Don’t Judge a Bishop by His Residence (or the Pope’s)

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I love Pope Francis. I don’t love when the world—(including more than a few Catholics)—uses Francis as a stick to beat bishops with.

Today’s CNN frontpage feature, headlined “The Lavish Homes of American Archbishops,” uses public real estate and tax data to profile U.S. archepiscopal residences valued at more than $1 million. The investigation’s subhead says it all: “10 of the country’s top church leaders defy the Pope’s example.”

I’m no fan of bishops who bling for bling’s sake. And the Holy Father’s invitation to a less worldly model of shepherding is right and just as a prescription for a Church always in need of reform. But CNN’s “revelation” needs to be seen in context, and that context must be, for Catholics especially, a charitable one.

If there’s anybody defying the papal witness here, it’s CNN. Like the Lord whose Vicar he is, Pope Francis always looks at each sinner—by which we mean each and every human person, from beggar to blogger to bishop—as an individual, uniquely made by God, uniquely called by Christ to serve and follow him in unique circumstances. CNN, on the other hand (like most of us), does a lot of lumping:

A CNN investigation found that at least 10 of the 34 active archbishops in the United States live in buildings worth more than $1 million, according to church and government records.

That’s not counting hundreds of retired and active Catholic bishops in smaller cities, some of whom live equally large. (Read it all here—with a grain of salt.)

Laying righteous indignation aside, unlump what you read. The 10 episcopal residences profiled have very little in common beyond assessed value. The archdioceses, too—which, contrary to the wishful thinking of many believers, are multimillion-dollar corporations of which the archbishop, whether or not he’s comfortable with the role, is the CEO—differ in economic circumstances, administrative burden, and numbers of people served (a population that extends far beyond Catholics in the pews). And the individual archbishops differ greatly from one another—and from Pope Francis—in temperament and personal circumstances.

When Francis chose to leave the papal apartments for the Domus Sanctae Martae, a move toward a simpler pontifical style was only one reason. (Simpler, of course, is relative. Francis is not living in a one-room pensione and cooking his meals over a hot plate.) His stated reasons had much more to do with who he is as an individual: an extrovert, a man who feeds on the familiarity of life in common, one who has little patience with ceremony. Had Francis been forced to stifle his soul within the walls of the papal apartments, he’d have been no use to the Holy Spirit or the Church—in the same way that the monastic introvert Benedict XVI would have experienced life without books and silence as a perpetual martyrdom.

Among the 10 archbishops profiled (as well as the “hundreds” of other U.S. bishops “living equally large”), there are extroverts and introverts. There are those who like inviting the world over for lunch, and those who need to close the door and leave the world out. There are men with chronic health issues that affect what they can eat or how much energy they have to spare in a given day. Like Pope Francis, two of the archbishops whose simplicity CNN lauds—Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Archbishop Charles Chaput—are members of religious orders, vowed to poverty and accustomed to communal living. Others have grown up in the diocesan administrative system, and are comfortable with that model. There are, as any Catholic ought to recognize, not a one of these men who lives an easy life, no matter what thread-count he lays his head on at night.

Among the residences profiled, there are historic piles it’s a trial to live in, but which have deep-rooted significance to the archdiocesan identity. There are McMansions, yes, often retrofitted or purpose-built for the needs of the archdiocese and its shepherd by donors. True, there isn’t a one that couldn’t be unloaded, and the funds put to what somebody thinks is a better use. That’s been true of every episcopal residence since the Apostles left their fishing boats behind. What the CNN investigation doesn’t tell you is what tradeoffs are made every day in stewarding the financial resources of a diocese in order to drive the engine of spiritual resources. When you sit in the meetings, agonizing over where the money goes, you can take your potshots, maybe.

Every archbishop on this list—every bishop in the world except, ironically, the Bishop of Rome, who has others to worry about this—sits in those meetings and thinks about it. And thinks about what you will think about it. And takes advice, and prays, and discerns, and chooses. Often, the choice of where he lives is the least of his worries. Sometimes, as with Bishop Wilton Gregory and his retirement plans, he rethinks and changes his mind—not because he’s afraid CNN will call him out, but because that is what he believes is the way God is calling him to shepherd.

There is no best place, no best way for a bishop to live. I have known an archbishop who lived in a downtown apartment over a church, and ministered to the homeless who slept through his daily noon Mass. I have known a bishop who had no residence at all, whose chancery office was his beat-up car, who lived a week at a time in his parishes like Queen Elizabeth on progress. And I know a couple of the bishops on this CNN Shame List. Not a one of them is any better at living his call to shepherd than any other; not a one of them has a reason to justify his conscience to Pope Francis or the media.

Optics are important—especially these days, when everything is optical—but they are not, by themselves, a basis for condemnation by the God who judges not by appearances, but by what is in the heart. Don’t lump. Get to know, and pray for, each bishop as Christ knows and calls him. If wealth and worldliness are obstacles to his ministry, pray he finds the grace to detach himself. If the material circumstances of his life enhance (or even make possible at all) his ministry, give thanks that God and his people are generous.

Jesus told the rich young man that he must give up all that he had to serve God authentically. The rich man went away sad, because he was much attached to his possessions. But Jesus had very different answers for the wealthy followers whose generosity supplied his own ministry and gave him the forum to preach and heal. He had a very different answer for Judas, who chided the woman of Bethany for wasting precious ointment on Jesus’ comfort. In each circumstance, Jesus judges the heart and the intention of the individual, not the exterior circumstances. So does Pope Francis.

And so, my friends, should we.


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