It’s fairly common to be asked the following questions when you run an online Catholic apostolate: why doesn’t your church sell off its valuable assets to feed the poor? Wouldn’t Jesus balk at the amount of wealth the Church has today? Wouldn’t he give it all to the poor?
I do think these are all very valid questions and I believe there are also very good answers to them. But before we begin looking at those answers, perhaps it would be prudent to give the matter of Church wealth a bit of context. The Vatican City is a unique economy in that it relies on the contributions of its worldwide Catholic congregations and also tourists visiting its attractions to support it. This, in a nutshell, is the income received by the Catholic Church.
But what is this money spent on? Well, the Catholic Church, like any other large organisation, has huge bills to pay such as as wages, utilities, and paying contractors, suppliers etc. But the Church is also known to be the largest charitable organisation in the world. With charities such as Missio, CAFOD, SCIAF to name only a few, the Church spends billions in providing assistance to those in need and has been doing so for thousands of years. Indeed, at last count, the Catholic Church was home to a confederation of some 164 relief agencies providing essential care and relief to people in two hundred of the world’s poorest countries.
The Church is also the largest non-governmental provider of healthcare in the world, managing one quarter of the world’s healthcare facilities.
Further, the Church is one of the largest providers of welfare and education in the world, especially in developing countries where the provision of such services is most lacking.
But could the Church sell some of its assets and put the extra cash generated to good use? Well, yes, the Church would certainly put any cash it may make to good use like it has done for thousands of years. That is a given. But what isn’t a given is whether there is actually a market for the Church’s most valuable assets and whether it would be worthwhile in the long run to shed those assets in this way.
Taking the first point, do we really believe there to be sufficient interest in centuries old basilicas and churches for the church to generate reasonable income from a sale? Would these big, old, a-listed buildings with massive overhead costs really tempt the market to come in with a tasty offer to take them from Church hands? Perhaps they could be bought and torn down to make way for new, lucrative housing schemes. But wouldn’t this be a defeat for the Church and a defeat for God? Surely part of our work here on earth is to ensure a suitable home for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament? Surely we are duty bound to create and maintain a place where God’s people can come to Him and give him glory and praise in the company of others of like mind? Wouldn’t signing off the death warrant of these buildings be an offence against God?
And what about the art treasures holed up in the Vatican museums? Couldn’t those be sold off for billions of pounds and the money given to the poor? Well, yes, these treasures could be sold off and the money given to the poor. But once sold and in the hands of a new owner they would be gone for good and would no longer serve as an attraction to bring millions of visitors to the Vatican. This would affect the number of visitors to the Vatican which in turn would affect the amount of money generated to feed the poor and care for the needy.
But if the Church did decide to sell off its assets and use the money to feed the poor, the big question we must ask ourselves is how long that feeding could be sustained. The truth is, not very long. More privileged societies plough millions, possibly billions, of pounds into charitable organisations every month in order to help the needy around the world. If the Catholic Church decided to sell its assets in order to look after the needy it would only be able to do so for a very short amount of time, probably just a few months, before the cash realised would dry up. Not only that but the Church itself would disappear because it could no longer pay its bills. The end of the Catholic Church would create an enormous black hole in worldwide charitable giving and healthcare provision, the likes of which we have never witnessed. At the end of the day, the results of a flash sale in Vatican assets would create a quick fix for a few, but it would also create a lifetime of poverty and destitution for many.
The Church - if it is to sustain its significantly high level of charitable giving and healthcare provision - must retain its valuable assets in order to continue to generate the income necessary to tend to the poor, needy and sick. The consequences of failing to retain these assets simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
Another point many people make is Jesus’ attitude to the Church’s wealth. But again these points are made without seeing the bigger picture of the Church as an organisation with bills like anyone else. More crucially, it fails to recognise the Church’s status as the biggest provider of food to the starving in the world. It fails to recognise the Church’s status when it comes to the provision of healthcare. And perhaps most crucially, it fails to recognise Christ’s own personal attitude to how God should be glorified.
Consider the occasion when Jesus ate at the house of a Pharisee and Mary of Bethany approached him with an alabaster jar of costly fragrant oil, proceeding to pour the oil over him. The house was in uproar because of Mary’s supposed wastefulness. People even suggested that she should have kept the oil and sold it, giving the proceeds to the poor. Jesus’ response to this? He said that Mary had done a good deed. Indeed he went even further than this saying: “The poor you will always have with you. But you will not always have me.” Jesus did not believe Mary had done the wrong thing by not using the oil in order to help the poor. His need was greater and he was grateful of this simple act of great love towards him. And so we must consider this when we look at the Church and how it glorifies God. A beautiful Church is not a contradiction to the Church’s mission to care for the poor. Indeed it is quite the opposite. It is a gesture of our love for God and a real, tangible example of our need to glorify Him, just as Mary’s simple gesture of love was a real and tangible act of glorifying God.
Consider also when Jesus entered the temple to find the money changers doing their dealings in his Father’s house. Wasn’t he extremely angry with them? Didn’t he make whips out of some cord and chase them out? But why did Jesus do this? He did it because they were profaning the house of God. The actual dealings of those in the temple weren’t the cause of Jesus’ anger. It was the fact that they were taking place in God’s house. And so Jesus places huge importance on church buildings and our need to have them to glorify God.
But what about when the man who has kept all the Commandments approaches Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life? Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give to the poor. Doesn’t this contradict what we have already discovered? No it doesn’t and here is why. This man was very rich and his reaction to Christ’s call was telling. He went away sorrowful because of what he was expected to do. There was no obvious willingness on the part of the man to do as Jesus says. He was a man who did not give anything to the poor and, despite Jesus’ best efforts, he wasn’t about to start. This is different to the Church which already gives billions to the poor every year. Not only that but it spends time with the poor through missionary work and putting at risk the lives of those priests, religious and volunteers who do such work. Charitable work isn’t just about throwing money at something, it’s about giving up the comfortable life and spending a little time with those in most need. The man described above is not only unwilling to give any of his wealth away but he is also unwilling to devote any time to the poor. This is the complete opposite of what the Church does.
Ultimately, if the Church wishes to maintain its status as the bride of Christ it must ensure that it is a fitting bride. It must be beautiful and glorious, but it must also be in the trenches tending to those in most need. As Catholic people we believe in Christ’s promise that he will be with the Church until the end of time, and it is with this promise in mind that we can be confident that the Church has struck the perfect balance of being the perfect bride and of being the beacon of hope to the billions of people in our world who suffer from poverty, deprivation and illness.
Remember, God is love and the Church is the physical, earthly presence charged with the task of bringing that love to all people. And what is love? Latin for love is caritas, which means ‘charity’.