Rules Are for Schmucks: House Rules

The former Oakhurst Retreat Center near Worcester, MA. Photo via

In 2012 a married couple in Massachusetts negotiated with the Catholic Diocese of Worcester to purchase a mansion previously used as a retreat center. They were puzzled when negotiations seemed to stall. Then, in an act of sublime stupidity, the church’s real estate broker accidentally forwarded them a private email from Monsignor Thomas Sullivan, chancellor of the diocese, instructing her to stop dealing with these potential buyers because of the possibility they might use the house to conduct gay weddings. The married couple, you see, were both men.

They sued, and now the attorney general of Massachusetts is weighing in on their side. What’s truly astonishing in this day and age is that the church is contesting the case. You would think they’d instead act like a ten-year-old with her hand caught in the cookie jar: “Oops! My bad.” Instead, they are asserting their constitutional right to sell or not sell to whomever they please, as part of their free exercise of religion. As their lawyer puts it, “The legal question is: Do we have the right to refuse to sell the property for a use that we don’t approve of, that the diocese would not approve of?”

This grabs my attention because I currently have a house on the market, as administrator of an estate. It’s a gorgeous waterfront location, and anyone who’s interested should let me know. I’m thinking, though, of imposing some restrictions on potential buyers. After all, if Catholics can rule out buyers who might do things they don’t approve of, I should be able to do the same thing too. Here’s my first draft of a list:

  • I won’t sell to Catholics, because they might perform exorcisms there.
  • I won’t sell to Jews, because they might slice babies’ genitals there.
  • I won’t sell to Protestants, because they might handle snakes there. The neighbors would hate that.
  • I won’t sell to Mormons or Muslims, because they might perform polygamous marriages there. The house really won’t accommodate four wives.
  • I won’t sell to Hindus because they might burn widows there.
  • I won’t sell to Buddhists, because all the chanting might make the neighbors reconsider their position on the snakes.

Upon further consideration, though, I’ve decided not to impose any of these restrictions, and to narrow the rules to just one: I won’t sell to anyone who can’t come up with big bucks. You see, I get a warm spiritual glow from having a full belly, a condition that I hope (but am not yet convinced) will persist through the golden years of my retirement. The sin of not getting enough money from the sale to assure that would weigh on my conscience.

The idea that it’s wrong to refuse to sell a property to someone just because you don’t like “their kind” has been around for a long time. When I was growing up as a political junkie in Maryland, we had a Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1966 that I still remember well. There was a party establishment candidate, a flashy liberal candidate, and a race-baiting candidate whom no one took seriously. Until he came up with a catchy slogan, “A Man’s Home Is His Castle,” which he plastered on bumper stickers and signs all over the state. He didn’t need to spend money on expensive broadcast advertising because everyone knew that he was simply expressing opposition to what eventually became the Fair Housing Act of 1968. He won. (The denouement is that he lost the general election to future vice president Spiro Agnew, largely because he had no political talents other than consuming staggering quantities of alcohol.) Anyway, the United States did enact the Fair Housing Act, which says that hatred should not be allowed to interfere with housing market transactions.

Unless, according to the Diocese of Worcester, God tells you otherwise.

What’s truly memorable here is Monsignor Sullivan’s explanation of his position. “We wouldn’t sell our churches and our properties to any of a number of things that would reflect badly on the church,” he said. “These buildings are sacred to the memory of Catholics.”

A fascinating point of view, when you consider why the diocese is selling this particular property in the first place. For many years, this retreat center served as home base to a ring of pedophile priests, who committed the grave sin of getting caught. The huge financial payouts to the victims are what caused it to shut down and be put on the real estate market in the first place. Now, of course, the hallowed ground where this all occurred is too “sacred to the memory of Catholics” to allow a future legal wedding that might “reflect badly on the church.”

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