Back in October, I was a guest on the radio show World Have Your Say on BBC World Service. The occasion was the suspension by the Vatican of the Bishop of Limburg, Germany, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van-Elst, known as the “bishop of bling.” The bishop had reportedly recently spent 31 million euros (roughly $41 million) for the renovation of the historic building that served as his residence, inciting his suspension and a Vatican investigation into these expenditures.

Using this as a springboard, the subject of the BBC discussion was “Should Religious Leaders Live a Modest Life?”

Today, Tim Roberts of the National Catholic Reporter records a similar, but perhaps more ambiguous, case with regards to the Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan:

Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan has purchased a new residence, an historic mansion that once served as the home of the president of Rowan University.

The New Jersey diocese purchased the 7,000 square foot home with eight bedrooms and six bathrooms for $500,000. The residence will provide Sullivan with more room for entertaining dignitaries, hosting donors and for work space, according to Peter Feuerherd, diocesan spokesman.

He said the bishop will live there “with at least two other priests, maybe more.”

The home, built in 1908, has been on the market for about two years. According to a report in the Camden Courier Post newspaper, the home was purchased in 2000 for Dr. Donald Farish, then president of Rowan University. Under the university’s ownership, the house underwent about $700,000 in renovations.

Some of the amenities include an in-ground pool, three fireplaces, a library and a five-car garage.

In fairness, Roberts continues,

The bishop currently lives in a modest apartment on the grounds of St. Pius X. Retreat House in Blackwood, N.J. The diocese is selling a separate home that previously served as a bishops’ residence, also in Blackwood. Feuerherd said the sale of that home, for $395,000, would be finalized in the spring.

Thus we may estimate the actual increased housing cost as roughly $105,000 ($500,000 – $395,000).

Nevertheless, this story, as indicated by many reader comments, is still fairly scandalous. Indeed, one might wonder what “dignitaries” the bishop hopes to entertain in New Jersey or why “an in-ground pool, three fireplaces, a library and a five-car garage” would be necessary to do so.

This situation, at least, is a bit less straight-forward, however. It is clear that the bishop of Camden already had a rather accommodating residence. It is also clear that he plans on sharing the space and using it for more than himself. We might wonder what else the previous residence was being used for and whether this new mansion will be used for more of the same.

Perhaps more interesting, then, is that this is news at all. It is clear that many people would answer the BBC’s question with a resounding “yes!” Pope Francis has set an example of simplicity that people want to see other bishops emulate. However, unlike Germany’s bishop of bling, I would be surprised to see action from the Vatican in this case. That instance was nearly 100 times the cost. This residence may be pricey, but (so far as I know) the bishop of Camden has not at this point purchased any $30,000 bathtubs for himself.

This raises an important and difficult question though. Just as I had trouble answering Ben James’s question on the BBC, “What is the line that you would deem acceptable…? How rich can you be without being too rich in that position [i.e. clergy]?” We may additionally ask, “At what point is a clergy person’s luxury too much? What is the line across which they should not go for fear of Church discipline?” My answer to James’s question was that one must follow his/her conscience, but with regards to this question, we are talking about disciplinary action — barring fairly unquestionable cases like the bishop of bling, does some sort of line need to be drawn for discipline to be just?

That is one purpose of having written laws, after all, whether civil laws or Church canons. They must be public (to all concerned, at least) and clear to be justly enforced. Or is it enough, as in the case of the bishop of bling, that one’s lack of simplicity offend the conscience of others? Can conscience be the measure, even when it is not one’s own conscience?

In this case, I would prefer written law. Make it clear and relatively flexible but let clergy know where the line is, especially when the new pope has ushered in a new standard of simplicity. Conscience, after all, is inherently subjective, though it testifies to an objective moral order (i.e. the natural law). In order for others to know to what extent the status quo has changed, further clarity is called for.

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  • John J. Jakubczyk

    The price of real estate is relative to an area. The property seems to be a great deal at $71/sq ft. The fireplaces are probably historic since the house was built in 1908. The pool came with the property.
    If the bishop has dignitaries or other clergy coming to visit from other parts of the country, staying at the bishop’s residence would be economical, considering the cost of hotels on the East Coast.
    Considering the fact that they are selling the previous property, the diocese will only be in this property for $105,000. If as indicated there will be a few priests living on the property with the bishop, as well as there being office space, meeting space and a chapel for retreats, it would seem a very wise investment.

  • Francis Coker

    Sounds like the Diocese got a bargain. A place to live, exercise and house visitors for just more than the previous resident paid for renovations sounds good to me. If I could get that deal in Beaumont, TX I, along with my wife, mother and soon to be nine children would jump on it. I think the Bishop of Camden is being a good steward of God’s resources as given by his flock with this purchase.

  • Dylan Pahman

    It is interesting to see (for the most part) the opposite reaction to this story here on the PowerBlog compared to the NCR article. My point is not to make a judgment but to show, rather, that judgment on such matters is not so simple. For some there is nothing morally suspect about the purchase. For others it is a scandalous use of funds. The more important question, to me, is how can the RCC best adjudicate in these matters with fairness, prudence, and consistency?