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)