Simony in Spiritual Direction?


St. Ignatius of Loyola (famous for his Spiritual Exercises) by Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768)

When I mentioned this thesis to my classmate, he deemed it “peculiar.” I had to apologize after shouting, “My thesis isn’t peculiar, what’s going on is peculiar!” My thesis is that direct, monetary payment to a spiritual director from his/her directee is a peculiar innovation in Church tradition that has become so common in the current generation that almost no one questions its parallel to simony, the buying or selling of sacred things.1 Further, any such an innovation requires debate and discernment around the issue of simony (Acts 8:18-20).

Below, I first summarize practical concerns invoked for the current innovation. Then I pose some philosophical, legal, and moral questions to help critically reconsider that innovation. Finally, I conclude with a suggestion concerning how the Church might meet those same practical concerns, but with due regard for the tradition. I assert that fidelity, both to the tradition and to the current, practical considerations require public discussion, as well as ecclesial discernment. This article is meant to prompt just such discussion and discernment.

Practical Reasons for the Innovation
At least three reasons are given for a spiritual director to collect a monetary fee from a directee. First, a person who receives something for nothing, does not value that which is received. Thus, directees who pay a fee are more likely to value and, therefore, appropriately engage, with spiritual direction. Second, “…individuals who are not supported by church structures have moved into the ministry. They simply need the money in order to continue in the ministry.”2 As more and more laity engage in spiritual direction, they require fees from directees in order to support themselves and their ministry. Third, the dignity and value of both the director, and the ministry, require equitable compensation. Spiritual directors are professional, lay ecclesial ministers whose time and training is valuable, and in today’s world, monetary payment expresses this value statement.3

Others have argued these points more persuasively than this summary, and most propose a sliding scale of fees or a solution such as, “An hour of the director’s time is worth an hour of the directee’s time,” that is, a directee who earns $250.00 an hour, pays the same wage to the director; and the one who earns $5.00 an hour, pays that corresponding fee. However, no one seems to have considered the lessons of simony in relation to spiritual direction. What lessons might we learn?

Philosophical Questions
Although the title of this article is intentionally hyperbolic, it points to reasons for the non-monetary, traditional relationship between director and directee.4 Just as a layperson can exhibit clericalism (i.e., the narcissistic abuse of entitlement attached to an office in order to manipulate those dependent upon that office) without being a cleric, so too a spiritual director may fall into, or give the appearance of, simony without selling the sacraments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (§2121) defines simony as “…the buying or selling of spiritual things…to appropriate to oneself spiritual goods, and behave toward them as their owner…”

What can we learn from simony (and the reasons the Church legislated against it) before practicing an innovation so universally that questioning it appears “peculiar”? May we examine the philosophical implications of paying a spiritual director for his/her services? For example: is it true that humans do not value that for which they do not pay money? We do not pay for friendship, but does that mean it is not valued? Further, if one’s dignity and value is expressed necessarily through the market, are we not privileging a capitalistic model of relationships? And if so, does not capitalism presume private ownership of whatever service is paid for? How would that not constitute behaving toward spiritual goods as if one were the owner? And is not such an economic system inherently individualistic, although the Church holds that spiritual goods are part of the commonwealth of all the faithful? At the very least, a ministry that is ecclesial, rather than individual, would seem to require some ecclesial discernment, rather than simply decisions made solely as if by individual contractors.

An entrepreneurial model of networking, marketing, and business finance seems to inspire (and drive?) more and more aspects of spiritual direction.5 Traditionally, spiritual direction was a charism in which persons sought the director, rather than the director seeking clients. The tradition seems to be turned on its head, and is a concern shared by a scholar largely credited with the contemporary renewed interest in spiritual direction, the late Kenneth Leech. He, too, worried that spiritual direction had become too specialized, too fashionable (even cultic) and “…reflects the individualism and privatization of religion in the West, rather than any embodiment in a corporate {ecclesial} tradition.”6 However, how can we embody these, perhaps legitimate, innovations in the tradition if we simply ignore, rather than properly explore, that tradition?

