Wednesday, April 02, 2014

What's too much for clergy lifestyles?

I've been reading things here and there about a bishop in Atlanta -- and a bishop in New Jersey -- not to mention the "bling" bishop in Germany -- who all, in varying ways, have come under criticism for spending too much on houses and refurbishments of archdiocesan facilities. The Archbishop of Atlanta, Wilton Gregory, is the latest, and he's eaten some humble pie over it.

Now, I think this is a valid issue. I can readily believe some clergy go overboard, because I've seen it.

On the other hand, as often happens, what is a problem for a few is inflated an epidemic. What's more I am very put off by the rush to judgment. All too often, I've seen people make rash judgments without all the facts, and I've done it myself -- and when the rest of the story is clear, it's very different from what people (or I) supposed.

Some folks think nothing of storming the online comboxes to rip them to shreds -- as if the world desperately needs them to do this. Do folks even stop to think about how many sins they may be skirting, if not falling into? Calumny, rash judgment and detraction all come to mind. As the do the Lord's words: by the measure you measure, so will it be measured out to you. Think about that. Sobering. It leads me to conclude (even if I fail in practice, I confess) that being generous and forgiving is in my own best interest!

A few things come to mind:

> A lot of folks don't realize what things cost.

I don't mean ordinary things like groceries and rent and insurance and so forth. I mean, things like building projects, or employment costs, and all the things that go into running a parish or a diocese. In the case of Archbishop Gregory, the expenses involved several million dollars for some buildings and renovations, including living space for himself. Was it excessive or fair? I dunno -- depends on details I don't have, and I don't choose to try to gather.

But what I do know is that building things, and even more, renovating older buildings, can cost quite a lot more than people imagine. It just does. Especially when you are taking older buildings and re-working them. Suddenly you have all sorts of building code requirements that come into effect; requirements concerning handicap access that -- amazingly -- older churches and parish halls seemed amazingly thoughtless about. And then you have things like asbestos removal and knocking down parts of walls to install elevators.

When you drive through a city and wonder why all these older office buildings and factories sit empty, while new construction goes up in all the outer suburbs, and why old buildings are torn down rather than turned into restaurants, hotels, etc. -- it's because as nice as it is when these things happen, they cost way, way more than people realize. A lot of times, when you see this, the project gets huge subsidies from the government.

Have you ever been out with someone, and you and s/he both looked at the same menu, ordered similar things, and your companion gets irate about the bill. "How can it cost so much?" Somehow, your dinner partner ordered a drink, or an appetizer, or coffee, and is shocked that all these things add up, plus tax and tip. Or how about this? Ten people at a table, and you're unlucky enough to be collecting the money for the bill. I decided a long time ago I wasn't going to let people figure out their own share. Because what happened was somehow, I'd be stuck adding another $10 or $20. So I just told people what they owed, rounding up and adding 20% for tax and tip.

> All clergy don't take a vow of poverty.

Did you realize that? The vow of poverty is a feature of life in a religious community; only some priests are members of groups like the Dominicans, Legion of Christ, Benedictines, Franciscans, etc. And -- this is important -- these priests take a vow of poverty not because they're priests, but because they have embraced this particular spiritual movement.

Also, these vows -- associated with religious life -- are meant to be totally free and voluntary. That is how the Church has always understood this. When our Lord talks about giving away your property to the poor, this was not a command for all, but an invitation intended for some. Also take note: when he called the Galilean fishermen, he said "follow me." It was they who turned from their fishing gear and just followed him. What is commanded for all is not a free gift. When I choose not to lie or steal, that's not an "offering" I make to the Lord, that's obedience; that's simply living according to right reason.

What the Lord told us all -- all Christians -- was that we must take up our cross. That's not the same thing as a vow of poverty, although the overlap is obvious.

> So if all clergy aren't called to poverty, what should they do? Live like Donald Trump?


Clergy are called to live moderately, giving an example of self-control. This is both a matter of leadership by example, as well as a function of the priesthood, in particular, being joined to the person of our Savior in a unique way. It has to do with the nature of priesthood: Jesus the High Priest is also the Victim; and priests are joined to that.

But remember that clergy -- deacons, priests and bishops -- are embracing this through many of the aspects of their ministry, day by day. The gift of celibacy. Being at the service of God's People at all times. Living their vocation not as a career, but as a total way of life. I'm not complaining; being a priest is a joy. But you won't be a priest long before you experience the Cross.

> What about Pope Francis?

A lot of folks are pointing to the pope. But don't misunderstand what the pope is doing. He's not issuing commandments; he's offering an example, an invitation.

What's more, do you really think his invitation and example is only directed to clergy?

It seems to me that Pope Francis has been talking a lot -- A LOT -- about sharing our faith and being the sort of Christians who draw others by our example and holiness. That's not a message only for the clergy!

The sad truth is that some of the more strident voices on this particular subject aren't really interested in this subject for the sake of the Gospel -- but simply as an expression of hostility, either to clergy in particular, or the Church in general.

I'm not denying there's a problem. I've seen it. I have my weaknesses for creature comforts. And I've seen rectories that I thought were awfully posh. Sometimes that's the faithful being generous; sometimes the priest initiates it. And some of our clergy certainly do live very very well.

What do you think?


Jennifer said...

Things are more expensive than people realize. That's very, very true.

I would never dream of criticizing anyone for overspending until I knew the details. It's so easy to destroy someone's good name for basically no reason. And this happens all the time.

When the Church was putting up the cathedral here in Downtown Los Angeles right near my office, the critics would not stop! It seems they believe this money should have been given to the poor. I work with the poor and I care about them. I give them quarters and dollars and food and hygiene kits. Yet you could spend all your money and time and there would still be poor people.

And the cathedral is a beautiful place where millions of people go for prayer and reflection, at no charge. I think the cathedral was a worthwhile expense.

Jason said...

Adding to this, the Buckhead area of Atlanta is frightfully expensive... Condo's walking distance from the Cathedral go for more than the total bill for the rectory renovations.

Having read the Archbishop of Atlanta's apology ( ) I can easily see how this could happen.

If I were to read some tea leaves, I'd guess the suggested archbishop's residence will be sold, and he'll end up somewhere else. His current residence as the new Cathedral rectory makes too much sense to not happen.

ndspinelli said...

If we're talking parish priests, I think it's up to the parishoners as to how well the priest should be compensated. Nobody else has any business in it. The church I went to as a kid had a second collection on Christmas. The second one was for the 2 parish priests. This was back in the 60's and it was a blue collar, Italian church[St. Anthony]. Well, I would see a lotta C-notes in the basket for that second collection. I think that's the way it should be.

pbewig said...

We don't know, but it may be that the Bishop's living space is modest, and the rest of the building is public space: a chapel, meeting rooms, a large kitchen and dining space to support day-long conferences, and so on.

Fr Martin Fox said...


You remind me of a point that's sometimes relevant. In many places, the cost of land, and therefore of homes, is remarkably high.

Now, maybe the Archbishop didn't need to buy in Buckland; but in other places, there aren't that many choices, unless you go to a very unsavory area.


That's a good point; that is not an unusual arrangement.

John F. Kennedy said...

I saw this story today. "Humility Is Compatible with the Rich Dress of One’s Office"

A nice story about Saint Francis de Sales, patron Saint of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.