Golden candlesticks and Rolls-Royces aren’t everything

When I was studying at Washington Theological Union in D.C., there was sometimes less than charitable talk about “the other school” across town and the differences people noticed between the two campuses.

WTU wasn’t really a campus. It was just one building.

The school got by with help from religious orders, such as the Franciscans and Augustinians. It was not a rich school.

The “other school” was Catholic University of America. Big campus. Big faculty. Big buildings. Home to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, one of the largest churches in North America. Pope Benedict XVI met with U.S. bishops there during his visit last month.

He didn’t make it over to WTU.

At WTU social events, one sometimes heard words like “gauche” or “obscene” used in describing the basilica; Arthur Miller-esque references to golden candlesticks – the least gauche, by the way, of scores of solid gold objects in the church – as evidence of questionable spending.

Not suggesting anything shady went on. Anything, that is, beyond a disorder of priorities. No criminal offenses, just bad taste.

“Build up the people of God!” I once heard a particularly opinionated female student say. “Not a darn building!”

Fair enough.

Congress has lately been looking into the finances of certain high-profile churches, such as the Rev. Creflo Dollar’s church in Atlanta, World Changers Church International.

Some Christians are concerned that this Congressional investigation will open the door to deeper, more invasive penetration of government into the affairs of religion.

I don’t buy that argument.

Catholics on the progressive end are seldom impressed with things like the basilica in Washington, or the traveling treasures of the Vatican exhibits. These are unnecessary but clearly public expenditures, no three-story, air-conditioned dog house in Jim Baker’s back yard kind of stuff, hidden away from public view.

The building of gaudy churches that attempt to recreate the Middle Ages can be regulated within the church itself. The internal censure of outraged faithful can do much to keep a church in line.

However, the millions paid to the victims of clergy sexual abuse are more troubling. I don’t know that those payments would ever have come to public light had not outside entities – media, government, etc., – intervened.

There has to be some objective oversight, some check and balance to the way that churches spend money. That’s the American way. Churches can’t claim tax-exempt status on the one hand and expect to receive even further special privileges and exceptions on the other.

I’m a religious person so I criticize from within the tradition. We religious folk are not so well known for our common sense. What seems reasonable to some seems outrageous to others.

Here’s a piece of common sense: Creflo Dollar doesn’t need a Rolls-Royce. No minister does. The “pope mobile” you ask? Yes, it’s a Mercedes, but you can barely sit down in it. It’s built for the protection of a world figure. It’s not a luxury vehicle.

Is this a slippery slope? Almost certainly. Thousands of people will disagree with me.

That’s why I think that Congressional insight should be welcomed.

There’s an old saying: “There’s no accounting for taste.” WTU students still don’t care for the basilica at CUA, but the effort to prevent financial malfeasance in religious organizations isn’t really about golden candlesticks and what brand of car the minister drives.

Congress isn’t concerned with overreaching or attempting to enforce vague, blanket standards of taste. It’s concerned with encouraging churches in America, which are so eager to wave the flag and commingle their teachings with history and patriotism, to be forthcoming, to allow government to exercise the very office of accountability that it’s supposed to.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com. Also view his web blog “Hearers of the Word” at djournal.com.