Legal Questions
Leech’s concern about the professionalization of spiritual direction leads to a consideration of its implications from civil law. At least in the United States, accepting money for service introduces legal responsibilities neither director nor directee may have adequately considered. Here are some possible legal responsibilities from our country’s laws. First, taxes and their appropriate reporting is a consideration, especially if the direction is done by a person associated with a non-profit organization, or taking place on their property, or under their auspices. Do all parties understand the distinctions between a public charity, and a private foundation? Second, charitable solicitation registration may apply. Third, laws concerning oral contracts may be invoked, and could lead to litigation if a client has paid for spiritual direction, but did not receive what she/he expected. What are those expectations, and are they clarified between director and directee, and shared by both? This also brings up the concern of malpractice insurance. Fourth, as many of the people receiving fees for spiritual direction also propound a model of direction that flattens, or democratizes, the relationship into “spiritual friendship/companionship,” they may be entering unwittingly into a professional relationship, in the eyes of civil law, by receiving money while yet practicing in a way that eschews the accountability associated with such legal relationships. For example, I know a gentleman who visits a woman alone in her home for spiritual direction, and collects a fee. Fee for service implies a professional relationship that might be compromised by such private home visits. Moreover, the directee herself may incur liability if the director, who is not licensed, or bonded, suffers an accident during his visit. Finally, in general, anytime our practice (e.g., accepting fees) invokes legal considerations, we necessarily limit our religious mission. Just as a Catholic school, which accepts government money, is more subject to government regulation, so, too, a spiritual director, who enters into a legal relationship with a client/director via fee for service, must accept certain civil restrictions on that religious mission. National and local regulations about such professional services are complicated and changing. Although laws differ among countries, and even between jurisdictions within countries, fee for professional service, in general, opens one up to more tax requirements, legal responsibilities, litigation, insurance questions, and complicated, ever-changing, regulations than those associated with what the state considers “Good Samaritan” (well-intentioned, non-commercial) advice. What ecclesial body has discerned or debated these many legal questions concerning the innovation in the traditional relationship between director and directee that until this generation, did not ever include direct, monetary fees for service?

Moral Questions
Besides legal questions, there are also moral ones. What is the interest, or motivation, for practicing spiritual direction? Whatever the non-pecuniary interest is (which I freely admit is virtually always paramount) how is it, or could it become, compromised by charging a fee? And the more the director’s livelihood (and that of her/his family) is dependent upon such fees, might not the conflict between that interest, and those of the spiritual directee, sharpen? And even if there were no such conflict, how might the fee for service create the appearance of conflict?

Of course, we commonly encounter professionals who charge fees (plumbers, psychologists), but both parties to such contractual relationships share the legal, as well as the philosophical (i.e., capitalistic), implications of those relationships, perhaps because those relationships do not presume a third party, namely, God. However, are those the philosophical and legal underpinnings ideal for spiritual direction, which necessarily includes God (and for Catholics, the God revealed by Scripture and Tradition)? Are the same mercantile relationships consistent with our Scripture and Tradition? Is not simony a history of a (largely financial) conflict of interests between spiritual leaders in the Church and their followers that eventually necessitated ecclesial legislation? That legislation was the result of considerable debate and discernment that balanced the legitimate temporal needs of Church leaders, but also the need to limit both actual conflict of interest and the appearance of such conflict. Is there reason to think that laity are any less tangled or tempted by such conflicts than clergy are? If not, why have we not had a similar debate and discernment process concerning direct, monetary payment for spiritual direction?

Participation in spiritual direction by all Christians was encouraged by Pope Emeritus Benedict ( And if spiritual direction is no longer the elite sphere of priests and religious, the legitimate temporal needs of lay practitioners must be considered. However, public debate and ecclesial discernment leading to consensus (even church legislation) may be required to balance innovation and tradition. Despite all the objections above concerning direct, financial payment of a directee to a director, Nicholas Aloysius Weber reminds us that: “Historical circumstances, social conditions, and public opinion may change…certain actions and practices which are prohibited at one epoch as involving a danger, or an appearance of simony, may become perfectly lawful with the change in time…”7 However, he also reminds us that the Church, as a corporate body, discerns between tradition and innovation after rigorous debate, and ecclesial discernment. Consider the extensive church legislation surrounding stipends, and donations, all meant to provide for the temporal needs of ministers, without compromising the right of the faithful to the spiritual goods of the Church, and without the appearance of such scandal. Should not similar rigorous debate, ecclesial discernment, and, perhaps, even Church legislation, be considered for the same reasons, and applied to lay ecclesial ministers, acting as spiritual directors? Certainly, this may be considered as an option to the current haphazard, spontaneous, market-driven forces apparently so heedless of our tradition that our shared heritage and history appear peculiar.

