Archbishop sells his fancy digs; NYTimes digs a bit deeper

Archbishop sells his fancy digs; NYTimes digs a bit deeper April 2, 2014

What we have here is a very solid New York Times story about a somewhat controversial issue in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.

Let me repeat that, for regular GetReligion readers who may have fainted.

What we have here, under the headline “Bishops Follow Pope’s Example: Opulence Is Out,” is a very solid story about the trend among Catholic prelates to down-size their lives a bit, when it comes to the cost of their housing. In fact, I have only one minor criticism and that focuses on an interesting, but perhaps not essential, angle that this fine story could have mentioned.

But let’s focus first on the good news. The story opens with the decision by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta to sell his new $2.2 million, 6,000-square-foot mansion in the ultra-high-rent Buckhead neighborhood which, the Times properly notes, was being built on donated land with funds donated for this purpose.

Then there is this obvious news hook in the summary paragraphs:

… (As) Pope Francis seeks “a church which is poor and for the poor,” expectations for Catholic leaders are changing rapidly. So on Monday night, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory apologized, saying that laypeople had told him they were unhappy with his new house, and promising to seek guidance from priests and laypeople and to follow their advice about whether to sell it.

“What we didn’t stop to consider, and that oversight rests with me and me alone, was that the world and the church have changed,” he wrote in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Georgia Bulletin. He added, “The example of the Holy Father, and the way people of every sector of our society have responded to his message of gentle joy and compassion without pretense, has set the bar for every Catholic and even for many who don’t share our communion.”

The unhappy reaction of local Catholics to the archbishop’s new house in Atlanta is the latest in a series of lay uprisings since the new pope altered the landscape by choosing to live in a modest Vatican residence rather than the opulent apostolic palace, to travel in a Ford Focus and to denounce overspending by church leaders.

Now, the Pope Francis superstar factor cannot be denied here. It’s there and it’s very real. However, I think it’s crucial to note that other factors are playing a role in this trend.

For starters, some bishops have chosen to live in community with other priests and religious, rather than living alone. A few have moved out of fancy solo digs in order to seek new, perhaps even larger, houses in order to share them with others. In a few cases, a larger house might be sign of modesty, not opulence. Journalists jumping on this trendy story should inquire about that.

Also, the bad economy is causing some Catholic leaders in rust-state zip codes to sell off some big properties. Yes, and some bishops have been forced to sell valuable properties after taking financial hits in settlements after clergy sexual abuse cases.

Nevertheless, the Times piece follows the money on an impressive (bling bishop alert) list of recent cases. I would be interested in seeing comments from Catholic GetReligion readers who know more about the facts (URLs please) behind some of these circumstances.

In Newark, laypeople have expressed unhappiness about a planned $500,000 expansion, with three fireplaces and an indoor pool, of a weekend home used by Archbishop John J. Myers. In the Camden, N.J., diocese,questions have been raised about Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan’s purchase of a 7,000-square-foot, $500,000 house. In West Virginia, local Catholics cited Francis’ humble lifestyle in questioning what they viewed as excessive spending by the Wheeling-Charleston diocese. And, most significantly, last week the pope accepted the resignation of a German bishop who had spent $43 million renovating his house and other church buildings. …

A number of American bishops have sent similar signals over the last decade, even before Francis became pope last year. In Boston, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who is now the pope’s closest American adviser, began his tenure by selling the Italianate palazzo that had housed his predecessors and moving into a shabby cathedral rectory. In Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput sold the mansion occupied by his predecessors and moved into an apartment on the grounds of a seminary. In Pittsburgh, Bishop David A. Zubik lasted two weeks in that diocese’s mansion before putting it up for sale and moving into a seminary apartment.

All and all, this appears to be a story with legs. Bravo.

I was especially taken with the sobering quality of this quote near the end from Archbishop Gregory:

“While my advisers and I were able to justify this project fiscally, logistically and practically, I personally failed to project the cost in terms of my own integrity and pastoral credibility with the people of God of north and central Georgia,” he wrote. “I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services.”

