Guest column: Comeuppance of archbishop not for him alone

The following editorial appeared in the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer on Thursday, April 3:

The outrage over Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s Buckhead mansion has been headline news all over the country for most of the last week. And the fallout has not been limited to Catholics whose faith offerings paid for it.

Nor should it be. Because the humbling of Archbishop Gregory ought to be an object lesson of universal relevance.

The basics of the story are now familiar: Gregory built a 6,000-square-foot, $2.2 million mansion in Atlanta’s upscale Buckhead neighborhood on land bequeathed by heirs of “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell. As word of the cleric’s lavish new digs got around, so did some intense resentment.

He got the message: He announced he would sell the mansion and relocate, and issued a public apology which acknowledged that “we are called to live more simply, more humbly, and more like Jesus Christ who challenges us to be in the world and not of the world … I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services.”

One might reasonably ask why it took public outrage for him to understand something he should have understood implicitly. But it’s probably more relevant to ask why there are so many in the world, and very much of the world who still don’t get it.

Because this isn’t just about Archbishop Wilton Gregory, and certainly not just about Roman Catholicism. It’s about every apostle of opulence who, explicitly or by example, equates material wealth with divine favor. The irony is inescapable, yet so many manage to escape it: The faith of which Catholicism is a large component is based on the life and teachings of one who embraced poverty and the poor; who simultaneously defied authority and defined humility. His example, at least as much as his words, was a living reproach to the worship of power and riches and comfort.

Gregory’s story should be a stinging rebuke, and his remorse an example, to every millionaire money-grubbing TV evangelist, every mega-church pastor/CEO holding dominion over palatial compounds that aren’t houses of God but monuments to themselves and their empires.

Archbishop Gregory isn’t in the same shameful league with the German bishop who spent $43 million in renovations. And he’s certainly no Reverend Ike, the late “prosperity gospel” New York huckster fond of saying that “it is the lack of money that is the root of all evil,” and, “The best thing you can do for the poor is not to be one of them.” Salvation, to the Ikesters, was a new Cadillac parked in the driveway.

But Gregory’s experience is nonetheless a useful reminder that if God’s favor were measurable in material comfort, the Book of Job would have no meaning. Neither, for that matter, would the life and death of Christ.