However, we may have an alternative model ready to consider. In many dioceses, permanent deacons are chosen and trained by the diocese, at little or no cost to the deacon himself. However, he understands that what has been freely given to him, must be freely shared. Other than freewill offerings or donations regulated by canon law, the deacon neither assumes, nor receives, any fees for his considerable services. His time and ministry are valued and honored, but his out-of-pocket expenses are minimized. Usually, there is a budget item in the parish or diocese for his continuing education, and annual retreat.

Is this a model to consider for lay ecclesial ministers engaged in spiritual direction? The Church, and all her ministers, are humans, and have the temporal needs of other humans; thus, Canon §222 stipulates the moral obligation to financially support them. But this precept presumes the Church’s right to order herself, including donations necessary to support her and the poor. Yet, the Church is careful to insure this is not a quid pro quo remuneration, nor gives such an appearance. It is also not a private contract between two individuals: It is the Christian community ordering right relationships by balancing needs and duties. As lay ecclesial ministers’ responsibilities grow (including spiritual direction), it may become as necessary for the Church to debate, discern, and finally legislate, for them as for clerics in a way that is just to all. Simply abandoning the ministry of spiritual direction to the mercy of market forces ignores the valuable lessons of simony, and thus risks committing the same errors again. It may also imply that unlike the life and ministry of clergy, the life and ministry of lay ministers is unworthy of the attention, and undeserving of the sustained interest of Church scholars and leaders.

This is not an issue of hierarchical control, but of ecclesial accountability. As is clear from the reasons invoked for innovation, those issues include: human dignity, just compensation and the common good, solidarity, and charity. Of course, legislation should be a last resort, and should always be as limited as possible, as well as respectful of the principle of subsidiarity. But if there are good and helpful reasons to legislate for clerics, might there be good and helpful ways of legislating for lay ecclesial ministers in such a way that all these principles are properly discerned, publicly debated, and faithfully embraced?

  1. For an example, see
  2. Lucy Abbott Tucker, “Professionalization Spiritual Directors at the Edge”, The Way Supplement, Spring 1998, 45.
  3. Bill Creed, S.J., “Dignity and Worth: The Question of Compensation in Spiritual Direction”, Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction. 1, 3, September, 1995, 45-50.
  4. The author thanks the contributions of former students Deacon Paul Blair of the Diocese of Saint Boniface in Canada and Father Michael A. Thiel of the diocese of Green Bay, WI in the United States of America.
  5. Bruce Tallman, Finding Seekers: How to Develop a Spiritual Direction Practice from Beginning to Full-Time Employment. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2001. See also Elizabeth Stout, “Building Your Practice of Spiritual Direction,” Presence: The Journal of Directors International, 7: I January 2001, 29-39, A search engine will provide links such as
  6. Kenneth Leech, “Is Spiritual Direction Losing its Bearing?” The Tablet, 247, 22 May 1993, 634.
  7. A History of Simony in the Christian Church: From the Beginning to the Death of Charlemagne, Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America reprinted by the Leopold Classic Library, 2016, 10.
Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv. About Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv.

Conventual Franciscan Father Kenneth G. Davis is the visiting professor of spirituality at Saint Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana, who publishes frequently about various aspects of priestly spirituality and ministry.


  1. I agree with many of the points Fr. Davis makes in this article. Even the appearance of simony creates a real spiritual problem for the spiritual direction relationship; however, if there are lay people who are called to offer spiritual direction–especially if they are married, with children–supporting a family is a real issue. However, blanket training of the permanent diaconate doesn’t seem like a right solution. First, I would argue that not all permanent deacons are called to spiritual direction (as not all priests are, either). But secondarily, this doesn’t support lay women who provide sane, Christ-centered spiritual direction. It may provide greater access and ecclesial accountability, but it definitely doesn’t solve the simony issue en toto.

