horde it, don’t spend it. The alternative to hoarding is not private consumption. It is community joy and a merciful love of the poor. It is an economy of communion, reciprocity, and charity. It is shared treasure and treasure in heaven.

Spending on luxury goods is in fact a losing proposition economically and socially. As Fred Hirsch argued several decades ago, many of these goods are “positional” and simply represent competitive expenditures on the part of the affluent to have a “nicer” house or car than their affluent neighbors. There is a difference between goods that can be produced more effectively, and thus distributed more widely, and goods/services which of their nature are scarce or relative. Not everyone can have a house cleaner or a personal driver, nor can everyone buy a house in the “best” school district or have the “most stylish” outfit. As a developed society becomes closer to meeting necessity for all, it counterproductively starts devoting more and more resources to these relative goods, bidding up their price without actually achieving any greater position.

Besides, all the research says clearly that aspirations to these goods don’t make us happy, because we adapt very quickly to a new normal… and then need even more elaborate goods in order to get the same pleasure (what social scientists call "hedonic adaptation"). Studies show that, while people have stable aspirations for things like marriage or having children, aspirations for material wealth and rewards constantly move farther up the escalator. Richard Easterlin writes, summarizing these studies: “the happiness of an individual can be increased by allocating his or her time to those domains…in which hedonic adaptation and social comparison are less important” (Economics and Happiness, OUP, 2008, 54). The literature here is remarkably consistent: Friendships, family, and personal health are especially important, but involvement in civic and charitable activity is also crucial. People simply tend to be more satisfied with the persistent, intrinsic rewards of these activities than with the cycle of earning, shopping, acquiring, and moving on to the next consumer aspiration. But as importantly, more time, energy, and money devoted to these activities can be as socially and economically fruitful as luxury spending. Spend more on what matters, and spend more on those in need.

However, beyond the economics argument, what should catch our attention is…how much this catches attention. An encyclical? A fortnight for freedom? No, but look at what the Pope is driving. Look how he could drive something fancy…and instead chooses not to. Who does that? Because our neighbors often don’t do that, celebrity culture doesn’t indicate that you should do that…indeed, we often don’t do it ourselves. The answer is obvious: followers of Christ do that. The choice not to have everything they could makes it clear who they are following. Perhaps especially in America, where we have never had any kind of formal aristocracy, social critics have always noted how important riches and possessions were for communicating our social identity and status. Things like cars and houses are absolutely crucial identity statements. We think driving a certain kind of car or getting a certain kind of house means that “we’ve made it”—and shows others that we have made it. We describe these things as “rewards for our hard work.” We feel obligated to ooh and aah over someone’s extravagant purchases…as they show them off to us.

We know what Jesus says to the rich man...well, you’ve had your rewards. But these are not the real rewards of good work. Good work should be a joy in itself, and a service to the world. Luxuries are not a sign that we’ve succeeded. As Pope Francis notes, it “hurts” him to see Catholic leaders driving luxurious vehicles, because it is not a sign of success, but of failure. We are called to consider what our possessions say about us; in our culture especially they are a powerful form of speech. Thus, rejecting luxury sends a powerful signal.

What are we saying about our faith in our consumption choices? Maybe we could even have a big, churchwide event? How about the August for Austerity? Or if that’s too soon, maybe Advent…

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Thank you for this, David - it's very well said and (to me at least) very challenging too. Fr. Komonchak wrote about the tradition of preaching on this subject a few years back here at dotCommonweal, and his post is a good companion to this one. It even has a similarly alliterative title: "Coats, cold words, and chamberpots."

You're right that this teaching, this way of thinking about our obligation to the poor as Christians, is pretty widely ignored. I can't recall hearing a homily that put it plainly (however gently), and there have been occasions when it seemed conspicuous by its absence. My last parish was a very affluent one with consistently awful preaching. And one of the things the preaching lacked was any kind of challenging message -- we heard a lot of "remember to make time for your family" and "don't work too hard," but nothing that might trouble the conscience of people who are fortunate enough to have a lot more than they need. I have just enough self-awareness to know I need to have my conscience troubled in that way. Fr. K ended his blog post quoting a sermon of St. John Chrysostom: "It is not required that you give much, but that you not give too little." A homily that included that line might not go over well in my old parish, or in my current one. But it would be good for everyone.

No more pontificating. The humble Nazarene. What a contrast. May the Lord continue to inspire Francis. Deo Gratias. 

I hope the Raymond Burkes and Salvatore Cordileones of this church world are listening.  The odious presentation of "over-the-topness" that their raiment gives is borderline sinful.  It is time that "Princes" of the Church enter the 21st century and take on the mantle of Servants of the Servants of God.

