And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. — Mark 10:21 (RSV)
I’ve never been, but I hear that Vatican City is an impressive place. From the outside, the buildings comprise an awe-inspiring architectural exhibit; on the inside, a paragon of grandeur and opulence. Italian-made cars drive by bearing license plates with the letters “S.C.V.”: Stato della Citta del Vaticano. However, many visitors to the holy enclave, upon witnessing the lavishness of the place, experience a feeling in line with a slightly different interpretation of these letters, “Se Cristo Vedesse”: If only Christ could see this.
The wealth of the Vatican is a problem. Not a “Houston-we-have-a” problem, but an ethical, philosophical, perhaps hermeneutical one. It’s right up there with the Pedophile Priests Polemic as the one of the most popular criticisms of the Catholic Church today. Pope Francis’ @ replies on Twitter are loaded with (profane/postmodern) exhortations of “sell your stuff and help people, you hypocrite.” Memes criticizing the extravagance of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his trademark sumptuous getup are popular among the Dot-Com Antitheists. Comedian Sarah Silverman made a YouTube video in her idiosyncratic (read: extremely profane/postmodern) style, now viewed over 1.4 million times, called “Sell the Vatican, Feed the World,” in which she unveils her ambitious, yet elegant, plan to end world hunger: “What is the Vatican worth, like 500 billion dollars? This is great — sell the Vatican … feed the whole f**king world.”
It is bad practice to judge a movement by its jokes and memes, and there have certainly been more sophisticated formulations of the problem than that of Silverman et al. (including several from devout Catholics), but I think the sentiment here is clear. How can the Church justify sitting on piles of cash while people around the world are living in poverty? When Her own founder said, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mk 10:21)?
In my brief assessment of the literature on this subject, I’ve found that people have attempted to solve this problem in three ways: by diversion (“look how much the Church is doing already!”), by rejection (“the Church isn’t really that rich”/“Jesus didn’t really mean that”), and by justification (“the Church needs money to carry out Her operations”/“artwork and artifacts have spiritual value in themselves”/ “a bit of seeming extravagance is okay if it’s for glorifying God” etc. ad inf.). Here I intend to look at each of these approaches in turn and put forth my own position, drawing a little bit from each of these and ultimately recognizing that the Church, just like each of us individually, can and should be doing more.
The Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world. Throughout its history, the Church has done great things to combat physical and spiritual poverty. I will not spend much time on this matter because: 1. the information is either apparent or readily available, and 2. even the most thorough enumeration of all the charitable acts the Church has ever done would ultimately be no more than a red herring in answering the problem at hand. No good deed goes unpunished or fails to lead to additional requests for good deeds. The question is not whether the Church is doing anything to help the poor, but whether She should be doing more. As I have alluded to, and will discuss more presently, I believe the answer is yes. We cannot solve the problem by diversion alone.
It is difficult to accurately assess the wealth of the Catholic Church. Attempts to do so tend either to err too much on the conservative side or to devolve into conspiracy theory (neither the fun nor the useful kind). I will not make such an attempt here, but I will say confidently that it is unlikely that the Vatican is worth anywhere close to Silverman’s estimate of $500 billion. Much of the perceived wealth of the Church comes from the magnificent buildings and the artistic treasures they hold. In practice, these are not the most liquid of assets—there’s not a huge market for secondhand basilicas or the priceless frescos therein, for example. It’s also worth pointing out that The Vatican was made an independent state in 1929 as a result of the Lateran Treaty between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See, and Article 18 of this treaty states: “The artistic and scientific treasures existing within the Vatican City and the Lateran Palace shall remain open to scholars and visitors, although the Holy See shall be free to regulate the admission of the public thereto.” In other words, many of these “assets” of the Church are not even Hers to sell.
Having made these points, I don’t believe that we can adequately answer the problem by rejecting the premise that the Church is wealthy. The Vatican is not as rich as some of Her harsher critics would like us to believe, but She’s not exactly hurting for cash, either. The museum alone generates over $100 million each year in revenue for the Church, not to mention what She makes in donations from mass-goers and in investments. So while the Church tends to be opaque about Her finances, it’s clear that there’s no shortage of money to go around in the Vatican.
