Vatican Wealth

Several times recently I’ve had people speak to me about “the wealth of the Vatican”, either implying it’s wrong for the Church to have money or just openly condemning it. It is declared that it is hypocritical and somehow contrary to the teaching of Jesus. A lot could be said on this subject, but I would just like to briefly make a few points…

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The Vatican and Harvard Comparison

The wealth of the Vatican is more of a myth than a reality. The operating budget is a little under $300 million. This is minuscule when one considers the operating budgets of other institutions. Harvard University (“the Vatican of elite secular opinion”), in contrast, is over ten times that, clocking in at $3.7 billion. Likewise, the Vatican’s patrimony is roughly $1 billion whereas Harvard’s is thirty times that, at $30.7 billion.

Sell the art!

But what about all the art in the churches and museums of the Vatican? The Catholic Church has been around for 2,000 years and during that time the Church has both commissioned and been gifted with stupendous works of art. It is not unusual to hear celebrities, as well as random people in the pub, to declare that the Vatican should just sell all of it…

Aside from the fact that, if this were to happen, many of the artifacts would be bought by private collectors and never see the public light of day again, this actually isn’t even possible! Due to a treaty with the Italian government, the Vatican isn’t allowed to sell or borrow against these great works of art. Furthermore, the EU wouldn’t let such a thing happen anyway, since they would see the art as part of the patrimony of the Italian people and therefore mustn’t be sold. Because of this, rather amusingly, each piece of art is listed on the books as having a value of 1 euro each…

Non-Catholic Complaints

To those Christians of other denominations who make similar complaints, I point them to the Bible where it describes the splendor of Solomon’s Temple. The Temple, like Churches, are meant to show something of the glory of God, to raise the minds of the worshipers Heavenward. We give our best to God because He is worth it.

 Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment…

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” – John 12:3-5 

I would suggest that if we find ourselves speaking like Judas Iscariot we might pause for thought…

Poverty in the Church

Additionally, we have always had monks and nuns who take vows of poverty and live in the simplest of conditions. As I mentioned the other day, my friend Jenna will soon be entering the convent to look after terminal cancer patients who don’t have insurance (thanks to everyone who donated, she hit her target!).

Really? Really?

Finally, I have to admit that I get a bit irritated when people complain about how the Catholic Church spends her money. Every day the Catholic Church feeds and clothes more people than any other institution on the planet. It has done this for 2,000 years. Maybe when there’s a secular institution which does the same it can offer the Catholic Church some advice.

You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. – Matthew 7:5

Doesn’t it seem somewhat ridiculous to complain about what the Church, the largest charitable organization in the world, does with its money?

 Sell The Vatican

The article Vatican Wealth first appeared on RestlessPilgrim.net

18 comments

  • Thank you for laying out all the facts. It really helps put things into perspective. I enjoyed your caution against starting to speak like Judas Iscariot.

  • My friend James made asked an interesting question on Facebook: should America sell the contents of the Smithsonian to fund the welfare state, latest war, to reduce national debt etc?

  • One of my friends posted this response on Facebook and I wanted to record it here so I could address the objections in case anyone else wondered the same thing…

    ***

    What about this stuff?
    (none of the below is my own work).

    Matthew 6:19
    Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

    Luke 14:33
    Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

    Matthew 6:24
    No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.

    Matthew 19:21-24
    Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

    Matthew 19:28-29
    Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

    Luke 9:23-25
    Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?

    Matt 13: 22
    The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.

    Hebrews 13:5
    Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

    Phil 2:3
    Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

    Acts 2:44-45
    All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

    The message is clear. If you want to follow Jesus, you need to “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” It is a very simple message, and easy to do. Have you done it? The fact that you are reading this page would indicate that you have not. Chances are you own a computer, pay for an Internet connection every month, live in a home or apartment, have a car, etc. In other words, you live a life at a level of wealth unimaginable in Jesus’ time. Meanwhile, billions of people on the planet live in startling, abject poverty.

