Selling Vatican Jewels

By Anthony Stevens-Arroyo
Washington Post
January 12, 2009

Comedian Sarah Silverman suggested that we "Sell the Vatican. Feed the world." Speaking on the eve of the October 2009 UN-sponsored World Food Day, Silverman was with TV talk show host Bill Maher, another celebrity often making uninvited recommendations to religion. But despite the fireworks about selling off church treasures to feed the poor, the idea is not new and not restricted to outspoken non-Catholics.

I have found that most of us in Catholic America are quite aware of contradictions in the public image of the Church. What we find objectionable is a dismissive and flippant attitude towards issues we Catholics take seriously. The other tendency that sticks in our craw is singling out the Catholic Church for defects that are shared by many others. Matters like sexual abuse by clergy, extortion of funds, DUI violations, etc. are not restricted to Catholic priests, but you wouldn't know it sometimes from reading many commentators. Double standards have been called "Foul Ball!" by Archbishop Dolan of New York and much of Catholic America agrees.

I was prepared by Jesuits during my high school years to answer the issue of Vatican riches. Recall that the early Church held all property in common, taking from each according his or her ability and redistributing wealth according to need (Acts 2:42-44; 4:32-35). And if we are to take the scriptures literally, the punishment for holding onto such funds was for offenders to drop dead (Acts 5:5-10). Jesus' statement to Judas about allowing the wasting of perfume (John 12:8) is in the mix, but the practice of communalism in the Apostolic Church is unequivocal and applies more directly to the issue. It's backed up by the call to practice poverty in the Church over the ages by voices from like that of Francis of Assisi or more recently from Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Consider also that the much maligned Pope Pius XII offered Vatican gold as part of a bribe of Nazis who threatened Italian Jews in September 1943. The treacherous Nazis took the gold (much of it donations from wealthy Romans) and shipped the Jews to Auschwitz anyway.

Actually, by today's corporation standards, the Vatican is run frugally. It is an international organization with outreach all over the world - but with a yearly budget of only $300 million. As John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter has pointed out, the budget of Notre Dame University alone is over $1 BILLION. True, the Pope lives in an apartment on the wing of one of the most spectacular churches in the world. But in effect, he lives in a museum that lacks the creature comforts found in virtually every home in America.

The wealth of the Vatican, like that of many churches, consists mostly of buildings that occupy valuable real estate and usually contain priceless art. But how do you best translate these assets into funds to be spent to alleviate poverty? Some statues can be removed and sold to collectors, such as the statues of Christ Michelangelo designed showing Jesus totally naked. These images -- with definitive masculine anatomy -- are stored away somewhere in the Vatican. But what is the market for such out-of-fashion statues? Actually, by maintaining masterpieces in one place and not marketing them in a one-and-done sale, the Vatican insures a hefty income from millions of tourists who flock to Rome year after year.

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church and its representatives are constantly called to heroic practice of poverty, for of such is the Kingdom of God. Given the Church's historical role of replacing much of the Roman Empire and the legacy of rituals derived from traditional monarchies, it is remarkable that there are not more contradictions between Catholic symbol and the Church's message. Catholics, perhaps more than most other Christians, recognize a theology of symbols and so we must take seriously even the biased criticisms tossed our way, although it would be wise to avoid the unfortunate ingredient of Catholic vs. Jew injected by the likes of the Catholic League. As always, faithfulness to the Gospel at a personal level is the place to start spiritual renewal.


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