Archbishops Playing House

If anyone were keeping a list of Flimsiest Religious Exposes of the Year, here is a contender.  It’s a report from CNN’s Belief Blog exposing “The Lavish Homes of American Archbishops,” and it is now eliciting predictably self-righteous comments around the Web.  

It’s a pretty pretentious piece of work, complete with photos that will shock almost everyone who has never driven through an upscale neighborhood and concluding with a bragging note on “How We Reported This Story.”

“Records reveal that 10 of the country's top church leaders defy the Pope's example and live in residences worth more than $1 million,” the story begins breathlessly. 

“Defy” the Pope’s example?  $1 million?  Please remember that the infamous German “Bishop of Bling” whom Francis ousted was spending $43 million to remodel a palatial residence, $300,000 for a new fish tank, $2.38 million for bronze window frames, almost $1 million for the garden, etc., etc.

If you know anything about real estate prices and about the number of archdiocesan residences built in the day when American Catholics expected their leaders to live like VIPs, as well as about the number of archbishops’ residences that also house offices, reception areas, chapels, and rooms for other priests—well, then, you might be surprised that CNN’s Belief Blog found only ten of 34 archbishops so shamefully lodged.  Certainly I was.  And I suspect CNN was also. 

This was one of those stories that has its headline before it was even begun. CNN makes a big deal of its “investigation”—confirming addresses, checking public records, and even hiring appraisers.  

But suppose that not ten but only eight or even five residences were found to be worth more than $1 million.  Wouldn’t the headline still have read “The Lavish Homes of American Archbishops”?  What is the likelihood that it would read “Despite Stereotypes, Most Archbishops Don’t Live in Luxury”?  Even the present story indicates that over two-thirds of the archbishops’ residences fell below that damning million-dollar mark. 

I am not denying that there have been scandalous episcopal expenditures on princely mansions, some in recent years when changed Catholic attitudes made this behavior all the more inexcusable. Such expenditures deserve censure, case by case.  (Not every case falls into this category: Archbishop of Atlanta Wilton Gregory was wise to pull back on his plan for moving to a new residence bequeathed to the archdiocese and turning over his previous one to a space-strapped cathedral, but the costs and proposed uses were by no means outlandish.) And the more bishops who lead simpler lives and follow Pope Francis in tearing down the barriers that divide them from the people—what Cardinal Dolan has acknowledged can be “the perks, the cushiness, we associate with being a bishop”—all the better.  There is too often a clerical CEO mindset that needs shaking up.  But identifying it with square feet and real estate values misses the real point.  

You can live like a saintly monk with a community of dedicated companions in a rambling old mansion.  You can also be an ascetic dwelling in a bungalow and a pastoral disaster. The idea of turning Pope Francis’s admirable example into a new kind of ecclesiastical scorecard—and a new game of “gotcha” journalism—is Pharisaism of the very sort Jesus deplored.

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Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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