    • I’m really pleased someone took me to task over this. What do we make of those passages of Scripture and the objections put forth at the end of the comment?

      Existing Answers

      It’s worth noting that there wasn’t anything here to invalidate any of the arguments put forth in the article:

      (a) Comparatively, the Church operates on a tiny budget.

      (b) By law the Church cannot sell the vast majority of Her assets, even if She wanted to. She holds these cultural treasures for Italy, as well as for all Christians (and even American tourists visiting Rome!).

      (c) The beautiful art and architecture are there to draw people to God and there’s clear Scripture precedence for this.

      (d) There exist in the Church those who embrace radical poverty (monastics), and this has been a way of life for many, many men and women throughout the Church’s history.

      (e) To complain about this is to tell the largest and longest-running charity in the world that it doesn’t do charity properly!

      What would happen?

      But what would happen if I personally gave away everything? The person commenting mentioned that I have a computer, internet connection, home etc. Well, if I gave those away I couldn’t work. If I didn’t work, I couldn’t eat (2 Thessalonians 3:8) and, more importantly given the conversation, I couldn’t give money to the poor (Matthew 6:3).

      Can you imagine trying to raise a family while giving all your money away the entire time? It’s not sinful to invest in ourselves. For example, unless a medical student invests vast sums of money in her education, she couldn’t then later help and heal people. If the Church didn’t collect money, She couldn’t build orphanages, rehab centres, schools, hospitals etc.

      Scriptural Response

      But what about the Scripture passages presented? Well, I disagree with the interpretation that “If you want to follow Jesus, you need to sell your possessions and give to the poor”. No, these passages speak of priority – the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of earth. Here’s my summary of each of those passages:

      Luke 14:33
      – Make Jesus #1

      Matthew 6:24
      – If wealth is your priority, God will not be.

      Matthew 19:21-24
      – Jesus tells a particular man that to be “perfect” is to give away his great wealth.

      Matthew 19:28-29
      – Jesus speaks of particular reward for those who gave all in His service.

      Luke 9:23-25
      – Jesus speaks of discipleship, humility, patience in suffering and, again, putting the things of the Kingdom first.

      Matt 13: 22
      – Jesus speaks about those who worried so much about the world and wealth that it choked the word of God.

      Hebrews 13:5
      – Paul speaks of *love* of money and trust in God.

      Phil 2:3 –
      – Paul exhorts the Philippians to humility and service of others.

      Acts 2:44-45
      – We are told that the first generation of Christians in Jerusalem followed a model of common ownership. However, the historical record does not show that this was the dominant model for Christians in the early centuries throughout the Empire.

      Additionally, it’s worth noting that Jerusalem was a special case. The Christians there knew that the end was near because Jesus had told them so. In AD 70 the value of land in Jerusalem decreased dramatically…as the Roman army burnt the city to the ground and killed all the inhabitants. The Christians, following the warnings of the Lord, escaped unharmed to Pella.

      What does Scripture actually say?

      The point is that none of these passages say that complete physical poverty is a requirement for all Christians or that money is bad or that the things of this world are inherently evil. That’s Gnostic dualism. However, these passages speak against our concupiscence, our tendency to put the creation before the Creator, to choose things of this world ahead of the things of Heaven, to choose lesser loves rather than the One, True Love.

      Some people are called to give everything. I pointed out in the article, we do still find those who embrace poverty and those who live the common life. In the Catholic Church we find this in monasteries, convents, as well as some lay communities.

      The rest of us are called to use our wealth for the Kingdom, to not be selfish and to live lives of charity. For example, consider the conversion of Zacchaeus. He makes reparation and gives generously, but it is not demanded of him to give away literally and absolutely everything.

