Should the Catholic Church Sell St. Peter’s Basilica and Give the Money to the Poor?

“I looked up at the great basilica, and I had two reactions:  First, I appreciated its beauty and reverence; but then I thought, ‘What corruption caused someone to spend so much on this building when people are hungry’?”

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I made a new friend on the train this week.  Mark described himself as a Christian but not a Catholic.  As Amtrak #358 sped along the track from Chicago, where I’d been attending a conference, to Dearborn, Mark and I chatted about a lot of things:  about our families, about our work, and about faith.  When he heard that I was a Catholic writer, he embraced the opportunity to raise a few questions about Pope Francis and to express some concerns that he had with the Church, as he understood it.

I know that Mark’s questions are echoed by many others who see the Church from the outside, but who have never talked to a real Catholic to get an insider’s perspective.  So here goes, in what will likely become a series of Quick Takes on the Catholic Faith.

Today:  The Church’s wealth.

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Mark had a good point:  Certainly there are widows and orphans to feed, refugees to house, expectant mothers to assist and abandoned spouses to comfort.  Mindful of all of these profound needs, shouldn’t the Church divest itself of its great wealth and give it all to the poor?

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I’d like to suggest four key reasons why selling all is NOT the approach mandated by the Scriptures.

1.  Gratitude Requires That We Preserve the Gifts of Those Who Have Gone Before Us.

Wouldn’t you seem ungrateful if your parents had scrimped and saved to give you a pricey wedding gift, only to have you cast it aside?  Likewise, past generations of the faithful–grateful for God’s beneficent care, and eager to share their appreciation by giving of their blessings–have donated the funds, or contributed the artwork, or supported the artist, with the expectation that their gift will be appreciated and will serve as an inspiration to prayer for future generations.

2.  Jesus himself expected that we would honor him with our wealth. 

Remember the story in Luke 12, when the woman washes Jesus’ feet with her hair, and anoints them with expensive nard?  It’s Judas who objects–insisting that the perfume could have been sold, and the money used to feed the poor.  But rather than agreeing with Judas, Jesus scolds him–reminding him that the poor, we will always have with us.  Here is the story (American Standard Version):

Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of pure nard, very precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, that should betray him, saith,

Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred shillings, and given to the poor?

Now this he said, not because he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and having the bag took away what was put therein.

Jesus therefore said, Suffer her to keep it against the day of my burying.

For the poor ye have always with you; but me ye have not always.

Jesus was God, and was worthy of devotion.  Even though there were poor people to be served, it was fitting that he should have been honored by her anointing with the precious oil.  In the same way, it is right and good to build something (or paint something, or sculpt something) truly beautiful for God.

3.  The Poor Deserve Beauty, Too.

If the great art of the Church were sold, it would most likely be preserved behind closed doors, in private collections of the very wealthy.  Better, I think, to allow everyone–even persons of humble means–to enjoy the works of the Masters, to allow their hearts and minds to be drawn upward toward heaven by the rich imagery of the saints, by the glow of alabaster and the sheen of marble and the intricacy of fine metalwork.  The Church has been a repository of great art, and has made its treasures available for all to enjoy.

4.  Beauty Leads Us to Holiness.

Thomas Aquinas named three characteristics of beauty:  integritas (integrity), consonantia (proportion), and claritas (clarity).  Beauty is something which we recognize in creation, and it leads us to greater understanding of God, who in creating the Beautiful has shown us a little of His boundless Beauty.  As we appreciate the beauty of a flower, we begin to understand a little more of the beauty of its Creator, and we are drawn to love Him more.  Likewise, when a stained glass window enraptures us with its shimmering color and its profound imagery, we appreciate the creator (the artist), and the Creator of the creator (God).

 

This article was originally published at Patheos.

By | 2018-01-17T13:54:42+00:00 February 13th, 2016|Why Do Catholics Do That?|

10 Comments

  1. Joseph McCluskey February 25, 2016 at 1:49 am - Reply

    The first time I entered St. Peter’s Basilica, I was astounded by is monumental size and grandeur, far greater than I had ever imagined. It was a seminal moment in my life. The Vatican is one of the world’s greatest repositories of art from throughout the ages. To sell off and scatter it’s irreplaceable art collection would be a crime against civilization.