Ladies and Gentlemen:  the clothing and associated costs revealed here are disgusting:  http://www.awrsipe.com/Burke/TheCostofLookingGood2007.pdf

Thanks, Mollie for the link to the Komonchak post and the bracing discussion that followed. Dipping back into a relevant past discussion can lend an interesting depth to a current one. And your instinct about this was "right on the money," so to say.

I was watching a Celtics game last winter and my 15 year old television died.  My wife and I made the decision not to get a new one.  We're doing a lot more reading!  Another "indispensible" item that I've gone without for the last two years is a smart phone.  

I also appreciate the reference to Fr. K's post, which offers some excellent examples of how directly the Church Fathers took on this issue. One interesting thing to note about their context was that, in this period of the late Roman Empire, a very small percentage of their congregation would have had significant spare resources to spend on luxury goods - perhaps at best 10%, but likely even less than that. Helen Rhee's Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich surveys the estimates by explaining maybe 3% of the population were genuine "elites" with significant spare resources. Today, it is perhaps a blessing that so many more of us have this opportunity, but also something of a scandal that we might only apply this critique of luxury consumption to "the 1%." It is an unfortunate dynamic of our society that we tend to notice more clearly what we lack relative to those who are slightly above us, rather than how much more we have than those below.  

Thanks, Jim McCrea, for that link. My favorite item is the $1,000 gloves. (I think I had a pair like that for making snowballs as a kid, although they may have been mittens.) There's a lot to be said for the footwear as well.

Do they set the cathedral air conditioning to 54 degrees, or is one of the attendants the designated episcopal brow mopper?

(I think the designated flabellum waver is in charge of brow drying.)

I like the car the pope is in in this picture.  He's so sweet looking.  So normal.

(It's in an article about the indulgences he's granting to Twitter users.)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/17/pope-indulgences-twitter_n_3610...

It is an unfortunate dynamic of our society that we tend to notice more clearly what we lack relative to those who are slightly above us, rather than how much more we have than those below.

David Cloutier,

Do we? I am not high on the "how much more we have" scale, American version, but it has been clear to me for a long time that by any normal measure—health, longevity, material resources, freedom, educational opportunity, and others—I am more fortunate than 99% of the people who have ever lived. That is very little due to any merit of mine. Nor does it seem to have made me a more virtuous or grateful person. It is simply an obvious fact. Maybe, just maybe, it is a slight hedge against envy. At least I have never felt a desire to exchange lives with anyone else.

Thanks for your piece here, David.  Your words are always clear and refreshing. In this essay here, you prompt us to consider the unfolding of a papacy that truly is moving, albeit slower than some might hope, the church and quite possibly the world "from the sacrisity to the streets" and be "agents of God's mercy."  As @pontifex says:  "A church that stays in the sacristy too long gets sick”

For me, Francis is the watershed moment the Catholic Church could not do without if a relationship with Jesus through the Church were to continue to be meaningful in people's lives. His papacy has restored hope, not because of him as he says, but because he points so rightly so to Jesus Christ.  I loved his encouragement to the people in Vatican Square to stop chanting "Francis" and start proclaiming the name of Jesus.  The authenticity of his papacy and words like the ones you have reported on are quite dangerous.  Clearly, now, the world and the Church know that this is not a provisional show, but a mission he received that he has taken very seriously.  How refreshing.  

It will be interesting to see how other churches and faiths come to appreciate Francis' ministry. The upcoming "Preachers of LA" series that celebrates ministers' wealth could backfire on these individuals and their congregations.  

His injunction to young seminarists and novices was quite encouraging to someone like myself some 20 years into this life.  Having spoken rather generally about some of the ills that have plague our world and sustained poverty and hunger, Francis brilliantly challenged the idealistic and youthful candidates for religious life and priesthood to make a significant impact in the world by the way they live their lives.  In some way, focussing on aspirants to a life of ministry, Francis may recognize that changing the system depends on new recruits.  

Older women and men find it hard to change.  Older women and men who are religious and clerics, in my estimation, see change as even more difficult.  Personal conversations with some have spoken about an ecclesial system that can be quite uneven in meting out justice (I am thinking here of pay & benefits religious and receive).  Unfortunately, some have found themselves having to take care of their needs and securing even basic housing, welfare, and retirement.  

The system is broke.  Francis has a monumental task of rebuilding God's Church.  With his gracious appeal and concrete commitment, I expect at least a foundation to be laid during his pontificate.  

Spes non confundit!

