The Washington Post article this week — in language befitting the National Enquirer — breathlessly revealed that “(t)he Vatican is facing an embarrassing new scandal.” That’s how the Post described the unwelcome publicity that Archbishop Wilton Gregory of the Atlanta Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church is moving into a newly constructed $2.2 million, 6,000-square-foot mansion in Buckhead.
Although the Post got carried away, even the most generous interpretation in Atlanta would conclude that church was a victim of incredibly poor timing. Winds of change have been wafting through the Catholic Church ever since the election of — and example set by — Pope Francis, who recently took to task a German Archbishop for his outrageous expenditures on a cushy church residence.
This column is not to defend Archbishop Gregory’s choice of housing. His apology seems heartfelt and he may — this is unclear — sell the house and move to a more humble setting.
Nevertheless, having lived in seven church-owned homes over 36 years gives one a different perspective of the awkward crosscurrents for every church that owns a parsonage/manse/etc. and the cleric who lives there. Any Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran or other Protestant can commiserate with their Catholic kin on these complexities and thickets.
If you think it’s hard for a homeowner to decide when to replace carpeting, repaint a room, purchase a new appliance or update home décor, assign those decisions to two to three church committees, thus multiplying the complexity of the decision exponentially.
What kind of home is appropriate for a pastor? The answer depends on the socio-economic level of that congregation, the neighborhood where the church is located, the symbolic message the church wants to convey to the community and its members, and even the kind of pastor who may be attracted to congregation with a home in a certain school zone or ZIP code.
When I first saw the Atlanta news, I was taken aback. Then I began thinking that a $2.2 million home in Buckhead might be on the lower end of the economic scale for that toney neighborhood. Anybody who has ever worshiped at Christ the King Cathedral in Buckhead suspects their leaders probably don’t live in East Point.
Again — I am not defending this choice of homes. It was a shameful decision, a misuse of church funds. It’s hard to imagine Jesus, who apparently had “nowhere to lay his head,” being pleased with such a domicile; Catholics have every right to protest this use of church funds in a time when so many are hungry and homeless. But drawing such a conclusion is always easier when looking in from the outside.
The New York Times, covering the same issue, widened the perspective, reporting that over the past decade Catholic bishops and archbishops in Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have sold extravagant mansions and moved into more austere housing. Doing so 11 years ago, Archbishop Kevin O’Malley of Boston wrote, “We no longer need all the symbols of the past, especially when those symbols now seem ambiguous at best and a contradiction of some of our Gospel values at worst.” I hope Archbishop Gregory is listening.
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.