Seven Ways CNN Gets It Wrong on Bishops’ Residences

CNN published an inflammatory and provocative piece of link-bait over the weekend criticizing the Catholic Church because some of the larger archdioceses happen to have “lavish homes” for their archbishops. In the process of concern-trolling for a religion he clearly despises, the writer, Daniel Burke, reveals how little he understands about the Catholic Church. Below are just seven ways he gets it wrong. 

Easter parade on Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral, 1904

Easter parade on Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 1904

1. They’re residences, not homes. The mansions included in this article are not the personal property of the bishops, but belong to the diocese. Every diocese in the world maintains a cathedral (sometimes multiple co-cathedrals), a chancery, and a residence for the bishop. In poorer countries, these are often the grandest buildings in the city. Typically these buildings are in close proximity to one another. Many of the cities included in this list happen to be some of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, also with the highest property values. Compounding this effect, the cathedral is usually located in a prominent location on a major street. Many of these residences were also built a century ago and the Church certainly doesn’t have to pay a mortgage for them.

2. The article compares the bishops to the idle rich, but in truth, the bishops are some of the most hard-working people in the world. In addition to attending to the administrative and judicial matters of their dioceses, bishops are also the leaders of multi-million-dollar charitable foundations and endowments and serve as the public face of the Catholic Church in the media.  With all these duties, the bishop is still a priest and must say daily Mass, pray the liturgy of the hours, celebrate Eucharistic exposition and benediction, and according to Pope Francis, hear confessions. The bishops should live as close to their cathedrals as possible because every moment they spend driving around or in transit is time they could be using to care for their flock.

Highclere Castle, setting for PBS's fictional "Downton Abbey"

Highclere Castle, setting for PBS’s fictional “Downton Abbey”

3. The bishops’ residences are not exactly Downton Abbey. There are no armies of servants meticulously polishing the silver or rising at the crack of dawn to tend to massive fireplaces in every room. If the bishops have “lavish” furnishings and dinners, it is to raise money for the charities that the Church supports. Acquaintances of your humble writer who have been fortunate to attend one of these functions have attested that if anything, the dioceses spend too little on the maintenance and upkeep which befits the grandeur of these historic structures. Cardinal Dolan’s residence was once described as a “19th century funeral parlor.” According to the New York Times, Cardinal Dolan does allow himself the luxury of a chauffeur, for his Chrysler minivan. That’s not exactly the glitzy-ritzy image that the article would have you believe.

4. Perhaps CNN can run a hit-piece on the practice of many Protestant and secular charitable foundations which provide their leaders with multi-million dollar condominiums as a tax-free fringe benefit. Just this weekend, a Protestant charity purchased a Manhattan office building for $13 million. The same building also houses office for the NAACP and Big Brothers Big Sisters.  Meanwhile, Trinity Episcopal Church–a mere parish, not even a diocese–owns real estate in Lower Manhattan estimated at around $2 billion, with a “B,” as in bling. Cardinal Dolan’s $30 million residence is chump change by comparison.

5. Pope Francis may have a small bedroom, but he still lives mere steps from the Basilica of St. Peter in the heart of Rome in a dormitory/hotel which cost roughly $20 million to build. If Pope Francis’s comments about frugality were an infallible dogma of the Church (which they are not), he would be equally guilty. It is exciting and wonderful to watch Pope Francis go out to minister to the people, but perhaps Daniel Burke forgets that basically every Pope has done this, whether they lived in a simple cell (albeit furnished with exquisite burled walnut and mahogany hardwoods) or the opulent Apostolic Palace. Indeed, Pope Francis is not the first to eschew the latter. Pope Julius II said, “I will not live in the same rooms as the Borgias lived!” The rooms remained disused and closed to public view until the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII several centuries later.

Martha and Mary Magdalene by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1598

Martha and Mary Magdalene by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1598

6. Enemies of the Catholic Church feel free to quote scripture when it suits them, but by the same authority, Jesus told his disciples:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and poured it on his head while he was reclining at table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and said, “Why this waste? It could have been sold for much, and the money given to the poor.” Since Jesus knew this, he said to them, “Why do you make trouble for the woman? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me.

And also:

“[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Outward symbols of humility and charity are meaningless and empty show. What matters is what the bishops spend their time doing when they are awake, not where they sleep. Maybe CNN can do a piece showcasing a life in the day of an American cardinal. They do it for political candidates, corporate leaders, and entertainers. Why not also open a window on the tireless work of Cardinal Dolan or Cardinal George?

7.    It’s easy to accuse the bishops of hypocrisy, but the same could be said of CNN. By Daniel Burke’s logic, the entire clergy–and perhaps the laity too–of the Catholic Church should abandon all worldly possessions and live as Jesus did. As long as a bishop has a warm bed and a homeless man is sleeping on a grate, one can foolishly argue that their positions should be reversed out of fairness. However, if it is morally wrong to live in a large house, shouldn’t Ted Turner (estimated net worth: $2.2 billion) sell all of his possessions and give the money to charity? If owning property is wrong, maybe the CNN media mogul could even follow the example of Saint Francis who was a rich man before giving up all his property and taking holy orders. Daniel Burke might want to run that argument by his boss before committing him to a life of poverty though.

In the long run, tearing apart these historic homes to make way for micro-apartments will not do very much. Tearing down the Church which has done so much good will ultimately only hurt the poor. The fact is, the Catholic Church has done more to help the poor than any other organization in the history of the world. Perhaps if CNN were interested in pursuing actual journalism, they could write an article about the top-ten Catholic charities that people can support, to, you know, actually help the poor.

39 thoughts on “Seven Ways CNN Gets It Wrong on Bishops’ Residences

  1. [...] dioceses for decades or even longer and are attached or very close to the cathedrals.” A great article over at CatholicVote.com also notes that many of these residences were built over a century ago so the church is not paying [...]

  2. Gregg says:

    If we apply the standards espoused by so many on the comments her then let’s start with the old barns of cathedrals that the church has so many. It does not need soaring ceilings (hard to heat and cool), world renowned art, etc. in order to celebrate mass. A simple metal building will do. Never mind that we are the mere custodians of generations of labor and devotion to the church. Bulldoze it all.

    As to the ludicrous suggestion of turning these in to museums, house museums rarely cover their operation costs. You must heat and cool them otherwise the woodwork etc falls to pieces.

    Also these houses are a one hundred years old. Lets start with the really old stuff, St. Peters was began in 1506 and consecrated in 1626. Wow it took over 100 years just to build. Sell it off!!!

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