Pope Pius XI steps into a Bianchi Tipo 20 automobile in May 1931. (German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons)
“There is more simplicity in a man eating caviar because he likes it than a man who eats Grape-Nuts on principle.”
As a Catholic priest I am bound to observe Canon 282 in the Code of Canon Law, which states, “Clerics are to foster simplicity of life and are to refrain from all things that have a semblance of vanity.”
Some time ago, I had to shop for a new car, since my 8-year-old Volvo was crunched from behind by a 1977 Ford Bronco with a steel girder for a front bumper and a heavy-duty winch welded to it.
I therefore had to ask myself, what sort of car would “foster simplicity and help me refrain from all things that have a semblance of vanity?”
The Chevy Camaro I took for a test drive was therefore excluded. I think that would be vain. I would drool a little whenever I got into that machine and that would not be good. Besides, it was so low and sleek that I kept hitting my head getting in and out.
So I began to look for something solid, safe, reliable and comfortable. So what about a nice Mercedes, BMW or another Volvo?
Could a nice European sedan be simple or would it be vain? Would such a car “have the semblance of vanity?”
So I asked a parishioner and he said, “Seems to me, Father, that most any car could lend itself to vanity, depending on the person and who his friends are. Shucks, you could get yourself one of them big ole’ pickup trucks with three axles and all the trimmings and for some folks that would be way more vain than a boring Volvo.”
Everybody’s different and one rule cannot fit all. A vanity car for me would probably be a neat little British two-seater. With an ejector seat.
Bond. James Bond.
But if you overthink it, the whole question becomes even more complicated. What if I went to the used car lot and purposely bought a beat-up clunker in order to show everyone that I wasn’t vain and materialistic?
Surely that would be vanity of a different kind?
I like the saying from Thomas Traherne: “Can a man be just unless he love all things according to their worth?”
To judge a possession according to what other people think of us is vain, no matter how you look at it. Instead, we should appreciate the material things in our lives for what they are intrinsically worth.
I like Volvos because they are safe, reliable and because they are beautifully understated and well-engineered — not because I’ll look smart or posh or cool in them.
I can’t forget G.K. Chesterton’s quip: “There is more simplicity in a man eating caviar because he likes it than a man who eats Grape-Nuts on principle.”
To adapt Chesterton’s line to the situation: “There is more simplicity in a man driving a Mercedes because he likes it than driving a Ford Fiesta on principle.”
Finally, there is this. How much does it cost? We’re called to be good stewards. It might cost more to run and repair and old junker than to lease a new car. On the other hand, if our budget only stretches to the clunker, then we accept that cheerfully and get on with it because that is what God has provided.
If the budget provides a bit more, and we can do well without being extravagant, and appreciate material things for what they’re truly worth and not their price tag or how they make us look, I reckon we’ve found some balance.