31 May 2009


Before I get started, I want to assure everyone reading this blog entry that I do not regard any one religion as any better, or worse than any other. I am an atheist and proud of it.

Yesterday I visited the Los Angeles Cathedral for the first time. It is also known locally as the "Rog Mahal" or the "Taj Mahoney" after the local cardinal, Roger Mahoney, who oversaw its construction.

I really, really wanted to hate it. Here's why:

The estimated final cost of its construction was $190 million. That doesn't even include the land or the furnishings, such as the main altar that cost five million bucks. The front doors that cost three million. The lectern that cost two. The bishop's chair cost one million dollars, the president's and deacons' chairs cost $250 thousand each. Every single one of the numerous chandelier/speakers cost $150 thousand each.

And the exterior is hideous. It looks like it's sheathed in plywood. It has no character.But, meanwhile, in the year that the cathedral was opened, 2002, the L.A. Archdiocese, facing a budget shortfall of $4.3 million (about 14 of those magnificent chairs), closed its ministries for students, the disabled, minorities, and gays and lesbians.

In 2006, faced with court settlements from child molestation cases that Cardinal Mahoney had attempted to sweep under the carpet, that might amount to a portion of forty million dollars, the church plead poverty.

The real estate portfolio of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, more than 1,600 properties, is estimated at over four billion dollars in value. Only $175 million of that is not exempt from property taxes. (If the Archdiocese had to pay property taxes, it would owe about $50 million per year to the County of Los Angeles. That would pay for a school or two.)

(By the way, I don't want to single out the Catholic church. If you took all the tax-exempt property holdings of all the religious institutions in Los Angeles County, and taxed them at the standard rates, the county's budget would be in surplus rather than deficit.)

In 1976 a very rough, low estimate of tax-exempt church property nationwide, was about $120 billion in value. If you only adjust that for inflation since, not even taking the general rise in property values, or further purchases by religious institutions into consideration, the 2008 figure would be about $450 billion. That was a low estimate.

So, like I said, I wanted to hate the place.

And though I do hate the idea of it, on the inside, architecturally, artistically, I liked it a lot. I think it ought to be taken away from the church for back taxes or whatever excuse the government can come up with, and turned into a public performing arts center. Maybe the furnishings can be sold to give the operating budget a kick start.

This picture doesn't come close to doing it justice: (This is the only picture in this blog entry that I took.)Now this is coming from someone who generally loathes church architecture. I think Notre Dame is an abomination. Westminster Abbey ought to be leveled, the Vatican crushed under the feet of some giant reptile risen out of the Tiber.

Why I detest church architecture is best summed up by one building, a primary example of architecture as the expression of an ideal. (Please keep in mind that I'm speaking aesthetically here. Ideologically, I find equal fault with all religions.)

The Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain was once a mosque. It is now a cathedral. This picture gives you a rough sense of what it was like when it was a mosque:It was in a garden setting, largely open to the sky, a series of graceful arches with very little internal decoration. A place where people were encouraged to come, sit on the floor, read, think, discuss. From an architectural perspective, it was built to enhance the senses and thoughts of the people who came to it.

Now here's what it looks like after the Catholic architects got to it:They stuck a huge, vaulted, ornate ceiling over all of it. They filled in a great many of the arches with heavy, dark sculptures and paintings and altars. What little natural light finds its way into the building, does so through thick, dirty stained glass high up. It has been built to render the people entering into it awestruck, dumbstruck more like it, it suppresses the senses by overwhelming them.

What I like, architecturally, about the Los Angeles Cathedral is that it is relatively simple. Sure, it's got high vaulted ceilings, but it has enormous skylights and surfaces and colors that make use of all that natural light. The art is not oppressive, heavy-handed, it is in soft, organic colors and in spite of its religious nature, does to an extent reflect the community. It is beautiful, but not overwhelming. A place in which a person can reflect upon things, rather than be beat over the head with them.

It would be a great addition to Los Angeles, if only it could be wrested away from the control of the tax-dodging charlatans that run the place. And there's a whole lot of other buildings around town that I could say the same thing about.

In the course of researching this blog entry, I came across a quote from Ben Franklin that should appeal to my readers who believe in free markets and who believe that churches should be no more tax-exempt than you or me.

"When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obligated to call for help of the civil power, it's a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one." -- Benjamin Franklin

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