Others have attempted to solve the problem of the Vatican’s wealth by rejecting its second implicit premise, namely, that Jesus would have actually been troubled by the amount of wealth in the Church. They point to the story, present in three of the four gospels, where a woman anoints Jesus with expensive oil, and some of His disciples protest, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor” (Mt 26:8-9). Jesus responds, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me” (v. 10). In my reading of this passage, Jesus’ words seem to be intended primarily as a reprimand to his disciples for their subtle hypocrisy, rather than as a free pass for excessive spending. In fact, in John’s version of this story, he names the protesting disciple as Judas, who would later betray Jesus, and says that Judas protested “not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it” (Jn 12:7). The anointing of Jesus was also a special case in that it happened during His earthly life, so I don’t think it’s perfectly analogous to the situation of the Church today. Jesus addresses this issue directly a few verses later, saying, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (Jn 12:8).
Having touched upon diversion from and rejection of the problem, we are now led to the most complex method of solving it: justification. The task here is to show that while the Church does possess a considerable amount of wealth and valuable artifacts, it is not (in principle) wrong or contradictory to the teachings of Jesus that She does.
As for the actual wealth (as opposed to potential wealth in valuable artifacts) of the Vatican, I should reiterate (at the risk of sounding patronizing) that the Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world. It costs money to run a charitable organization. In this sense, and unless it can be shown (and I do not think it can) that some other combination of smaller charitable organizations would use this money more efficiently to help the poor, the Church needs to have money in order to be an effective institution.
But surely the Church is much more than a charitable organization, and here is where the crux of the problem really sets in. The Vatican spends money on living expenses for clergy, radio and television broadcasts, newspapers, and innumerable other things. She keeps Her valuable works of art and other treasures within the 110 acres of Her city without making any noticeable attempt to do something charitable with them. These assets are not being used directly to help the poor, at least in the material sense. If you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from, you probably don’t care too much about beautiful or historic works of art, much less the logistical concerns keeping them from being sold to potentially provide you with necessities. Given all this, how can we say that the Church is living up to Jesus’ exhortation in Mark 10:21 to sell everything we have and give to the poor?
A great deal rests on how we interpret this passage. When Jesus gave this command to the rich young man, did he mean for him to live in such extreme poverty as to starve himself, or to deprive himself of material things to the point where he was no longer functioning or useful in any way? Surely not. Similarly, if the Church were to actually sell everything, it would no longer be a functioning institution. The money in the Vatican is, by and large, being used for a good thing, namely, to lead people to Jesus Christ and His Church. Her artistic treasures, when seen through fallen human eyes, induce an experience of beauty that is an experience of the infinite, an experience of God. These experiences, if they have led to even one conversion and a lifetime of eternal bliss, are more valuable than any sum of money that a private collector could offer, and they are available to anybody who can get themselves to Rome. This, I think, is sufficient justification for the Church having a lot of the “wealth” that it does.
Still, the Church ultimately can and should be doing more, just as each of us individually can and should be doing more. No matter how much excess spending is cut, no matter how many more charitable programs the Church initiates, we may still say that She should be doing more, if we recognize in turn that each of us individually ought to be making more sacrifices as well. To say that the people serving as leaders of the Church are not doing enough is a tautology; all of these people during their earthly lives are finite and fallen. We should expect more from our Church leaders to the extent that we expect more from ourselves. To expect more is hypocrisy, and to expect less is complacency.
Not every Church leader has done a great job of making sacrifices to help the poor. I don’t do a very good job of it, either. To my fellow Catholics, remember that you don’t have to explain away everything that the Church has ever done (I wouldn’t hope to explain away everything I’ve ever done, either). To people of all flavors of religious or nonreligious background, I urge you to, as much as humanly possible, look upon the Church the way Jesus looked upon the rich young man, with love. Love involves praising good deeds, criticizing shortcomings, and taking the time to be able to recognize the difference.
Justin Sanchez ’17 is a Neurobiology concentrator in Eliot House.