    I would suggest (and perhaps will write a friendly rejoinder article?) that other ecclesially-connected venues be explored. Secular institutes and third orders come to mind. The renumeration point is important and a hard nut to crack. But crack it we must, if we want to honor vocations to married life and spiritual direction together.

    • Avatar Fr. Ken Davis says:

      I apologize if I was unclear. It was not my intent to suggest either blanket training for all permanent deacons or that only ordained men should be spiritual directors. Rather, I had hoped to offer as a model the way many dioceses finance the permanent diaconate only as an example. Thus if a diocese were to subsidize the training of spiritual directors (as many do for permanent deacons), then lay spiritual directors may be freed from much of the cost of their training, and therefore, like permanent deacons, be more able to offer their ministry without direct, financial payment. Thank you for the opportunity to attempt to clarify this point. Blessings!

      • Susan Windley-Daoust Susan Windley-Daoust says:

        Ah, I see. Perhaps I read too hurriedly. I’ll admit that is an interesting idea. But most lay people have expenses beyond the training costs. Still, it would be a move in the right direction. Thanks for responding!

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    I agree spiritual direction must not become a product of market forces. Koinonia needs to characterize our relationships in the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, in so many ways Church leadership and teaching enforce individualistic market driven ideology in ecclesial life. Pope Francis presents a new orientation that has the potential to free us from ideology. He calls us to a new way of being with each other, church of the poor for the poor, dependent on God’s mercy. We cannot buy God’s mercy. God loves us unconditionally and we are called to love and serve unconditionally.

  3. J. E. Sigler J. E. Sigler says:

    This is an outstanding article. Thank you, Fr. Kenneth, for writing it. I agree 100% that this is a discussion we need to have. So often, when one expresses any kind of discomfort with or doubt about paying for spiritual direction, one’s shut down with the argument that “the worker is worth their wages”. But that’s not all there is to this issue, and it’d be nice if we could discuss what more there is with a truly open mind. You’ve made a great start of that!

    • Avatar Fr. Ken Davis says:

      How kind of you. Thank you. I make bold to ask that you please thank the editors of this journal as well. I submitted this article to other journals, but they seemed to react as though it was unworthy of publication because the thesis is insignificant. I appreciate the opportunity for this debate. Let’s keep each other in prayer!

  4. Avatar Harvey B. says:

    I actually don’t see why it’s such a major issue. Any church-related activity can be sifted down to such a debate, not just spiritual direction.
    For one thing, if the director is a priest, then it might often be presumed that the person receiving direction is offering support by indirect means, via the collection basket or a subtle donation to the religious order.

    Second, why is the debate solely about spiritual direction? When a priest celebrates at a wedding Mass, there is usually a much more direct exchange of money, often handled by the best man. (For that matter, the entire notion of Mass intentions has frequently been discussed in a parallel manner.)

    Third, I would hope that any spiritual director doesn’t directly expect a fee for services. Yes, the “client” should be thoughtful enough to offer something, perhaps at a later time rather than while walking out of the office. But if lay people who serve as spiritual directors rely on that for their source of income, then it indeed fosters a troubling attitude.
    When I was learning about ham radio, there were several gentlemen who offered their time to train me, and even come to my house to help set things up. They didn’t expect a fee; it was something they enjoyed doing and it furthered the hobby of ham radio.
    Just some idle thoughts :)

    • Avatar Fr. Ken Davis says:

      Thank you for engaging this debate. Your second point leads me to think I was not as helpful as I might otherwise have been. Monetary offerings for any sacraments are legislated by the Church. Thus although unfortunately sometimes they may appear de facto as “fee for service,” de jure they never should be.

  5. I am glad to have an occasion to express my sense of this issue: I find it repulsive to charge a fee of money from the economy of Mammon, in exchange for truth, or help, from the economy of God. Freely have you received – freely give. The Church is so entangled with the world as it is! To create a class of certified, professional “spiritual directors” who advertise and list a scale of fees sends shudders down my spine.

