Monday, March 25, 2013

Ask Tony: Why doesn't the Catholic Church give away its wealth?—UPDATED

Manipulative image-mashing, meet scriptural cherry-picking.
I'm sure that this question is coming up more frequently with the election of Pope Francis, who seems determined to continue to live according to his vow of poverty as much as is practical. 

 If you've been to Vatican City, and walked through St. Peter's, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum, your mind just boggles at the treasure of artwork contained there. Then again, you could go to any cathedral and see the bishop perform the Eucharistic Rite with gold or silver chalice and paten.

The Catholic Church is wealthy, you think. But that doesn't seem right; it doesn't seem to be in keeping with the Founder who had no place to lay his head (Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58). So why doesn't the Church give it all away?

The answer isn't as simple as some people would like you to believe.

The words "rich" and "poor" are properly used only of people, not of businesses or institutions. There are a lot of people who really don't understand business finance or how it differs from personal finance; you really need to take at least an Intro to Accounting course to appreciate it. They hear a bank has $2 billion in assets and don't really realize that that same bank may have $1.8 billion in liabilities, that some of those assets will consist of buildings, equipment and other physical items that can't be easily or quickly converted to liquid funds. All they know is that $2 billion is a lot of money. But asset is not just another word for cash or money.

The same problem obtains for the Church. You don't run homeless shelters and soup kitchens out of tents and RVs; house basements are rather impractical church spaces for all but the smallest congregations. Eventually you're gonna build churches for your congregations and offices for your charitable work and diocesan organization, and all these things must appear as entries in the accounting books. In personal finance, that may be wealth; for a non-profit organization, these are costs of doing business.

So let's break it down:

  1. The things people normally think of as signs of the Church's "wealth" — paintings, sculptures, artifacts, etc. — earn more money for the Church over time in her museums than they would if auctioned off. The money the Vatican makes off the museum and other tours is a chunk of its operating budget; except for 2010, the Vatican has been running in the red for over 40 years. It's the quandary of "the goose that laid golden eggs": selling the artwork would get a lot of money up front, but the funds realized would not likely create a foundation large enough that the interest would replace the funds raised by selling museum tickets. As well, most of the artwork would be purchased by rich private collectors rather than by relatively poorer museums, rendering them mostly inaccessible to the general public. Everyone would lose on such a deal ... except the private collectors.
  2. The Church's most theoretically valuable capital assets are also her least liquid and least likely to attract purchasers. There's simply no market for second-hand basilicas or medieval palaces. They're huge, expensive to light/heat/cool, and unsuitable for any purpose other than those for which they were built; in some cases, they're not totally suitable for the purposes they now serve. Governments are happy to let the Church keep them, so they don't have to maintain them. Tearing them down to recover the land beneath them would be prohibitively expensive and culturally devastating; in St. Peter's case, the land could never be used for commercial purposes as there is an Imperial-era graveyard (the Scavi) beneath it, which would revert to the Italian government for archaeological purposes. But even a more modest, more modern and energy efficient church in the suburbs is not something that can be sold overnight, even in a booming real-estate market, since it's purpose-built and not easily convertible to some other form of enterprise.
  3. Like any non-profit organization, the Church has bills to pay. All of the Church's various entities spend money on wages, utilities, maintenance, supplies and all the other usual things. Individual parishes have to fit the money they use to support different missions and charities into their annual operating budget alongside of all the other bills; it's not uncommon for a church to hold a second collection for a special purpose. Likewise, the different ministries have overhead costs just as do non-religious NPOs; the soup may be free for the homeless man needing a meal, but the ingredients, the gas to cook it and the kitchen in which it's cooked aren't free to the ministy.
  4. The money doesn't "belong" to the bishops and pastors in any useful sense. Each diocese, parish, institution, charity and so forth is a separate financial entity with separate books. Catholic schools and hospitals often do make profits; however, many if not most of them belong to religious orders, such as the Jesuits and the Sisters of Mercy, who answer to their own superiors, and the profits go right back into the institutions. Bishops draw a salary from their dioceses, which generally isn't much more than those paid to their priests (in the US, between $25,000 and $33,000 per year as of 2011); they can't just draw a few thousand out of the diocesan till to play the ponies or take a trip to Aruba, or even to buy a decent new car to replace their old one. The bishops and pastors — including the Bishop of Rome — have stewardship of their pastoral finances while in office, which means any money they spend or donate has to be budgeted and accounted for, and ceases to be "theirs" when they leave office or die.
  5. The legal settlements from the various scandals aren't coming out of vaults of unused money the Church is just sitting on. Several dioceses in the US have had to file for bankruptcy protection and liquidate assets in order to pay the amounts, which will be structured over time. That means parishes and schools consolidated and sold off; that means the remaining parishes will be hit up for higher contributions to the dioceses even as the dioceses themselves take austerity measures that will negatively impact their ability to carry out their works for some years to come.

But doesn't the Church own the largest gold reserves in the world? If you believe that, you'll believe in albino monk-assassins or the miter with "VICARIUS FILII DEI" enjewelled on it. No, the IOR and APSA, the two main financial institutes, own no more gold than would any other modest bank with less than $1 billion in assets.

The Church does spend a lot of money, every day of every year, by running homeless and women's shelters, clinics, soup kitchens, schools, hospitals, rehab facilities and halfway houses all over the world. In fact, all together the Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world, tending to people in zones of desperate poverty and civil strife, often at risk to life and limb. And she does it without a lot of bureaucracy, keeping the home offices small as possible, letting things be done at the local level whenever she can.

The bottom line: The Catholic Church is neither "rich" nor "poor". Both words are inappropriate — great for Church-bashing rhetoric but lousy for analysis. Some of her many thousands of entities are doing well; some, like the Vatican, often run in the red. Overall, though, they're doing a helluva lot more for the poor, the homeless, the sick and the lost than the legions of petty-minded fools who scream about the Church being "rich".

UPDATE: 11:03 pm same day

Father Dwight Longenecker has a good post on evangelical poverty and Christian detachment that bears a bit on this post. At any rate, it got me to thinking that, by arguing whether the Church is "rich" or "poor", we're actually building on a complex-question fallacy. To put it differently, asking whether the Catholic Church is rich or poor is rather like the classic trap, "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

In this case, the argument over the Church's wealth assumes that the Church is called to poverty. In fact, she is not. The picture at the top of the post pulls Mark 10:21 out of context. Let's look at it in context:

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'"
And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth."
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." At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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."
And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, "Then who can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God" (Mark 10:17-27).
The point is not that wealth is evil in se, but rather that it's all too easy for people to get too attached to material things, to the point of neglecting our social obligations to others in our pursuit of wealth. Jesus' words to the rich young man are a challenge to the shallow young idler: "You really want something more than rote obedience to the Law? Put up or shut up." But because salvation comes not from our own efforts but from God's grace, not even the rich are automatically disbarred from heaven.

Again, the people who bitch and scream about the Church's wealth don't know what the hell they're talking about. Ministering to the economically straitened is part of the Church's mission. But how can you take care of the poor if you don't have any money to do it with? How can you shelter the homeless if you don't have a roof of your own?

Think about it: Only the "haves" can take care of the "have-nots".

Update: August 17, 2014 @ 2:00 PM CDT

The combox has been turned off on this topic.