      Ancient Catholic Teaching

      We are not all called to live lives of literal poverty, but we are all called to live lives of generosity and care of the poor, and this has been the consistent teaching of the Church for 2,000 years:

      [At the Sunday liturgy,]…those who are able, give willingly whatever sum they think appropriate. The money collected is deposited with the president. He gives it, then, to comfort orphans, widows, and those who are wanting, through sickness or any other cause, and those who are imprisoned, and strangers travelling among us. In a word, he takes care of all who are in need.
      – St. Justin Martyr (2nd Century)

      I would like to thank our commentator. He is a prophet. His words, like the words of St. Basil, should make us uneasy and pierce our consciences, driving us to live lives of ever greater charity:

      “The bread you store up belongs to the hungry; the cloak that lies in your chest belongs to the naked; the gold you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.”
      – St. Basil the Great (4th Century)

  • Here was the response…

    ***

    So are you suggesting that the bible can be interpreted in a way that suits you and the defence of whatever position you adopt is that it is your interpretation, either as an individual or as an organisation? Does the argument “we’ve always done it that way” really hold any value? Should other bits of the bible be ignored if you don’t like what they say? Leviticus chapter 20? Exodus chapter 21? 1 Timothy chapter 2?

    Why do so many people have nice food, not just adequate food, then go to the gym and take exercise classes to undo the damage done through their diet? Surely a simple, healthy diet obfuscating any need for expensive gym memberships and exercise classes with the price difference donated to charity fits what you are being instructed to do? surely, by extension, being a fatty is a major sin.

    The message is pretty clear throughout the texts – you’re either in or you’re out; you do as you’ve been told or you don’t; if you’re not one of us and you speak out against us you and your friends will be murdered horribly. Exodus 35:2, Deut 18:21, Leviticus 20:13.

    So, does anyone really need a massive truck? Does anyone need expensive jewellery, watches, big TVs? Look at all of the unnecessary finery you’ll see on Sunday morning. Does the message “share your money with the poor, except when you could give it to us to buy gold thread, stonework, stained glass and apparatus made from precious metals” make you a little uncomfortable when it’s coming from the sparkly clothed man at the front as he basks in the glow of the coloured windows and glitters of gold around him? Should you not take responsibility for where you donations go instead of trusting it to an accountant back at HQ? Why, if the Church (any church) places such importance in caring for the poor, is the new cathedral in Christchurch not causing a revolution in religious construction? I’ll bet you £5 that it’s still there in 150 years…

    Might it be because it all looks less attractive when who know it’s made of recycled bog rolls like a Blue Peter project?

    • > So are you suggesting that the bible can be interpreted in a way that suits you and the defence of whatever position you adopt is that it is your interpretation, either as an individual or as an organisation?

      Well, it certainly has been! Even in the temptations in the desert, Satan quoted Scripture when it suited him. St. Augustine said that every heresy within the Church came from a misreading of Scripture.

      This, of course, begs the question as to who gets the final word in interpreting Scripture…

      But back to the texts you quoted. You can’t make them say what they don’t actually say. They don’t say that stuff is bad, they say that when we put it ahead of God, we’re in trouble. However, they equally don’t give us permission to sit on our hands and do nothing – they urge us again and again to live lives of simplicity, generosity and charity.

      > Does the argument “we’ve always done it that way” really hold any value?

      It does. It’s how we detect something strange and novel and which is not part of the Deposit of Faith. If for 1600 years Christians believed something and then someone comes up with a brand new, incompatible interpretation of Scripture, who is more likely to be right? The person far removed geographically, culturally and temporarily from the situation, or the successors to the Apostles who gave their lives in martyrdom?

      Tradition old boy, Sacred Tradition. You find it in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, as well as in Sacred Scripture.

      > Should other bits of the bible be ignored if you don’t like what they say? Leviticus chapter 20? Exodus chapter 21? 1 Timothy chapter 2?

      Again, this begs the question as to who should be the official interpreter of the Bible…

      The first two texts pertain to the Old Covenant which, while they retain value, they are no longer binding upon Christians (Council of Jerusalem etc)

      That chapter of Timothy (together with other reasons, as well as Sacred Tradition) is the reason that we have an all-male priesthood within the Catholic Church.

