This blog is called Standing on My Head, so while everybody is pouting and posturing about the houses of Archbishops and Bishops I’m going to strike a topsy turvy perspective, yea a discordant note.
I think the Pope should live in the Apostolic Palace and I think Archbishop Wilton should live in his brand new $2.2m home. I think Bishops should live in these grand homes–but they should do so like one of those impoverished English aristocrats who can’t afford to heat their vast Downton Abbey, and so live in one room in the attic wearing three sweaters and eating cat food casseroles that they cook in a microwave.
They should live there in community with other priests or brothers if they are religious. They should open up the West Wing as a hostel for recovering addicts and open up the East Wing as a women’s shelter and bring in some Mother Teresa nuns to run the place.
This would be a far more significant sign of contradiction than simply moving out to a mean little room somewhere because it would say something more profound about worldly wealth and property.
See, what troubles me about the Franciscan embrace of Lady Poverty is that it is too easily misunderstood. People then come to think that there is something good about poverty and that it is somehow good to be poor. It’s not good to be poor. It’s bad to be poor. Neither is a poor person good just because he’s poor.
Neither is it bad to own property or wealth. It’s good to have nice things. It’s good to enjoy life. It’s good to enjoy God’s blessings.
That’s why I’m Benedictine in temperament and commitment, and not Franciscan. The Benedictine monk does not take a vow of poverty and the Benedictine monasteries may have great property and wealth. However, the Rule of St Benedict does insist that the monk has no personal possessions. There’s a good balance. The monastery may own property and goods, but the individual monk does not.
This principle applied to church life teaches us that property and wealth is to be used for the common good. It is not to be distributed to all in some sort of socialistic solution or communist utopia, but it is to be used for the common good. When we’re tempted to tootle off to some sentimental idea of Franciscanism in which poverty is good for its own sake (and by implication property and wealth is bad just because its bad) we should step back and analyze what property and wealth is for.
When Jesus says “Sell all that you have and to the poor” did he really mean that or was hyperbole? Of course it was hyperbole just like “Cut off your hand if it offends you” and “you must hate your mother and father and sister and brother to enter the kingdom”. But beneath the hyperbole is a principle which applies: that you are to be personally liberated and unbound from your wealth. You own property for the common good.
The social teaching of the church is that property is a human right. It is the just reward of labor. It is, however, to be used for the common good, not for the aggrandizement of the individual. Using wealth for the common good means that we use the wealth firstly for the common good of our families, then of our community and our world. What would the world be like if that was really our aim?
I’d like to see the Pope live in the Apostolic Palace within a simple religious community of sisters and brother priests–serving the church in personal poverty from within property rather than the simplistic solution of either giving away all the wealth or even worse–forced distribution of other people’s wealth.