Coming soon to a newspaper near you?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • HowardRichards

    Well, the Pope can’t really sell the Apostolic Palace, so the parallel only goes so far. Maybe his current residence is less expensive to maintain, but I doubt that there is much saving, since again, the Apostolic Palace cannot be left to fall apart. That would simply be irresponsible. So the Pope’s decision to live in more modest accommodations is really about him wanting something different and getting what he wants — something he has the right to do, of course, but not something that really is a mark of humility or a money saver. (For comparison, I had to wear a tux when I acted as usher at the outdoor wedding of some friends — in Texas, in August. I would have preferred to wear a t-shirt and shorts, but it is actually more humble to wear the tux than to come to the wedding in shorts.)

    That’s not to say that the Pope’s example is not a good one, only to say that the situation is more complicated than is typically reported.

    • Cypressclimber

      I really think some folks — a small number, admittedly, but vocal online — would insist that the pope ought to sell the Apostolic Palace. It’s crazy.

    • sgcrumley

      Howard, Interesting analogy comparing your tux to the Apostolic Palace. The Tux is appropriate for the occasion. Perhaps Our Holy Father is trying to teach us that not much of what Christ preached, and is recorded in the Gospels, suggests that it is appropriate for Christ’s Vicor here on earth and those whose authority is derived from apostolic succession should lead opulent lifestyles. That is an uneasy message for many, because the obvious knock on is that the lay faithful should follow our shepherds’ examples and also live modestly.

      I do agree that it is not a simple issue to address. But I do believe that our shepherds would gain a lot more moral credibility by trying to lead their own lives more in line with the gospels. I say that carefully, because all of the religious already sacrifice much.

      • HowardRichards

        When you make stuff up, please do not precede it by, “perhaps what the Holy Father is trying to teach us is …”, at least until you are Pope.

        If Pope Francis wants to teach something, he can teach it. He can issue encyclicals; he has already co-written one. He can release an apostolic exhortation, as he has already done. He can appear at his balcony and speak. An unexpected action does not constitute a teaching.

        • AuthenticBioethics

          Are you just generally against the idea of teaching by example? St Francis is reputed to have said, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.”
          Also, is it not at least a little ironic that someone who says, “…at least until you are pope,” would in the next sentence offer instructions on how the pope should do things.
          But the basic difficulty with your first post is that people are affected by their surroundings. Even if he doesn’t save money by living humbly, the difference is that he lives humbly in the one case and doesn’t in the other. And that makes a big difference.
          And a story on the opulence of some bishops is fitting. In some stories about the Archbishop Myers’ expansion and plans for a $100 million capital campaign, there are many snarky comments, but the basic thrust is there: That’s an awful lot of money, will it be put to the right use?

          • Howard

            Yeah, Saint Francis is reputed to have said that. Give me evidence that he did, or it’s an urban legend.

            Do I offer instructions about how a Pope should do things? No. He can crab-walk to work every day if he wants, but it won’t be teaching, or at least it won’t be teaching effectively. That’s because anyone and everyone will come along and make guesses about what he meant by the crab walk and how their own guesses are a binding part of papal magisterium. The one thing you can be sure of is that most, if not all, of these guesses will be wrong.

            Teaching means explaining. Maybe he can govern or sanctify without explanations, but he cannot teach without explanations. That’s not because of who he is, it’s because of what teaching is.

            The existing models of explanations give us some idea how seriously to take any given explanation, though. An encyclical is meant to be taken more seriously than an apostolic exhortation, which is more serious than a newspaper interview.

        • sgcrumley

          Howard. Wow, I apologize for “making stuff up”. You are correct, I can not cite any papal encyclical or exhortation or any canon law or catechism paragraph to back up my opinion of what Pope Francis’ words and actions actually mean.
          I actually was not trying to take a counter point to you. I agree it is complex situation. I also feel that the religious in general already live very austere lives.
          God bless you.

