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Spare us the faux outrage over bishops’ houses
10 April 2014 by Christopher Lamb

Following criticism over spending $2.2m (£1.3m) on a new home, the Archbishop of Atlanta, Wilton Gregory has decided to sell up while in Germany the Bishop of Limburg, who spent an outrageous €31m on his, has had his resignation accepted.

All this is happening in the context of Pope Francis' decision to reject the opulence of the papal apartments and to opt instead the more modest surroundings of a Vatican guesthouse and clergy residence. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he chose to live in a small flat rather than the archiepiscopal palace.

All this is putting bishops’ houses under scrutiny: surely small flat should suffice for a humble shepherd? The truth, of course, is a little more complicated.

Pope Francis’ new home is hardly austerity. Yes, the Domus Sanctae Marthae is less opulent than the Apostolic Palace but it is still an elegant residence where cardinals – and this week, police chiefs – often stay.

Interestingly in the United States the most palatial episcopal residences – Boston and Philadelphia – have been sold and there are those such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington who lives in a flat above a now closed Catholic school and Bishop David Zubek of Pittsburgh who declined the episcopal mansion, which had been the home of his predecessors since 1949.

Such modesty should be applauded, but it is not always possible. Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s large – but not particularly grand – residence is physically joined to his cathedral, which makes it difficult to sell. Victorian cathedrals and residences are often joined – for example in Westminster, where archbishop’s house is part of the cathedral complex. The same is true of numerous other dioceses.

And even those who want to sell up can find it difficult. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago felt his nineteenth-century palatial home with 19 chimneys was not suitable for a humble shepherd. But he decided against selling after coming up against opposition from Catholics in his diocese, who objected to him offloading something their forefathers had funded.

The question of what to do with bishops’ residences is also complicated in parts of the world where dioceses are growing. A bishop with a flock of over million Catholics is not simply a pastor to his people but a civic leader. In Atlanta the number of Catholics has jumped from 50,000 in the 1960s to almost a million today.

But a bishop’s home is not for him to luxuriate in. It is a centre for the diocese, a place to hold civic functions, meetings and help build the Kingdom of God.

It is also the place where a large amount of fundraising goes on so in that sense it can easily pay for itself.

And while in the older, larger dioceses a bishop can sell the grand residence and move into a flat in the seminary or some other underused building, for a smaller diocese with less property this is not an option.

Of course, episcopal mansions often hark back to the days when the bishop was a prince and today, rightly, the model for a bishop is that of a servant leader.

The commissioners of the Church of England have long felt that their bishops' palaces hark back to a bygone era and are no longer fit for purpose. They wanted to sell the Zubaran paintings of Auckland Castle, the palace of the “Prince Bishops” of Durham, until a wealthy benefactor stepped in. Other Anglican bishops' mansions such as Rose Castle, home to the Bishops of Carlisle from 1230-2009, and now the bishop's palace in Wells, the residence of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, are under threat of being sold.

What the commissioners forget is these are not simply bishops’ residences but part of the Church and nation’s patrimony. What does it say to the people of that diocese if it is deemed acceptable to dispense with one of their landmark buildings?

It is also hard to accept the modesty argument when the bishop is moved out of a castle and into a Grade II-listed former rectory bought at a cost of £900,000 (as is the plan in Bath and Wells). The diocese is now examining whether moving him out of the palace is such a good idea after all.

As Pope Francis puts it, bishops should be “pastors not princes” and how they live should reflect that. But the simplistic notion that every bishop who owns a large house should sell it and live in a poky flat is misguided.

Christopher Lamb is The Tablet's Assistant Editor (Home News)



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Comment by: Paul Heiland
Posted: 16/04/2014 14:31:16

I would like to speak up on behalf of the building! If the alternative to residence by the bishop and gladly also good use by the diocese is mouldering away in wind and rain as a listed ruin, then it is a service to the country's heritage and indirectly to its people to retain the use!

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 15/04/2014 22:32:58

@Christopher Lamb: thanks for response. Ok - I get where you are coming from: being a civic leader comes from being a pastor - and can be helpful for evangelisation.

So being a civic leader in this instance is more to make the job of being a pastor more effective. But it does not mean that he does everything the other non-clerical civic leaders do? Can our bishops be creative civic leaders who lead by example? Or by having solidarity with the people through living like ordinary people?

It's indeed better for bishops and parish priests to live near their cathedrals and parish churches. (I am grateful that I myself could work from home a couple of days a week, instead of wasting two hours a day otherwise in commuting for the other three days. I am more productive those two days!) If the adjacent building happens to be too big for whatever reason, could it be partitioned creatively? cmarkod's link seems to be a good example?

Comment by: cmarkod
Posted: 15/04/2014 12:41:27

I think the issue is whether the house is used for other purposes or is just a grand residence for the bishop. The following is happening in my diocese with a local priest who is keen to use the large presbytery for communal use.
http://t.co/xMp7ASnqv5
I'm aware that many clergy already open up their houses for public use but sometimes this creates issues of what is public and what is private space. I think this example in Gorton is a good move to clearly define what is useable and maximise this.

Comment by: Christopher Lamb
Posted: 15/04/2014 12:39:06

Joseph - normally when a bishop's house is attached to a cathedral then it is used for numerous other purposes than just living. It also makes ecclesiological sense to have a bishop living next to his cathedral.
Re: civic leader. Like it or not a bishop often speaks for the Catholic community to the wider world on all sorts of issues. And engaging with civic society vital part of Church's mission/evangelisation.

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 13/04/2014 20:40:54

Each bishop needs to judge for himself. But I am not really following the logic of the blog. Properties attached to a cathedral could be used for other purposes. Large buildings could be partitioned up to make up more reasonable accommodation. Also, not entirely sure whether a bishop should necessarily be a "civic leader". If Mr Lamb could clarify more about that and how that fits in being a bishop?

Comment by: Christopher Lamb
Posted: 11/04/2014 16:43:03

RecusantResistance, you're quite right, but I don't see how a US bishop downsizing will help the bishop in the Amazon. Wealthier dioceses should be under a moral obligation to help poorer ones (large episcopal houses should be used as fundraising venues). The point is that these houses are not simply for one man to luxuriate in but can and should be at service of the Church. ps without those big recusant houses with their secret priest holes Catholicism wouldn't have survived post-reformation in England and Wales

Comment by: RecusantResistance
Posted: 11/04/2014 15:24:09

Oh Christopher what a wonderfully G8 view of the Church: So while the Bishops of the developed world should lollop around in high value real estate Bishops in the Amazonas should be left to come beg for the costs of their curia in the US, or Vicar Generals in Africa to drive hundreds of miles for supplies: In the West many Dioceses have become real estate businesses without a social mission or purpose. And clergy have become insulated from the tyrannies of rent and mortgages. If there is to be a rethink it wont start while promotion correlates to drinky-poos , a fundraising base and nice silver.