Firstly I want to say I'm a huge fan of the last 5 popes, (others as well).  All appeared to be greatly inspired by the Holy Spirit, bringing to the church what was most needed at the time, as well as each 'building" upon the last.  Pope Francis is no exception.

That said, it sadly appears that most of you, including David Cloutier, have fallen right into the secular MSM "Pope Comparison, Good Pope Bad Pope" narrative.  The dead giveaway was the intro into Prada, when in fact, the pope never wore Prada.  Not only was it a media invention, but the red shoes have profound theological significance.  Truth be told they were made by the Vatican Shoemaker and probably cost less than the shoes most us wear every day. 

As for the Papal Mercedes, it was donated; saving both Mercedes money in advertising and the Vatican money in going to a junk yard to find an old Fiat. 

While I admit to being a fan of Pope Francis, many of us, along with Father Z, rightly predicted where the "car story" was going to go with anyone who had 3 brain cells. 

http://wdtprs.com/blog/2013/07/pope-francis-inspected-vatican-parking-ch...

Despite the great case that Father Z makes in his blog, I would also add that despite giving the desired humble impression, it actually costs more in the long run for extra security in a non-bulletproof pope mobile. 

Here's the real issue.  This is a phony Benedict/ JPII bad, Francis good.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  ALL are/were good, but in different ways.  It's a combination of both ignorance in Catholic Tradition and a (very) cherry-picked Francis.  All 3 popes "cleaned house," but only Francis seems to get the secular press for it.  Benedict alone fired a bishop a month.  And yes, Francis may be a bit more pastoral and simple, but that doesn't make the smells and bells and pomp bad.  All of that has great significance and beauty, of which I would guess greater than 95% of Americans, including Catholics, are clueless.  Beauty not only transcends, it also offers something that the whole world, especially the poor, who have few if any other places to get it, can appreciate.  From every red shoe to every vestment to every liturgical candle, it all has theolgocial importance, along with the beauty.

If anyone thinks for a minute that Pope Benedict, got a high off of red shoes or a papal apartment, think again.  He probably "offfered every minute of it up as a sacrifice" when all he really wanted was a simple life to read, write, and play his piano in his older age.  Who could doubt the humilty of a man who ceded the most powerful position on planet earth?  Same for JPII, who also only ever wanted to be a cloistered monastic monk.  JPII also was laughed at by Americans for his warning against the "isms," ranking consumerism number one.  And rest assured, all 3 were/are staunchly pro life, against women priest, against divorce, and all the other biggies the secular world thinks the church "needs to change."

Lastly, perhaps the biggest irony is the real, and shameful comparison, that could be made, between our first family and Pope Francis.  I'm not saying the Obamas need to go camping at a state park, but after 50 lavish vacations, the last at the cost of 100 million, often taking separate jets (Pope Francis flew coach to the conclave), flyng in rock stars for concerts and private chefs to make a pizza, among many other extraravagances of which the Obamas feel entitled, maybe a hyprocrisy check is well overdue. 

I won't be holding my breath.  Just the way pedophila goes largely ignored unless it was a crime of a Catholic Priest, living the aristocratic life right out of the Hunger Games by our First Family is also little or no concern to the MSM and liberal left, including many American Catholics. 

I take offense not to the simple style of Pope Francis, but to the hypocrisy of  the left, who truth be told, don't give a flying fig about consumerism.  Forgive me if I'm not buying the narrative.  When or if you guys go after the avarice in our own country, and give Pope Francis the same "pat on the back" for 2000 year old church dogma, well, then maybe I'll take you seriously.

 Holiness comes in all shapes and sizes.

 

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I don't think Father Z is probably  best commentator to point to; his commentary seems to be very unkind to people who think differently than him.

For me, there is much difference in virtue between the very best and the very worst of us (though I think we should certainy emulate the best), so I would agree  our Pope's preaching to live more simply and better serve the poor applies to all of us equally.

 

"NOT much difference in virtue", I meant

Frances:

When I read your comment:

“Firstly I want to say I'm a huge fan of the last 5 popes, (others as well).  All appeared to be greatly inspired by the Holy Spirit, bringing to the church what was most needed at the time, as well as each ‘building’ upon the last.  Pope Francis is no exception.”

I thought that I would read a reasonable discussion of our new pope style and teaching.

Instead you lost me when you referenced Fr. Z’s use of sarcasm to undermine and I think mock the attempts of Pope Francis to teach the Gospel not just in words and actions.  Fr. Z showed his true colors when soon after Pope Francis was elected he told his readers to give Pope Francis time to learn how to be pope! I assume that you read that post and were not as outraged as I.

