What Would Jesus Do? Between 1951 and 1991, forty-one Catholic priests in Chicago alone were charged with sexual misconduct (Philip Jenkins). This number has only increased over the past ten years, with the recent valiancy among Catholic women and children to come forth about sexual indecencies committed against them. But while the charges against the priests may be relatively new, the corruption within the clergy is certainly not. Priests' abuse of their position can be traced back to the origin of the church itself through both stories and historical documents. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer exposes immorality in the church (both sexually and otherwise) through his introduction of various fictional characters.
Together, these characters demonstrate the ways in which the church has fallen away from its original purpose and design-to make disciples of God through church members' imitation of Jesus' character. In efforts to inspire Christians to act righteously, as well as instill a sense of religious pride among young people, Christians have cleverly coined the phrase, "What Would Jesus Do" or simply, "WWJD". Although the expression may be overused and somewhat childish, in the meaning behind the phrase lies the entire mission statement of Christian dome. The apostle Peter describes it by saying, "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps", (1 Peter 2: 21). The message is simple; try to live as Christ lived. Of all people, most would expect the leaders of the church to strive the hardest for this level of Godliness.
Quite ironically, however, Chaucer points out that the clergy possesses qualities opposite to those of Jesus-namely impurity, selfishness, and greed. The dictionary defines the word 'pure' as being free of dirt, defilement, or pollution, and most Christians would agree that when the term is used in the bible, it means just that: being free of the dirt, scum, corruption, and sin in the world. According to Paul, the grace of God and the teachings of Jesus "teach us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives", (Titus 2: 12). In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer shows that the clergy is doing anything but seeking after purity.
The Friar is the best example of this defilement of Christianity with his fulfillment of worldly pleasures in the areas of women and alcohol. Because of the attachment humans have to sex and their sexual partners, the Catholic Church is structured so that the leaders of the church remain celibate their entire lives. In this way, they are able to keep God their first and only concern. As has been proven through the recently exposed sexual indecencies Catholic Church leaders have committed, however, to some the temptation of the libido is simply too strong to suppress.
Such is the temptation of the Friar. Chaucer accuses the Friar of destroying the celibate ideal by pointing out that he had "fixed up many a marriage, giving each of his young women what he could afford her", (216-217). This reveals his sin-that he had broken his vow of abstinence and engaged in the sexual acts of marriage. Chaucer goes on to describe the close relationship the Friar had with the barmaids and innkeepers. He states, "He knew the taverns well in every town and ever innkeeper and barmaid too", (245-246). Not only does this expose the Friar's immoral drinking habits, but it indicates that he was using the inn for other morally questionable acts.
To know the innkeeper on such a level as he did, the Friar must have used the inn often, and the connection between the barmaids and the inn suggests that the barmaids stayed with the Friar in the inn. But even if these barmaids did not play the role of prostitute to the Friar, the fact is that he was a member of the clergy spending much of his time in bars. The role of a church leader is not only to teach the congregation the theory of the religion, but to be an example in the practice of it. In being publicly drunk, the Friar paved the road of impurity for all of his disciples. In the same way that the Friar encouraged impurity by taking part in it, the Summoner encouraged impurity by allowing it-even endorsing it on occasion.
The Summoner's job was to deliver messages to people to appear in the church court. When he stumbled upon people committing immoral acts, however, he was perfectly willing to dismiss what he had seen for a small price. In this way he profited by blackmailing the congregation. Chaucer explains, "Why, he'd allow-just for a quart of wine-any good lad to keep a concubine... he knew their secrets, they did what he said", (667-668,683). Instead of bringing sinners to justice, the Summoner allowed corruption to occur. For the church members, then, the problem changed from how to avoid the sin to how to avoid being caught for the sin.
The Friar and the Summoner abandoned the command to live like Christ and controlled their own lives as they pleased. Furthermore, in being impure and allowing impurity to occur all around them, the Friar and the Summoner were partially responsible for the trespasses of the church members. In the New Testament of the Bible, a special emphasis is placed on helping the poor. The wealthy are commanded to aid their less-fortunate brothers and sisters in Christ. This portion of Christianity has developed beyond its religious foundations in the form of volunteer organizations and government programs. Within the church, offerings are taken nearly every week for various charities.