    What would be the benefit to the poor if it were sold and the money spent on the poor. Diluted by their vast numbers, they may get an extra meal. How many would remember it a year later. But the rich storehouse of human civilization’s greatest achievements would be lost forever.

  2. Diane February 15, 2016 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly with all these points. Also, if St. Peter’s were put on a balance sheet, I’m not sure it would go on the asset side. The amount of money it takes to maintain the building and the artwork is quite substantial.

  3. Salonsar War February 15, 2016 at 11:45 am - Reply

    Most of the material gifts the Church receives were / are given in perpetuity. Which means they cannot be sold, they were not meant to be sold.

  4. Paul H February 15, 2016 at 3:15 am - Reply

    Even if the Church sold St. Peter’s Basilica and gave the money to the poor, all that would do is to pass the supposed “problem” on to someone else. Then we could start pestering the new owner of St. Peter’s, and ask why *he* doesn’t sell St. Peter’s, and give the money to the poor. Or we could ask, why didn’t he give his money to the poor in the first place, instead of using it to buy St. Peter’s Basilica?

    Meanwhile, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world would have gone from being a public treasure that can be seen by anyone for free, to (most likely) a private holding that is either closed to the public, or that can be seen only for a fee.

  5. Denise February 15, 2016 at 12:04 am - Reply

    Why don’t we just sell the White House, with everything in it; that would feed and house the poor for a little while.

  6. Spiritual Ronin February 14, 2016 at 6:16 pm - Reply

    This silly idea keeps coming up all the time but the people who support it are both naïve and ignorant. Naïve because the money thus acquired would at some point run out and the hungry would be hungry again. Ignorant because St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums belong as much to the pope as to the Italian government and the latter wouldn’t look kindly at the selling of it.

  7. Susan MTHG February 14, 2016 at 4:27 am - Reply

    Whenever someone tells me that the Church should sell all of its “wealth” and give the money to the poor, I first agree. Then I go a step further and say that here in the U.S., we should also sell everything in the Smithsonian to help underfunded schools. Then we could sell all that granite in the Vietnam memorial to make counter tops and give the money to the poor. Before I get to auctioning off the Lincoln Memorial and the Grand Canyon, they’ve usually gotten my point. These are part of our history, our heritage, our land, and they belong to everyone. Also, I wonder how those folks think we should help the poor of the next generation after we’ve sold off all of these treasures.

  8. David M Paggi February 13, 2016 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    There was a time when like Mark I was uneasy with the Church’s “wealth,” but of all people Dorothy Day made your point #3, which besides the logic you expressed so clearly, there are few who could make this point as credibly. Actually the Church pursues her worldwide mission on a veritable shoestring relative to other large-scale organizations.

    As with Judas (could he be the patron saint of misers?), the thinking that goes into saying that the Church should liquidate everything it can in order to “feed the poor” is the product of very cynical, calculating, & selfish attitudes. It seems those who point to the Church’s art treasures are motivated in part by guilt over their own lack of generosity. When giving a parish mission, Bishop Sheen lunched with some of the young priests there and listened as one of them railed at length of the sinfulness of the Church’s wealth. He fixed his eyes on the complainer and asked quietly, “How long have you been stealing from the collection, Father?” To his credit the priest confessed and was on his way to healing from the temptations of avarice. One cannot succumb to this sort of temptation without first lacking gratitude and respect for the gifts of others. Indeed those who suggest such treasures are fungible must necessarily assume their creators would have done them anyway, completely missing their profound inspiration.

    The point here is that the gifts of time, talent & treasure represented by stunning and priceless art are not merely assets to be valued & placed on the Vatican balance sheet, nor were they given for resale at a fundraiser. They were firstly given to God which the Church merely holds in trust for future generations. T

    Truth, Beauty, Love, Goodness, & Simplicity are all perfections of God we should honor for their own sake whenever we encounter man’s best reflections of them in any medium.

  9. Jack February 13, 2016 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    To whom is this man suggesting St. Peter’s be sold? For how much? And to be turned into what?

  10. Bill Russsell February 13, 2016 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    Well said. Where your treasures is, there will be your heart also. How many of those who criticize the beauty of churches, spend more on their own homes than on God’s house? For an inspiring story of simple people giving God their best, read this story from Russia:

    http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/a-miracle-of-liturgical-art-the-church-of-the-protection-of-the-mother-of-god-at-yasenevo/

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