    In the past, I was a lay minister serving parishes and once, a diocese. Back then the world, the pastor and office staff thought I was an employee of the parish, or the diocese. No, I knew myself to be a (lay) minister sharing what I had been given by Christ for His people. Some thought I was “working for” them – no, we all were working for Christ, all of us, sharing our gifts and resources for the good of His Body. They thought they were paying me a salary. No, they were allocating support for my service, from the free gifts of those being served by the parish (or diocese).

    These are not games with words – there is a very important reality that deserves to be clarified, lest the Church simply concede the view of the world and admit to being a business after all! I have heard that very carnal misunderstanding from parish offices: “The Church IS a business!” You ARE a hired employee.” And of course the implication is: “You CAN be fired!”

    No wonder the world does not take us seriously. We do not take ourselves seriously! We do not walk in the supernatural realities of the Spirit, nor do we trust Him to give us all we need, if we will give and entrust to Him all that we are and all that we have received from Him.

  6. As an ex-Mormon Catholic convert, it’s always amazing to me how many people expect money to do activities that could easily be given as a gift to the parish. Mormons have “callings” and a 100% Lay Ministry except for in Salt Lake City headquarters. This includes teachers (catechists), Choir Directors, organists, and in some areas, even the janitorial staff. Missionaries pay out of their pocket to go on their missions for 2 years. Even the Bishopric (the Mormon equivalent of Bishops, Pastors and the permanent Diaconate) are unpaid positions. Mitt Romney was a Stake President (like a Bishop) for many years even as he worked full-time in the work world. My father was a CPA and was CFO of hospitals during his “day job” but for most of his life he was also the Ward Clerk (basically the business manager / accountant of a parish), no matter where he lived. I remember serving as Ward Librarian, which included creating and printing the weekly Bulletin, as well as Primary teacher and other teaching and administrative roles. Service is simply part of the life of a Mormon, and I brought that desire to serve to my new Catholic faith.

    It’s one thing for a Pastor, or a parish secretary, or a full-time Facility Director to be paid a salary. On a diocese level, it makes sense to pay professionals to run the IT networks, to build the websites, to manage the finances and facilities, et cetera. But I can’t understand why a professional photographer can’t take images of a Mass a few times a year so that their parish has nice photos for its website and promotional material. I can’t understand why someone who is a professional landscaper can’t help the church to get plants and other landscaping materials at a discount and offer to volunteer one Saturday morning each month to help with the grounds.

    Now as a Catholic, I work for a salary at the diocese offices as Webmaster, a full-time position. But I do the exact same thing for my parish that I do for the diocese – webmaster and social media manager – but as a volunteer. I know that the parish could not afford what it would take to get someone, even part-time, to do what I do for the parish, and I am grateful that I have the opportunity to serve the parish in my pajamas, with my kitty cat next to me at my desk, doing something that I love to do.

    I do not say these things to brag on myself – I’m not a saint by any means, and I give all glory to God. He has blessed me with a simple life and a modest but fair income. Because of this, I have the time and money to dedicate to serving my parish as a volunteer. I owe it to God to give back to Him what I can for the benefit of His kingdom. I simply do not understand when people will not do the same with the time, talents and financial support given to them by divine providence.

    I have a spiritual director in my parish Pastor (at an FSSP parish). We do not meet on a regular basis, but we meet as the need arises. I’ve never paid him for his services nor would he expect me to pay. And it boils down to the point you make in this article – he would never participate in the buying or selling of spiritual things. My priests give much more than they expect their parishioners to give back, and they do it because God has called him to do so. They often give to the point of harming their own health and mental state. While we parishioners do not ask this of them, they cannot help by try to emulate the Cure of Ars, St. Padre Pio, St. Alphonsus Liguori and other holy saints who gave all they had in the service of God. We are generous to our priests in the collections, in gifts and services to them, but we do this not because we expect anything of them but because we want to make sure that they have what they need to be able to serve God in the way that they are called to serve Him.

    I cannot fathom paying a spiritual director, or a genuine spiritual director charging for their services. I can’t imagine St. Francis de Sales, or St. Teresa of Avila, or St. Louis de Montfort charging to be spiritual directors to those under their spiritual care. I can’t wrap my mind around having to search for a Spiritual Director among merchants offering their spiritual direction. Simply put, I could not trust that the information given to me was given freely with no bias towards the money funding the advice.

