“Ask a Priest: What If I’m Too Attached to Nice Clothes and Cars?”

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Q: I am a practicing Catholic and I have recently began to feel like I place too much emphasis on nice brands. I have always really liked nice clothes, and have normally held the practice of buying specific brands such as Polo, North Face, Columbia, etc. (when they go on sale) over St. John’s Bay, etc. I have to admit that not only do I prefer the designs of these brands over lesser esteemed brands, I also like the real or imagined opinion of others as to the overall quality of my dress. The same is true for cars. I recently bought a used Infiniti over more basic companies because I like the design quality better and the opinion that I have “good” taste in cars (though used). I’m not sure I know how to overcome this, as my preferences are deeply engrained. Is it a mortal sin to think this way? Thank you for your help and all you do! -D.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: If you are aware of the extent of vanity in your life, that is a grace in itself. At least you know the foe you need to face. The Holy Spirit is already working in your heart.

Vanity is one of the three root sins, along with pride and sensuality.

Vanity reflects insecurity. We desperately want the esteem of others, so we end up doing all kinds of things to keep up appearances. Living on the surface, we glide through life hoping that no one notices how frail we are underneath.

Vanity arises when we put the opinion of others ahead of the judgment of God. Instead of worrying how we stand in the eyes of God, we worry what everyone else thinks of us.

Left unchecked, vanity can sap our energies and divert our attention from the really important things of life. Moreover, vanity can leave us feeling even more insecure, because in effect we put our happiness in the hands of others. We leave ourselves vulnerable.

So what is the remedy for vanity?

One part of the solution is to live with purity of intention. That is, do things solely for love of God and for love of neighbor. Treat everyone as you would (presumably) treat Christ himself.

In practice that means being kind to everyone, treating everyone with respect. As you do this, other things begin to click into place. You might become more aware of the poor around you, and look for ways to live more humbly and to share your resources with the less fortunate. And try to forget yourself.

You also might become less impressed with the external appearance or position of other people. This isn’t to say we don’t respect people in authority, etc. Rather, we don’t consciously try to win the approval of others at every moment. All this weans us off the praise of the world and helps us focus more on Our Lord who alone is our judge.

None of this is easy, however, and it won’t come quickly. So be realistic. You won’t change overnight. Still, there are steps you might consider taking immediately, to move in the right direction.

First, look for ways to avoid standing out. The next time you buy clothes, look for no-name brands — and even think about donating the difference to a good cause. When you make bigger purchases, go to prayer first and see where the Holy Spirit is leading you.

Second, meditate on the humility of Christ. He chose to be born poor, to live poor, and to die with nothing left to give away but his heartbroken Mother at the foot of the cross. Try to see the lesson he is giving the rest of us.

Third, think about getting involved in volunteer work. Being around people who suffer from terminal illnesses is a great way to put things in perspective; they won’t be impressed with your Polo shirts — and you need to experience that kind of indifference. Spend some time around people who are really suffering, and you start to see the relative value of material possessions.

Although it takes a while to tame vanity, the task is possible with the grace of God. (For more reading see this post.) I hope some of this helps.

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