      > Why do so many people have nice food, not just adequate food, then go to the gym and take exercise classes to undo the damage done through their diet? Surely a simple, healthy diet obfuscating any need for expensive gym memberships and exercise classes with the price difference donated to charity fits what you are being instructed to do? surely, by extension, being a fatty is a major sin.

      I do think you have a point, but I wouldn’t put it that bluntly and I would make some distinctions. For example, I’d point out that it’s gluttony that’s the sin.

      I have a job where I sit on my butt for at least eight hours a day typing. To have a healthy lifestyle would mean more than simply eating right, it would also include exercise to make up for my sedentary job. Plus, it’s recreation – it’s fun.

      The topic appears to be either broadening or we’re drifting away from the original article…

      >The message is pretty clear throughout the texts – you’re either in or you’re out; you do as you’ve been told or you don’t; if you’re not one of us and you speak out against us you and your friends will be murdered horribly. Exodus 35:2, Deut 18:21, Leviticus 20:13.

      I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at here, but okay.

      >So, does anyone really need a massive truck? Does anyone need expensive jewellery, watches, big TVs?

      As with the gym stuff above, it sounds like this has moved from a condemnation of Church wealth to the condemnation of any wealth owned by any Christian…

      Look at all of the unnecessary finery you’ll see on Sunday morning. Does the message “share your money with the poor, except when you could give it to us to buy gold thread, stonework, stained glass and apparatus made from precious metals” make you a little uncomfortable when it’s coming from the sparkly clothed man at the front as he basks in the glow of the coloured windows and glitters of gold around him?

      “Unnecessary”? Remember what I said about the Jerusalem Temple and the danger of sounding like Judas…

      You appear to think that this is an either/or situation. It’s not. My own parish is currently undergoing some remodeling – it doesn’t mean we’re not giving to the poor at the same time.

      > Should you not take responsibility for where you donations go instead of trusting it to an accountant back at HQ?

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by “take responsibility”. As part of my tithe I give a percentage of my paycheck to different causes. Some of this goes to my parish, a portion of which is used locally, a portion of which is given to the Eparchy/Diocese. At each level, some of that money will be used for keeping everything running and some will be put to charitable causes.

      There are budget meetings in the parish, but that sounds really, really boring. Please don’t make me attend! :-(

      Why, if the Church (any church) places such importance in caring for the poor, is the new cathedral in Christchurch not causing a revolution in religious construction? I’ll bet you £5 that it’s still there in 150 years…

      Might it be because it all looks less attractive when who know it’s made of recycled bog rolls like a Blue Peter project?

      Ah Blue Peter…1,001 uses for bog rolls…

      I didn’t know what you were referring to here, but after a little bit of googling I assume you mean the one made out of cardboard?

      You’re coming to this with a purely utilitarian mindset. Yes, the Eucharist can be celebrated in a hut or on a hillside in the open air, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be said for building a beautiful cathedral, inscribed with the words “Ad majorem dei gloriam”.

      Looking back over this last exchange, I don’t see anything which refutes points (a) to (e) which I outlined above. What I see is an urging against self-indulgence, and you won’t find any argument from me there (unless you’re standing in the way between me and a bag of chocolate-covered raisins). It’s admirable that you have a sensitivity to this and that, in the words of the CAFOD slogan, you want people to “live simply, so that others may simply live”. However, this doesn’t mean that we have to descend into utilitarianism or discount grandeur, art or beauty.

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  • Very good post! All of the nay sayers should read this. Thank you for helping to arm faithful Catholics with the facts.