 

 

It is true that Father Z doesn't mince words towards those who stray from or outright defy Church teaching.It is also true that most liberals criticize him for being unkind when the real problem is they hate being told they're in the wrong. The usual accusation is that he (and others like him) are being judgmental, when the reality is that he is not judging anyone into hell or reading the motives in their hearts (both of which ARE prohibited by Church teaching). Instead, he is admonishing others for their behavior and/or statements which contradict, attack or at least undermine the legitimate authority of the Church.This isn't a whole lot different from correcting teen-agers who, in exploring the "opportunities" of personal autonomy, propose all sorts of ideas alien to the teaching of their parents' (or Church teaching). The typical teen response to clarity and firmness in correction i s to whine that the parents are being mean (aka unkind).

Phil Steinacker,

Be careful with that Church/parents analogy. Defective tools can turn in the user's hand and inflict serious injury.

Jim Mc Crea, according to John O' Malley's new book on the Council of Trent, "an inventory of the wardrobe and other possessions of Cardinal Ippolito d'Este ( 1509-1572) ran 600 pages and listed, for instance, 79 pairs of gloves and over 50 red Birettas." (He didn't mention 15-tasselled galeros or the Cappa Magna...though, so Cardinal Burke may still be out ahead . . . .)

Patricia-  I should clarify that I agree 100% with you about the problems of the "good pope/bad pope" framing, and I certainly didn't mean the post to be a criticism of Benedict - I was only citing examples of how the coverage is being framed. I would guess you are right that Benedict in fact gave up the luxuries he desired most - life as a professor - when he accepted the appointment to the CDF, and then the papacy. The final pages of his small book of memoirs, Milestones, makes this clear. Benedict's economic teachings in Caritas in Veritate are at least as critical of overconsumption as those of John Paul II - indeed, as I point out, this is something entirely consistent throughout the modern papacy. What Francis may be more attuned to is what I might call the "Incarnation principle" - recognizing that what we communicate through actions gives significant power to the teachings, and that neglect of such consistency tends to be a problem for the Church. The Reformation may have been filled with contentious theological debate, but I don't think anyone denies that the late medieval Church made itself vulnerable in significant part because of its unseemly wealth. The sins of Church leaders do not invalidate the gospel, but they do it significant harm, just as holiness of all sorts does the opposite. 

Phil: that's a very charitable interpretation of his blog, I think.  He makes frequent, gratuitous and sweeping negative comments about liberal Catholics. I've never seen a comment on his blog about liberal Catholics that wasn't negative; have you?  As Patricia pointed out above, "Holiness comes in all shapes and sizes".  I  don't think we should talk to or about each other the way Father Z does.

Today, coming back from a vacation where water was scarce, I opened the faucet, ran the water, and savored the luxurious feeling. I can have as much water as I want! If I leave it on, it will keep running forever! I will never run out of water! I don't have to worry about it! What luxury! And to think that just a week ago I took it completely for granted, so much so that I did not even stop to be thankful for it. Running water: bliss!

And then, a renewed appreciation for the act of flushing the toilet. Life-changing amenities.

How privileged we are to have running water and sewage systems. In that way at least, our dysfunctional society works amazingly well.

If the people of the past are watching us, are they more shocked by some choices of brands of cars, or by the thoughtless way in which we avail ourselves of water to our convenience?

never-ending consumption

today is exemplified for me by the faucet with the never-ending running water. Is that excessive? Wouldn't most people in previous times think that excessive?

 

Hi David:

 

Thanks for the good feedback.  I'm glad to know that also recognize the "good pope/bad pope" setup, and where it's headed.  Consequently, I trust you will stay on top of it, helping to counteract the MSM from it's destructive "papal agenda."

Helen if I gave the impession that Father Z was against Pope Francis, that's not what I intended.  From all I can gather, he has great respect for him.

As for the "car story", it is what it is, and I, also being a fan of Pope Francis, for reasons I mentioned, easily predicted that it would take on a life of its own which it has.  FWIW, for all that they get right, the Vatican isn't always on top of good PR, especially how it will be preceived in the United States. 

I can't speak for Father Z  (only link to what he has written), but I think we are both probably on the same page on the car thing: no need to drive the top of the line lexus, but certainly it's reasonable to drive a safe and reliable car, not one from the junk yard.

Do you know how much humility it takes to even wear a Cappa Magna? 

Patricia:   I, for one, do not know "how much humility it takes to even wear a Cappa Magna".  Could you explain?

