US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Note to bishops: It's time to ditch the luxury lifestyle

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint |
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This story is starting to get almost comically repetitive: Yet another high ranking church official has caused a stir by opting for a lavish living arrangement instead of looking for more humble housing. This time it is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the former Vatican secretary of state, who is moving in to a newly renovated 6,500-square-foot apartment, which was actually created for him by merging two smaller apartments. And Pope Francis, according to news reports, is not happy.

For those following the news, this has been a trend for bishops in recent months. Germany's Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst will now forever be known as the "Bishop of Bling" for the $43 million in renovations to his residence, which included a $300,000 fish tank, $2.38 million for bronze window frames, and a $20,000 bath tub. The news earned him a meeting with Pope Francis about his extravagant lifestyle and Tebartz-van Elst ended up being replaced as bishop of his diocese

Here in the United States, Newark, New Jersey Archbishop John Myers came under fire recently for a half-million dollar, 3,000-square-foot addition to the house which will serve as his retirement home. Then it was Atlanta's Archbishop Wilton Gregory building himself a $2.2 million residence, although Gregory at least apologized after the fact and has decided not to live in the house after all. Meanwhile the pope is living in the simple Vatican guesthouse rather than the traditional--and more upscale--papal apartments. 

I really don't see the argument for bishops living in luxury housing. I understand they may need space to house guests or to have meetings, or that certain accommodations may be necessary in their older age. But it is hard for people to see their bishop as an example of Christ when he's living a lifestyle that the vast majority of Catholics in his own diocese can't afford--especially when so many Americans are struggling just to afford any housing at all. 

But putting aside the arguments for or against luxury housing, there's a very clear benefit to going the opposite route. The incredible appeal of Pope Francis, as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York noted yesterday on CBS's Face the Nation, is due in no small part to his simple life. People see Francis as authentic--he doesn't just preach the gospel, he lives it. And even more importantly, he lives a humble lifestyle while always remaining joyful, and in doing so makes the Christian life seem attractive to others.

It seems like some of the world's bishops still haven't gotten the message that they should do the same. But it also seems like Francis isn't afraid to give them a reminder.