In The Canterbury Tales, however, selfishness seems to be a quality prevalent among the clergy. Chaucer best exemplifies this lack of generosity while characterizing the Friar. He reveals the Friar's lack of concern for the poor by saying, "For though a widow mightn't have a shoe, so pleasant was his holy how-d'ye-do he got his farthing from her just that same" (259-261). Had the Friar thought, "What Would Jesus Do", he would have helped the woman. In fact, it was the Friar's job to help this woman. Instead he demanded help from her.
In this way, the Friar demonstrated the overwhelming selfishness of the clergy-the lack of concern for the struggling church members and the absorption with themselves. Even if the woman was required to give her portion to charity, the money should have come back to her through distribution of funds to the poor. It was the clergy's responsibility to spend the offering the way that Jesus would have, but their greed got in the way and the collection was kept for themselves. Chaucer points out the irony in the Friar's actions by defining the Friar's philosophy: "It was not fitting with the dignity of his position, dealing with a scum of wretched lepers; nothing good can come of commerce with such slum and gutter dwellers, but only with the rich and victual sellers.
But anywhere a profit might accrue courteous he was and lowly of service too", (249-254). In this, the Friar's true character is exposed to the reader; he acts humble and godly while in company of the wealthy so that he may receive larger donations. Unlike Jesus, who spent most of his time with who Chaucer dubs "gutter dwellers", the Friar only associates with those who satisfy his greed for money. Perhaps the Friar was not aware of the verse in the Timothy in which Paul declares, "Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for out enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share" (1 Timothy 6: 17-18).
To the reader, Chaucer makes the Friar transparent. His position is not a means to serve God, but to be self-servant and create an enjoyable life for himself. The Summoner also shows traces of greed in his emphasis on monetary punishments for law-breakers. Chaucer describes the Summoner's philosophy in his role as summoner-the deliverer of justice: "He would instruct him not to be afraid in such a case of the Archdeacon's curse (unless the rascal's soul were in his purse) for in his purse the punishment should be.
'Purse is the good Archdeacon's Hell's aid he", (672-676). Rather than condemning a criminal to excommunication from the church, the Summoner could be paid off. The only thing that could possibly drive someone with his job to compromise justice is greed-the insatiable desire for money. Using the Friar and the Summoner as representation of the clergy, Chaucer rebukes the church for its abandonment of Jesus' virtues and values and embodiment of hypocrisy in the forms of impurity, selfishness, and greed. While Chaucer does tear down the clergy for its malpractice, he also gives the reader and example of the ideal clergyman-the true imitation of Jesus. Through the Parson, Chaucer shows how a Christian ought to act and a church leader ought to lead.
The Parson's standard of purity is explained in saying, "The true example that a priest should give is one of cleanness", (515-516). In saying this, Chaucer likens the Parson's beliefs to those defined in the bible. The Parson's "clean" life is not obstructed by the dirt and filth of drunkenness or sexual promiscuity. In addition, the humble Parson gives as he was biblically instructed-not out of obligation, but out of generosity and love. He made a habit of "Giving to poor parishioners round about both from church offerings and his property", (498-499). In this way, the Parson took the commands of Paul to heart and followed his advice.
The most important job of a church leader, however, is to lead the congregation on a path that brings them closer and closer to the Lord-making them more and more Christ like. The Parson excelled at this, as he was "a learned man, a clerk, who truly knew Christ's gospel and would preach it devoutly to parishioners", (490-492). In this way, the Parson led his parishioners down the path to righteousness verbally and by example. Chaucer's reverence of the Parson shows not only his contempt for the unworthy leaders, but a hope for the future church. Leaders like the Parson do exist, and it is the goal of the people to find them and put them in charge. As Chaucer points out multiple times, the church has fallen away from its original intention-to imitate Christ.
Through revealing the fictional character's faults, Chaucer charges religious leaders with impurity, selfishness, and greed. The church of his time-plagued by immorality-was in dire need of reform. However, hypocrisy and malpractice have existed within the church since the origin of the institution. In the very beginning of the Christian church, Paul wrote, "If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interesting in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and a constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain", (1 Timothy 6: 3-5). If immorality in leadership existed then, and it existed in Chaucer's time, and it exists today, it can be expected to carry over and continue into the future.
It is society's job, therefore, to look past the titles "Friar", "Summoner", "Nun", "Priest", "Preacher", or even "Pope", and judge the clergy by their true character. It is only then that leaders similar to the Parson can be discovered.