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.

  • SCC

    Josh, Your arguments are pretty flimsy. These mansions are a holdover from another time. Pope Francis would frown on these men living in such grand quarters. I love grand old homes and architecture but there is something not congruent with bishops living in these types of homes.

  • GF Chaffee

    I may have the worng impression but, it might have been good to examine the many ways that a bishops residence is used. Does not a bishops residence serve many purposes?

  • Defender

    This is indeed a sad piece of work that comes off as an attack on the mythological left-wing liberal media, rather than any analysis of what was said. In fact it follows lock-step with yellow-journalistic style screed publish by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League about the same topic — a man who refused to criticize his pals on the right like Rush Limbaugh when they accused Pope Francis of being a Marxist. Had a such a piece aired on Fox News and reported by Bill O’Reilly, this article would not have even been published.

    No one is denying that any bishop has tremendous job to do. What is being questioned is the the fact so many bishops seem to be out of touch with the people they are meant to be serving by living far more luxurious lifestyles than they do.

    One cannot compare the lifestyle of Ted Turner who is in business to that of a Bishop. As to running hit-pieces on the leaders and clergies of other denominations, it has been done. Such a show aired on Dateline NBC.

    We Catholics are not immune and should not be.

    I need only look to Bishop Zubik of Pittsburgh — who closed the former residence and moved in to St Paul’s Seminary — and is able to conduct his ministry with no diminished effect.

  • Bill K.

    Let us not forget the main job of all Bishops – CCC: ” 888 Bishops, with priests as co-workers, have as their first task to preach the Gospel of God to all men, in keeping with the Lord’s command.
    They are heralds of faith, who draw new disciples to Christ; they are authentic teachers of the apostolic faith endowed with the authority of Christ.”
    Based upon their Diocese and Parish web sites, many Bishops do not even encourage the literate Laity to read a Catholic Bible and the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” at home.
    (This directly ignores the requests of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.)
    Perhaps they are too busy with other things ?

  • Thea

    “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. ”

    This is a straw man argument (that quickly gets ludicrous) Burke, and no one else, is saying dynamite these residences and put up cinderblock dormitories. And certainly no one is making the jump to tearing down the entire Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church!

    What people are saying is why can Cardinal Dolan, e.g., ONLY live in a $30M 15000 SF residence? Could the diocese of NY really not sell it and buy a $15M residence and give the difference in $ to the poor that you are so worried about? Or are there really no other more modest residences owned by the NY diocese, with its estimated $650M in assets?

    Another point Burke didn’t hammer home is the one about the maintenance cost of these century old residences. these year round residences don’t have the standard 8foot ceilings and walls lined with 6inches of pink owens-corning isulation. Indeed, they are probably barely insulated. My point: they are costly to heat and cool. Also the cost of lighting this place. The sewer and water bills.

    And if this place is 15000SF who cleans it? Not two elderly nuns. And since its an old building you can’t run down to home depot and buy a standard Andersen window to replace a broken one. You’re custom ordering that for more $.

    Dioceses could save money by turning these residences into museums that don’t have to be heated or lit at night or merely into functional halls…OR perish the thought! have more than one archbishop living in a multi thousand square foot home!

  • D.R.

    I noted CNN’s picture of the residence at St. Patrick’s in NYC. I and and friend visited there once. It was by no means lavish inside. Priests had a small room, badly ventilated, with old fixtures and furniture.
    Yes, to outsiders, it looks lavish but it stops when you gain entrance. Of course, not many critics gain that entrance.



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