          • Howard

            My apologies. I had a rough day at work, and it put me into a bad mood that spilled over into the tone of my response. So I do apologize for the tone. The truth is, though, that Magisterium is supposed to be easier to understand than Scripture. Protestants make guesses all the time about what Scripture is trying to teach them, but they never agree on much. Catholics would be in the same boat, but we have Tradition and the Magisterium to explain Scripture. If the Pope’s actions leave us guessing what he is trying to “teach” and he fails to explain himself, though, we are back to square one. (This especially when so many of the Pope’s “fans” want to hear nothing about Tradition.)

          • Howard

            Yeah, I was way out of line with the way I reacted. I was taking out frustrations not only from today, but with other people who volunteer to tell us what the Pope *really* means by this or that action. I should not have bitten your head off. I was also unnecessarily rough with AuthenticBioethics while making the same point. Sorry, guys.

          • Julia B

            And Archbishop Gregory, unlike Francis, is not a religious.

      • Julia B

        Look at the link I provided that shows how un-opulent and plain the official Papal apartments are. In fact, if you read the linked article about the Francis situation, you will note that Francis had the place re-done to suit him and then changed his mind about moving in because he thought it would be too isolated for him.

  • Julia B

    Francis has been quoted as saying he didn’t want the isolation of living in the traditional quarters which consist of a few sparely-furnished rooms in a large building otherwise occupied by offices, a library, kitchen facilities a dining room, and many different sizes of reception rooms. Guess what! Francis still does 90% of his day-to-day work in the Apostolic Palace – he gives weekly talks from one of the windows of the former Papal quarters & recenty met with President Obama in the Apostolic Palace. President Obama’s house is a lot larger than the one Archbishop Gregory lives in – of course most of the WH is also offices and reception areas with rooms for small and very large gatherings with private quarters in a section of the upstairs. Here’s a lay-out of what Benedict used as his living quarters. I can’t figure out how to enlarge the drawing, but you can get the drift. The post is a discussion of the appropriateness of Francis living in a hotel – translated from the Italian by a Roman who probably doesn’t understand this at all.

  • Cypressclimber

    I think there is a valid point here — don’t be extravagant — but the piling on is going too far. I was reading another site, not on Patheos . . . let’s just say it’s so liberal that some of us put Catholic in quotes . . . where the demands are that priests must not have more than one room besides a bedroom, must not expect their own bathrooms, which is deemed “luxurious,” and so on and so on.

    Do folks realize that unless they are also members of a religious order, bishops and priests don’t take a vow of poverty? Do these folks who want clerics to eat gravel with their cheerios likewise live the way they demand all clergy live?

    To be clear, I’m not defending extravagance. There’s a line. We wouldn’t all draw it in just the same place, but how about this: clergy shouldn’t seek to live better than the people they serve, but somewhat more simply.

    Also, the Church has always held that embracing poverty is both a calling not all receive, and it is always voluntary. Pope Francis’ personal example is not meant, I think, to be an imposition, but an invitation — just as Saint Francis’ was.

  • Julia B

    Hre’s a report on the make-over that was done for Benedict and descriptions of what it was like during previous Popes residence.

    And here is a short video about the Papal Apartments after vati-leaks when people were wondering who had access to it.

  • Julia B

    One last comment – Archbishop Gregory was the bishop here in Belleville IL before going to Atlanta. He was very much liked as a regular guy who drove his own car, played handball with locals at a public gym and lived without complaint in the non-fancy 100+ year old Queen Anne-style house where our bishops always live. It is definitely not in a posh neighborhood. His replacement got really scathing criticism when he had the place painted and re-furbished with money donated to him for that purpose. Here it is on Google Maps – the yellow house at about 600 Gass Ave.,-89.999018,3a,37.5y,315.71h,92.01t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1smnphgKrSRO0Ev5jjPLdBKQ!2e0

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Bishop Braxton of Belleville has been targeted by SNAP for alleged laxity regarding abusers, but they have also, curiously, tweeked him for remodeling his kitchen: and taking trips to Nigeria to get priests for his vocation-poor diocese.