As for the Papal Mercedes, it was donated; saving both Mercedes money in advertising and the Vatican money in going to a junk yard to find an old Fiat.  

If advertising is pushing people to conspicuous, unnecessary consumption, then isn't what you describe a form of cooperation with evil?

 

I don't know either. And heaven knows I'm always up for a lesson in humility.

Sorry, Patricia

“From all I can gather, he has great respect for him (Pope Francis.) “

If one reads between the lines Fr Z's comments show disdain for our new Pope. I think he is being decptive.

I would like to be proven wrong but he has a pattern.

 

From all I can gather, he has great respect for him. - See more at: http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/cars-congregations-and-conspicuou...

From all I can gather, he has great respect for him. - See more at: http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/cars-congregations-and-conspicuou...

Wearing a Cappa Magna makes one feel like  a king and goes to one's head, unless that is prevented by the wearer's great humility. That's why wearing it takes great humility. Thus the fact that Cdl Burke wears it is proof that he must be extrordinarily humble.

 

Just love those stories about how it is uncharitable to refuse a mercedes. It is not rocket science that from the fourth century the Church became more Empire than gospel. Francis is bringing the gospel back.. There is no getting around it. Ratzinger, along with the likes of Michael Novak, gave up renewal for glory and money. Let's call like it is. 

OK Bill, if you want to "call it like it is", why don't you give us at least 3 examples of how, when, or where, Pope Benedict "gave up renewal for glory and money."  And while you are at it,  what determines "renewal," the church changing to keep up with modernity? 

If you plan to use the sex crisis, better think twice (or do your research), as Pope Benedict was major in cleaning up the "filth."

certainly it's reasonable to drive a safe and reliable car, 

What that means is that when your neighbors are getting big, heavy cars with huge engines, for safety you would also need a heavy car so as to match their weight if there happens to be a collision.

In reality, it depends how much you value the safety of your family and of yourself: if that adds a statistical tiny amount of safety, while the same amount of money given to Catholic Relief immunizes hundreds of unknown kids from third world countries, What do you choose? Is adding, say, .01 year to your kid's life expectancy through safer cars worth more than adding 30 years to 100 unknown kids? Customary wisdom tells you that your kid's safety always comes first, and I made up those numbers, but you get the idea. Is that really so "reasonable"?

As to having a reliable car, again, how much is that worth? If you buy a car new and sell it after 4 years, your car will probably never break down. If you buy it when it's 4 years old, at half price, and keep it for 4 years, there's perhaps a significant chance that it might break down once. Is that worth the extra money that could have gone to funding mosquito nets to prevent malaria among the poor in tropical countries, and that would have saved a few strangers' lives on average? Again, customary wisdom says that you need a prefectly reliable car, but you get the idea.

It's very expensive to go from a fairly safe, fairly reliable car, and try to bring the risk down to zero, or as close to zero as you can. Preventing those last low risk events is very costly, and I don't believe it is reasonable if you have any sense of solidarity with the poor. It is also stressful to try to control your life to the point where you are systematically hunting down those risks and trying to bring the odds down to zero. If on the other hand you're satisfied with low risk and willing to give up some control over what might happen, you can be much more carefree: you can choose to leave some risks unadressed because you have decided that they were not worth worrying about. It frees not just your money but also your mind. Plus, sharing a little bit of the poor's uncertainty about the future might be a good thing - in moderation...

 

Consumer Reports gives the Ford Focus sedan good safety ratings (and good fuel efficiency and cost ratings). Current model isn't rated high on reliability, but the older models are ok.

CR says back seat area is kind of tight. Does the Pope have a driver?

back seat area is kind of tight

How tall is pope Francis? Maybe he's short and can fit comfortably in the back.

I’m entering this little tete-a-tete a bit late ……

 

“ …..  but the red shoes have profound theological significance. “

Patricia, I’ll assume that you said that with a sincere heart and not with your tongue firmly planted in your cheek.  Maybe if you didn’t spend so much time imbibing the “Fr.” Z  Kool-Aid …..  And maybe if HE devoted his time to being a priest as opposed to a spit-slinger, this church could have the benefit of his ordination.

“Beauty not only transcends, it also offers something that the whole world, especially the poor, who have few if any other places to get it, can appreciate.”

That’s almost as bad a “let them eat cake!”

Nice story, i got some information. Now people use the cars for their daily life or most of the people use many type of cars from different type of models, they keep the cars in ther house. Luxurious cars give a better performance and comfort to the users.

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About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of catholicmoraltheology.com. He is the author of Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008) and is working on a book on the moral problem of luxury in contemporary economic ethics.