Bishops foregoing their palaces has become the New Hotness since Francis took over (although it has repeatedly happened historically, of course).
The Trad blog Rorate Caeli published an op-ed denouncing this practice. To be a bishop is to hold high office, and it is fitting that this high office be accoutered with splendor.
Well, as a good Vatican II Catholic, I want to begin by affirming the elements of truth and sanctification we see here.
The first is that, yes, we should have “a poor Church for the poor,” but we should also have a splendrous Church for God. The poor, after all, are human beings like everyone else, and like every human being they have spiritual as well as bodily needs, and a great spiritual need is aesthetic need. St. John Vianney, not only a great saint but the patron saint of diocesan priests, and therefore a role model highly recommended by Holy Tradition for all pastors, lived in extremely austere personal poverty; thanks to his popularity, he was able to raise a lot of money for his parish. What did he do with it? Well, first, he set up two free schools, a rarity in early 19th century France, for poor boys and girls. But he also spent a lot of money on liturgical ornaments and on decoration for his Church. He understood a today ill-understood truth, which is that it is right and proper to offer all splendor to God; that God is, after all, the one in whom all Good, Truth and Beauty find their source, and that therefore a Church which claims to be the Body of Christ, the theanthropos, must worship God in beauty insofar as it is able to. One of my theological hobbyhorses is to remind the world of Beauty as the “forgotten transcendental”, one particularly forgotten in the Modern world. The Church is a great Spirit-powered machine for re-divinizing the world; this necessarily involves feeding the poor and making the world more beautiful.
The second is that, insofar as this trend of bishops foregoing pleasant quarters is a trend, a fashion, it should be immediately suspect. Let’s face it, what I’ve said above is often inaudible in the contemporary world. A bishop who spent too much money on art and beautification would be immediately criticized for shirking his duty to the poor. The best argument (and I do believe it is a good argument), then, for splendrous living by bishops is that it would be an instance of holy trolling.
Yet, yet, yet.
As I said, while he did do these things, St. John Vianney did live in great personal poverty.
Here’s a story, a fictional story. In the novel The Pope’s Guest, by the Eastern Orthodox writer Vladimir Volkoff, the main character is (I am spoiling as little as I can) an Orthodox, and orthodox, archbishop living under Communist rule. In order not to rouse suspicions of Christian virtue, the holy man gives the appearance of corruption: he throws splendrous dinners and receptions at his apostolic palace, makes sure to be seen gorging on caviar and vodka. But then, he retreats to a private cell where he sleeps on a mat on the floor. The only decoration are the icons which he venerates every morning and every night, all of them salvaged from Soviet destruction and damaged, including a Virgin Mother with Child with a nail driven through her face, to remind himself of just who he is and who he is dealing with.
We are bound to Holy Tradition, but not every tradition is part of Tradition, and some things that used to be the case were perversions of the Gospel. It is good that the Vatican be splendrous, but it is good that those who live and work in it live and work in spartan style (as Francis does, and as his immediate predecessors did, since the official Papal apartments were also spartan). Against those who would strip our altars and our churches in fits of utilitarian, iconoclastic madness, we must stand athwart.
Another tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church which I like is that every bishop must be a monk. Because the Orthodox have married clergy and celibate bishops, it is typically monks who rise through the ranks anyway. But if, for example, a widowed diocesan priest is elected bishop, he must be tonsured and make a monk’s vows before he can be consecrated. I very much like the spirit of this.
While St Thomas More and St Louis of France wore the splendrous garments of their offices, they also wore a hair shirt underneath. It is incumbent on all of us to practice ascesis and self-mortification; but I would add that it is particularly incumbent on those who have powerful responsibilities to be reminded of their sinful nature, and of their ontological poverty. A bishop should wear liturgical garments of unimaginable splendor–and a hair shirt underneath. His cathedral should be sublime, and his bedroom poor. I think this is already what many do, though not all will do it with a press release (and, in the context of the new evangelization, I do not begrudge the press release). As is always the Catholic Way, we have here a beautiful both/and: official splendor and personal austerity. This should be the way. Sell the apostolic palaces and split the money between art and service to the poor.