      • Julia B

        The laxity claimed sounds like a purported responsibility to monitor these questionable guys’ activities. The church doesn’t have a prison and the article says none of these guys was ever criminally accused by the civil authorities. If the bishop gets them kicked out of the priesthood (with no evidence of wrong-doing?), he will have absolutely no leverage over their activities. These demands start contradicting each other.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I get peeved at the whole “opulent” Apostolic Palace thing. What does the Times say when they’re highlighting those “What You Get for $1.2 Million” homes? “This opulent house is…”? I seriously doubt it. Besides, Pope Francis made it clear that the reason he lives in St. Martha’s is because he likes to be with people, not because he was shunning the “opulence.”

    But I also get upset because this whole buying and selling of bishops’ homes has been going on for years. In the Diocese of Steubenville, for instance, when Bishop John King Mussio (emphasis on “King”) founded it in 1945, he built a huge brick manse above downtown (it’s now owned by Scott and Kimerbly Hahn, who got it for a song). His successor, Bishop Albert Ottenweller, sold it off around 1978 and moved into a run-down neighborhood downtown. (Sorry, no links – this is personal knowledge.)

    In 1992, Archbishop Daniel Cronin of Hartford bought a new large house after his predecessor, Archbishop John Whealon, had sold off the mansion in 1974 to live in the Cathedral rectory:

    So here’s my question — where’s the news?

  • FW Ken

    The NYT article might have been strengthened by some more information about the background on the archbishop’s new house.

    But this primary source doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why a celibate man needs a large house. One article noted that he needed space for gatherings of up to 300. Really? My last bishop lived in the cathedral rectory; I don’t know about the new guy, but we don’t have a residence for him. The cathedral has a parish hall, as do most parishes. For large events, we rent a venue and that’s fairly rare. So why does the archbishop of Atlanta need 6000 feet?

    One more point, that bishop in Germany renovated historic buildings and I’ve read several times that he got a good deal. But he’s an easy target.

  • Jean-Francois

    The secular media could care less about the cost of these residences other than to create controversy where there is none. This home is apparently in a high rent district of Atlanta, not out in the country with the Duke family. I can’t say for sure about the Archbishop of Atlanta’s residence but the residences of several Bishops I know are more than simply a house for one person, hence the size of the place is all relative. So before you condemn the man for needing a 6000 sq. ft home maybe you should know what it is used for. In my Diocese as parents of a seminarian we have been invited to receptions at the Bishops home with the parents of 50 other seminarians. Thats about 100 people on the guest list. In addition there are always visiting priests, Bishops and Cardinals passing through who stay at the rectory. Trying to make a comparison to the digs of Pope Francis is comparing apples to oranges. Do you think Pope Francis met President Obama at St. Martha’s? Or any dignitary for that matter. The Bishops “home” is often an extension of his office. Our Bishop has also allowed the use of his residence for other groups to hold meetings and receptions, etc. Again if Bishop Gregory is like most Bishops he is hardly even at his residence, his time normally occupied by numerous activities, functions and events in the parishes. Considering all the things he has to deal with on a given day if he needs a small lap pool for his health I guess I’m willing to let him have that little “luxury.”

  • DPierre

    Matt –

    I believe the German “bishop of bling” story has been *grossly* misreported by the media.

    I highly recommend “The Real Scandal in Germany” over at Crisis magazine, which was written by someone who really knows what is going on in the Church in Germany.


  • rarey4

    Howe was a Bishop able to buy a house like that and not have another priest blow the whistle on him?

    • Jean-Francois

      Blow the whistle on him for what exactly?

      • rarey4

        Abusing money donated to the Church.

        • Julia B

          The property was donated to the church specifically for the use of the archdiocese. What would you have done with the property under those circumstances of the will and zoning restrictions on what can be built there? I’m wondering if Gregory can sell it – considering the terms of the will.

          • rarey4

            Was he forbidden from using it as a monastery?

          • Julia B

            Gregory is a diocesan priest, not a religious – he’s not connected to any monks. The property is to be used for archdiocesan purposes; preferably for the Cathedral parish. It’s not big enough to be a monastery, anyway. [ For non-Catholics, I probably should explain that religious orders are not governed by diocesan officials – they are separate entities.]
            It could be a retreat building or archdiocesan event center. The main problem is that it has been described as the Archbishop’s “home” – he only has a few rooms for himself. What’s wrong with most of the building being used for archdiocesan gatherings of various kinds? Does kicking out the Archbishop make the building OK?