  7. My Priest Spiritual Director in the past – gave me money! Not out of need (was not poor) but as a Spiritual Father to his spiritual Son. Given to me as a young man then – leaving for Rome once and another time I think when leaving for France.

  8. Avatar Deacon Dave says:

    Just for clarification on one point: diaconate formation is definitely not free or minimal across the board. San Francisco, Chicago, and other dioceses charge a hefty amount (in SF it’s $10,000.00 for the 5 year formation) and THEN go about ministry gratis or occassional small stipend.

  9. Avatar James Foley says:

    This is a growing phenomena in both Catholic and Protestant circles. You have a blurring of the clerical/lay dividing line. Some of these people have Ph.D.’s and are among the best spiritual directors available. In some cases, however, it is personality-driven and these people function like New Age gurus. I really don’t think the acceptance of remuneration is the major problem. If he or she functions effectively, there can well be a payment system. To me, the major troubling factor is the lack of church regulation. Anyone giving spiritual direction should be vetted by the church and given a formal letter of approval.

    • Avatar Fr. Ken Davis says:

      Thank you for joining the dialogue. An intelligent discussion of the matter is what I hoped might happen upon publication. Thus, I’m grateful for everyone who has contributed . We might broaden this necessary debate if readers would be kind enough to share the article with others. Thank you and God bless you!

  10. Thanks for bringing this topic up. As a priest I have for a few years found the development of “professional” spiritual directors disconcerting. I think this is the real difficulty the “professionalization” of spiritual direction, which traditionally was seen as flowing from the office of a priest, or a special charism. First, I do not think it is in keeping with Catholic tradition to say that spiritual direction can just be given over to laity. Rather, I understand the tradition to be that a priest has the gifting of spiritual director by his office, even if some priests never foster this gifting properly. The Tradition would also permit some people to have a gifting by their office such as an abbess or her sisters in a religious house, parents over their children. If other laity assume the role of a spiritual director it is by a special charism gifted by the Holy Spirit. However, I see people now claiming to be “professionally trained” through some institute. I believe this is contrary to tradition and worrisome. One can be trained in the history of spiritual theology, but being a spiritual director is more a charism, or living the office of the priest.

    Now putting it in the right context, I offer spiritual direction often without direct charge. I also oversee a few laity who offer spiritual direction to others following the prompting of a charism. However, the laity do not ask for monetary donations directly for their “direction.” I think the proper way to approach the reality of the material needs of the spiritual director, priest, or laity is to support the Institute regularly that sponsors them. Thus, for a priest it would be a parish or monastery. For the laity who are inspired by a charism, they should have some kind of ministry that they are tied to. One could then regularly support the ministry, out of charity. Then there is no quid pro quo for spiritual direction. This also puts service of spiritual direction under the aspect of “trusting” that God is leading one through the Holy Spirit. The problem with “professionalization” of spiritual direction is that it equates such direction with “professional training,” once trained always trained. However, one can fall into sin, heresy, and no longer be a good spiritual directer. If I had influence over the situation, I would completely ban “professional” licensing of spiritual directors, and refuse to recognize anyone who claims to be a “trained” spiritual director. If they have a charism, the Holy Spirit will draw souls to them and help them to find resources.

    • Avatar Fr. Ken Davis says:

      Appreciate your thoughtful comments. Thank you. Perhaps it is an issue about which we might all pray!

      I look forward to other comments or readers sharing the article so that this necessary debate might continue under the guidance of the Spirit. Thanks to all!

  11. Father, thank you for writing this much-needed article.

  12. Avatar Gino Dalpiaz says:


    Paying for spiritual direction is abhorrent to me. It’s like charging for confessions. I’ve been a priest for sixty-five years and have never paid for — nor have I personally charged for — spiritual direction. I have a hunch that this abomination is found in rich, organized, professionalized and bureaucratized countries like the USA or Germany. Giving spiritual direction is a charism of the Holy Spirit, not imparted too often, usually to priests because of their “munus sancificandi” [the duty to sanctify], one of the three munera of the ministerial priesthood. You don’t go looking to become a spiritual director; it comes looking for you.