Extravagance, for Whose Glory?
Murphy's Residence Fits in with a Trent of Wasteful Bishops

By Michael S. Rose
January 12, 2003

The Long Island Voice of the Faithful is urging Roman Catholics in Nassau and Suffolk to protest the annual Bishop's Appeal for funds, which kicks off today with an opening Mass in Dix Hills, by donating to an alternative fund the group has created to counter what one member describes as "a perplexing display of wealth and position" in the church. If successful, the group's appeal could do some damage to a diocese that is already down financially and cutting back on social service programs. Yet at the same time, Bishop William Murphy, continues to live unapologetically in a splendid house. The bishop has drawn much criticism for this, but to put his choice in perspective, ithelps to remember that wealth and the church have a relationship that goes back centuries.

The great cathedrals and other magnificent works of religious art that have been the main expressions of this wealth have had two purposes. First, to put it in the pious terms of the Jesuits' ancient Latin motto Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, it is for "the greater glory of God" - to point to something deeper and more meaningful than any individual worshiper or congregation. Second, it is to lead the faithful toward Christ and salvation. This includes carrying out works of mercy - feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, assisting orphans and widows, the indigent and displaced - practices that the church has championed throughout its history.

Neither of these lofty reasons need come at the expense of the other, but because of the way he has handled the situation and the embarrassing sequence of events, in Bishop Murphy's case they seem to be. The bishop transformed a 5,000-square-foot former convent into his new home at an estimated cost of $1 million. Then Catholic Charities announced it was cutting away much-needed programs for the indigent, reportedly to close a deficit of $140,000 - almost the same amount that Murphy had reportedly spent on furnishings and appliances, which include a marble bath, a six-burner professional range and a temperature-controlled wine storage cabinet.

The bishop has apologized for cost overruns and acknowledged that the renovation was a public relations "disaster," and he may well believe that this is the sort of luxury bishops are entitled to have. We know he needn't worry about being shunned or challenged by the current pack of his purple brethren. They routinely spend millions of dollars collected from the faithful in order to carry out unneeded and unwanted denuding renovations of older churches - or, as in the case of the Boston archdiocese, to make plans to sell precious real estate holdings these donations helped purchase in order to raise money to settle sex-abuse lawsuits.

Across the country, Catholics have been calling these types of decisions "needless destruction." They are outraged and in some cases have organized to try to stop it, usually unsuccessfully.

Consider: A year ago, disgraced Archbishop Rembert Weakland spent nearly $4.5 million on a dramatic remodeling of Milwaukee's historic cathedral, despite overwhelming objections by area Catholics, more than 2,000 of whom signed a petition begging Weakland to stop what they saw as a misappropriation of funds.

Bishop Matthew Clark faces a similar situation in Rochester, where 5,000 have signed a petition opposing his plans to remodel his historic cathedral at a cost of more than $4 million. He, too, is pushing forward with a so-called "modernization" of a historic cathedral. Opponents call his plans "wasteful and unnecessary."

The same can be said of multimillion-dollar cathedral projects initiated in recent years in Covington, Ky., San Antonio, Texas, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Seattle, Wash. These projects have included smashing altars and removing important reminders of the Catholic faith such as pews, crucifixes, communion rails and tabernacles. There is no evidence to show that this kind of destruction gives glory to God or leads souls to Christ.

Other American bishops have preferred to build modern monstrosities anew - equally objectionable - as Cardinal Roger Mahony did recently in Los Angeles. The new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels wears a price tag of nearly $200 million and has earned the unflattering nickname "yellow armadillo." In Oakland, Bishop John Cummins is in the midst of building another multimillion-dollar cathedral. This one resembles, to the horror of most Bay-area Catholics, a giant clamshell.

Rather than being built to the glory of God, more often than not, such projects create scandal that leads to infighting and alienation.

Any bishop worth his weight in salt knows he's accountable to someone beyond himself - not only to God but to the people he is ordained to serve. He is a spiritual father, a role model, both servant and shepherd to his people. That includes being financially accountable. Catholics expect that a bishop will naturally be a good steward of the money entrusted to his care. Sadly, with Bishop William Murphy and many others, that is often not the case.


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