          • rarey4

            I’ve seen the residence of some Bishops so pardon me for assuming the worst.

            FTR I’m not anti-RCC.

          • rarey4

            Read today that the LAND was donated but the MANSION was built using CHURCH money.

          • Julia B

            The “mansion” was built with money donated from the same person as the land. That money was also only to be used for church purposes.
            Anyway, you can’t sell a building separate from the land. You can rent the place out, though.
            I’ve not seen the actual wording of the will, only news reports of it. I’m on the board of a non-profit. We were left money to use for violin instruction scholarships. We can’t use the money for anything else.
            I hope the archdiocese has a good lawyer, because the estate could sue if the money is used for other reasons than stipulated in the will.
            Perhaps the news reports have not been accurate as to the provisions in the will.

          • Julia B

            I understand the Queen of England owns a lot of land in “the City” of London, but not the buildings located in The City. Maybe that can be done in Atlanta, too.

          • rarey4

            I understand her residence was built loooooonnggggg before she was born and she’s in no sense a Priest.

          • Julia B

            I’m not talking about the Queen’s residence. It’s the part of London called “The City” where she has to have permission to enter, but she owns most of the ground. It’s where the courts, law offices and financial businesses are located.

          • Julia B

            “Gregory arrived at the meeting at the Archdiocese of Atlanta” From the Atlanta Journal Constitution. That’s like saying Governor Perry arrived at the meeting at the state of Texas. Where is that?

            I also noted that this article describes provisions in the will differently than previous articles. If a newspaper is going to talk about will provisions (or contract provisions, etc.) they should actually know what it says and maybe get a lawyer to explain what it means.


          • rarey4

            ok. 😕

          • rarey4

            Don’t understand all English laws, customs, traditions, etc.

            Do understand a modern Priest shouldn’t have a residence built that screams “materialism”

          • Julia B

            Why not? Ever been in a Catholic rectory? Should it look like a shack? Why? Is your problem that it has nice brickwork? Why should Cathedrals have nice brickwork?
            What about the White House? We live in a democracy – what is a president doing living in a humongous fancy house like that? Answer: lots of other things go on there; Obama only lives in a small part of it. Lots of offices and places for receptions, meetings and dinners. The President doesn’t own it. Maybe you don’t understand what a Catholic archbishop does – he has functions that go beyond that of a parish priest. BTW Francis just had a meeting with the Queen of England and Prince Philip – it wasn’t in St Martha’s House in his rooms. It was in a reception room in the enormous Paul VI Audience Hall.

          • rarey4

            I have.

            It was modest.

          • Julia B

            What does being a priest have to do with it? Queen Elizabeth actually is the head of the Church of England. In any case, priests don’t take a vow of poverty unless they are members of a religious order like Francis, a Jesuit. Like other Jesuits, Francis does not own much of anything except a small amount of personal items. I had Jesuit relatives and am familiar with how that works. Some Diocesan priests retire to homes they have purchased or inherited. Benedict and his brother have a house they had built for their retirement in Germany. Francis, if he follows Jesuit rules, will retire at a Jesuit facility for retired priests like my cousins did. Archbishop Gregory has not taken a vow of poverty; he is a diocesan priest, not a member of a religious order like Francis.

  • jen

    Bishop Robert Baker in Birmingham has put the bishop’s residence up for sale, and will use the proceeds to fund the struggling diocesan residence for elderly priests–where he will be moving himself soon.

  • Guest

    An interesting corollary to the Francis effect would be for the ny times to report on whether priests who do not take vows of poverty are similarly eschewing luxuries and/or downsizing, living more simply. It seems that many do live quite simply, and unfortunately many are unable to support themselves in retirement and so live very modestly out of necessity, but I wonder if there is any evidence of a trend taking place on that level.

  • Julia B

    TMatt: I apologize. I got sucked into an argument with a troll. Not used to them at this site. I love this place for the mostly intelligent, civil discussions. I’m off this thread.