      • So after 1929 it wasn’t the Vatican’s fault when it came to selling its wealth, which, by the way, isnt just a bunch of paintings on public display.What of the enormous gold reserves…or do they fetch the price of 1 euro per ingot. If the gold is just so useless…why have it? Can you please explain beyond this lolly water version/presentation you have of the ‘Vatican Wealth’ the estimated overall net worth of Vatican investments, lands etc. Please you are talking to someone who knows quite a bit about these things so please give me an accurate breakdown…then I might give you my breakdown.
        The operating expenses of an organisation do not reflect its accumulated wealth. Do you think the operating expenses of the McDonald’s head office or its chains reflect the company and subsidiaries overall wealth. Net profits per year do not reflect a two thousand year old institution.
        Could you also explain if the millions of poor and starving people/children that the Vatican has ‘helped’ in the last 2 thousand years, offsets the many millions slaughtered, made homeless, destitute, imprisoned and orphaned over that time….of course, until 1929, of course.
        Thankyou

        • >So after 1929 it wasn’t the Vatican’s fault when it came to selling its wealth

          Nope, the treaty just formalized what was already understood – the art is part of the patrimony of the Italian people.

          > …which, by the way, isnt just a bunch of paintings on public display

          I never said it was restricted to that. I was just addressing a common demand that I hear: “Why doesn’t the Vatican just sell all the paintings and statues?”

          > What of the enormous gold reserves…or do they fetch the price of 1 euro per ingot. If the gold is just so useless…why have it?

          What reserves do you think the Vatican has? Figures please.

          > Can you please explain beyond this lolly water version/presentation you have of the ‘Vatican Wealth’ the estimated overall net worth of Vatican investments, lands etc.

          Well, given that it was a “lolly water presentation”, you haven’t really interacted with any of the arguments I presented:

          1. The “wealth” of the Vatican is tiny in comparison to its secular equivalent.

          2. Much of the “wealth” couldn’t be sold, even if that was desirable.

          3. There is a strong scriptural precedent for spending money on beautiful things to honour God.

          4. There is extreme poverty present in the Church, demonstrated most clearly by religious brothers and sisters (among others).

          5. When there’s a secular institution which does a fraction of what the Church does and has lasted for a fraction of the Church’s lifetime, then such an institution might be in a position to cast stones.

          >Please you are talking to someone who knows quite a bit about these things so please give me an accurate breakdown…then I might give you my breakdown.

          If you know so much, then please share. The books are open.

          > The operating expenses of an organisation do not reflect its accumulated wealth. Do you think the operating expenses of the McDonald’s head office or its chains reflect the company and subsidiaries overall wealth. Net profits per year do not reflect a two thousand year old institution.

          Again, I never said it did. I was drawing a parallel with Harvard (operating costs and patrimony) to put things into context because when people typically hear the numbers surrounding the Vatican they lack perspective.

          > Could you also explain if the millions of poor and starving people/children that the Vatican has ‘helped’ in the last 2 thousand years, offsets the many millions slaughtered, made homeless, destitute, imprisoned and orphaned over that time….

          Honestly, this comment is so ridiculous I’m almost tempted not to comment upon it, but since it’s Christmas…

          This isn’t a balance sheet of good vs. bad deeds. If one were to attempt to do so though, I would still contend that the Church would come out strong. For example, do you like hospitals? You may thank the Catholic Church. Do you like the scientific method? You may thank the Catholic Church. Penicillin? Catholic Church. Universities? Catholic Church. The care of the homeless in whatever town you live? Almost certainly…the Catholic Church.

          But the kicker… Where on earth do you get the number of “millions”. Millions? Seriously? I’d love to see a breakdown of where you get such a figure…

  • Douglas Beaumont over at Soul Device has just released his analysis of this argument:

    http://souldevice.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/catholic-wealth-and-spending/

    • The Vatican’s treasure of solid gold has been estimated by the United Nations World Magazine to amount to several billion dollars…

      FYAH, I’ve cut the rest of your comment. I am more than happy for you to disagree with my article and to offer a rebuttal, but I’m not going to allow you to post a 6,463 word comment which has simply been copied and pasted from the One Evil website.

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  • Aggie Catholics have just published an article on this topic, tackling the issue from a number of different angles.

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