I live in a relatively small house. Not Third World Shack small, but the square footage per person makes most first-world “Small Houses!” fans gaze longingly at off-site storage options. I have friends who squeeze way more children into way less space, and friends who do it the other away around. We’re happy with where we fall on the real estate spectrum, grateful for what we have and making the best use of it we can.
CNN, on the other hand, is very worried about People Whose Homes Are the Wrong Size. Well, not just any people. They aren’t worried about publishing executives, or journalists, or graphic designers and IT guys. They must already have the right size homes. It’s bishops, don’t you know. So let’s talk about the clerical housing crisis.
1. Priest & bishops very rarely control where they live.
You get assigned to a job, and the house comes with it. It might be magnificent, it might be horrifying, it might have a deadly elevator. 98% of priests surveyed* report that they’ve had to live someplace very, very tacky. Can you, the current resident, do anything about the situation? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
2. It’s not “your” house to do with as you please.
Unless they’ve gone and used their personal funds to rent an alternate location, the rectory or bishop’s residence does not belong to the occupants. It’s typically the property of the diocese, and each priest or bishop is just a temporary resident. Your local parish priest probably has to fill out an acre of paperwork just to get new wallpaper in the bathroom, because the diocese wants to make sure that no disastrous DIY horror show is awaiting Father Replacement a year from now. The bishop has to not just consider his own needs, which might be minimal, but also what every bishop for the next fifty years is going to reasonably need.
3. It’s not only your house.
I wish I had room for guests in my house. Hotels are expensive, and if I had the space I’d happily host friends and family in a comfortable guest room. I’d have a proper dining room with a table suited for receiving more than one very slender person for dinner in inclement weather. Fortunately my state in life doesn’t call for me to house visiting colleagues, receive clients, or host large events. Getting mad at your priest or bishop for having space to receive guests is like being angry at the one family member who actually has room to host the family reunion.
4. Real estate isn’t that simple.
People who move frequently go through a lot of trouble to purchase homes that can easily be sold again when it’s time to move. The right neigbhorhood, right builder, right model of home . . . if you don’t pick a house that will hold its value and sell quickly, you end up losing a lot of money. Clergy don’t have the luxury of picking any neighborhood in the metro area. They don’t get assigned to a new city and told to house hunt, they get assigned to a new city and handed whatever real estate decision was made ten, fifty, three hundred years ago. If it really is time to reconsider the existing residence, the diocese still has to decide: What can we sell this property for? Can we get a different home in the same area? How much would a new location cost? And how much benefit would we get from relocating, compared to the time and energy we’d spend on managing the whole move?
5. Your bishop is a guy a lot like you.How’s that holy poverty thing working out for you? Christians are called not just to a “spirit” of poverty, but to actually avoiding accumulating excess and actively seeking to share our goods with the poor. That’s the mission. That’s the ideal. Keeping each other accountable isn’t all bad. But before I call up my priest and chew him out for indulging in this or that luxury, I need to look at my own budget. Am I setting a good example? Or have I decided that somehow I get a free pass to pamper myself, but Father has to wear used burlap and live in a cardboard box? A shared cardboard box, mind you.
Holy Poverty, Simplicity, Humility
Is there a history, in some times and places, of clergy using their office as an excuse to wallow in luxury? Most certainly there is. I hear politicians and business executives are prone to excessive indulgence, too. Do some dioceses manage their real estate poorly, building or holding onto real estate that far exceeds the reasonable needs of ministry? I haven’t seen it myself, but I imagine it happens. (My diocese is constantly renting meeting space from Baptists . . . I don’t think we’re over-building.) Do most of us need to spend less on ourselves and more on others? I would hazard there are a good number of us that could use that advice, yes.
Because self-indulgence is such a problem in our culture, I love reading about people who manage to do more with less. Families that fit a lot of kids into a small but happy home, churches that serve their communities in frugal but well-maintained buildings, religious orders that build with an eye for durability and simplicity rather than showmanship — I love to hear about that stuff. It inspires me. It helps me do better.
That’s why I’m looking forward to CNN’s follow-up piece, where they unroll their new corporate real estate and executive compensation strategy. Meanwhile, Joanne McPortland tackles the spiritual side:
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.
UPDATE: Sam Rocha takes it from another perspective, different conclusion, sort of. (I pretty much agree with Sam, even though he more or less disagrees with me. It’s a complex topic.)
DOUBLE UPDATE: Sam strikes again: CNN Exposes Socialist Catholic Archbishops.
*Very small sample size on that survey.