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Commentary

Neither by Bread Alone nor by Money and Ego

Catholicism: Building a giant cathedral is symbolically scandalous.

October 26, 1998|JEFF DIETRICH | Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker

As we shimmied along the overpass high above the 101 Freeway and climbed the barbed wire fence surrounding the cathedral building site, we felt stupid and afraid. Our obstreperous actions culminated in the occupation of the cardinal's bulldozer and a symbolic victory of terminating the groundbreaking ceremony for the new cathedral.

Cardinal Roger Mahony has generously responded by refusing to simply boot us out of the church. He has even praised us for our "good works." For this we are grateful. But the cardinal has indicated that the soup kitchen myopia of the Catholic Worker impels us to irresponsible actions that neglect the spiritual needs of the poor in favor of the material. Man does not live by bread alone, he said. He must have aesthetics, architecture and cathedrals. The church, he says, can build cathedrals and serve the poor as well.

The full quote from Deuteronomy is: "Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord," and it recalls the experience of the Israelites being fed by God with manna in the wilderness. It does not mean, as the cardinal has implied, a dichotomy between the material needs of bread and sustenance and the spiritual needs of cathedrals and aesthetics. It means that the Hebrew people did not live by bread alone but by God's command to share and not to store up the heavenly gift of manna, thus ensuring that "all would be satisfied" through a social practice of distributive justice.

From the Tower of Babel to the pyramids of Egypt, scripture has been skeptical of large-scale building projects, recognizing that grand buildings and great edifices go hand in hand with great wealth and political oppression. The Temple of Solomon was built with conscripted laborers, and the tyrant Herod drained the Hebrew people dry to rebuild it. In our own time, this tradition has been carried on by the princes of industry, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies and the Gettys, who would rather build great libraries and museums than pay a decent wage to their workers.

Like the cathedral donations of the rich and powerful, these buildings testify to personal generosity and ego satisfaction, but not to the justice demanded by Scripture. In the end, though, it is not about worship spaces or cathedrals or aesthetics; it is about symbolism. In a church that claims sacramental sensitivity and allegiance to a God who was born in a bovine feeding trough and died the hideous death of a criminal on the cross, it is symbolically and sacramentally scandalous to memorialize his life with a grand edifice.

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