Friday, July 28, 2006

Wealth and the Church

Our family just returned from a trip to northern New Mexico, my birthplace where I have family going back five generations, but which my children hadn't yet seen. Besides the Georgia O'Keefe-style natural beauty, there is the cultural beauty of such places as El Santuario de Chimayo, a busy place of pilgrimage and prayer. Looking around at the old reredos with their crudely-carved santos of San Francisco Javier and San Rafael, lovingly handmade centuries ago by the faithful to assist their worship of God, I found myself thinking how very valuable such carvings have become as "folk art" in the last century (they are now guarded behind plexiglass). I wondered how long it will be before someone starts connecting the poverty of the local New Mexican Catholic community and the value of these old wooden pieces, and condemning the Church for hoarding such treasures which might be instead sold and the money distributed to the abundant poor.

The issue of the Church's wealth is one I don't often discuss, in part because it's usually not brought up as a sincere question--Why does the Church have so much, when the Son of Man had no place to lay his head?--but as a rhetorical slap-down, with any reasonable response brushed aside; and in part because I really don't know enough about the complicated finances of such a large, world-wide institution to give an informed response. But I do know that often the attacks I hear on the Catholic Church and its putative hoarded wealth are prima facie unjustified, and that since the condemner usually knows as little about the Church's actual financial situation as I do, the rule of charity would require assuming the best rather than the worst. With that in mind, I've come to believe the proper response to accusations of wealth-hoarding should be like the proper response to the accusation of the Church "baptizing" pagan practices: one doesn't have to disprove the accusations; instead, one has to ask, Why would you assume the very worst of bad faith and hypocrisy?

With that in mind, here are some things to think about when you're asked (or ask yourself) why the Church doesn't sell its treasure and give it to the poor.

Is it treasure?

I've heard firsthand criticisms lodged against my own parish church, from visitors (both Catholic and non-) who are blown away by the breathtaking nineteenth-century interior, with its marble, gold, and riot of jeweled colors. But isn't it wrong, they ask afterwards, for the Church to use so much money for itself, instead of on the poor?

To quote the whisky priest in Greene's The Power and the Glory, "Most of it is paint." Yep, it's faux marble on wood pillars; it's gold paint on wood pilasters and moldings; the white marble front of the high altar with the glorious hand-carved Tree of Life (done as a Texas oak) is plaster. The candlesticks and most other metals are plate. It's beautiful, but it's (sorry) fake.

Is it as expensive as it looks?

But the altar vessels, you say, are real gold; and the priest's chasuble is clearly of valuable materials and hand-sewn. That must have cost a pretty penny.

It did. But it was expensive in the same way that real china is more expensive than paper plates; pretty quickly, you'll have spent more on replacing the cheap stuff. I believe our parish church, now about 150 years old, is on its third set of altar vessels. If we were using little glass or even plastic cups and trays, would it really have saved money? How long has Father been using that chasuble? The polyester vestments may be cheaper (as well as uglier), but the priest will be replacing them next year.

This same principle applies broadly. Investing in good craftsmanship--whether it's the parish investing, or a private donor--is better stewardship than lots of spending on the cheap stuff.

Is it ours?

One acquaintance was scandalized by a visit to Notre Dame de Paris, where countless altar vessels of earlier centuries are on display; others are horrified by similar displays of the Church's wares in museums. Instead of showing them off, if the Church isn't using them, why don't they sell them? Well for one thing, you can't sell what isn't yours. The Church no longer owns what's in museums, for the most part: they belong to the museums, or to private collectors. And remember that little unpleasantness in France around the end of the eighteenth century? Where they hanged the priests and confiscated the stuff? The Catholic Church doesn't even own the buildings anymore (my understanding is that the government leases them to the Church for use), let alone the nice gold stuff in them. France isn't the only place, either, where the state has cast a covetous eye on the possessions of the Catholic Church and proceeded to relieve it of its burden of wealth. Keep that in mind when you attend mass at the beautiful St. Patrick's Cathedral in Ireland.

On a similar note, I'm told (I would be grateful for details) that the Vatican Museum and its contents aren't actually owned by the Catholic Church; so stop wandering its halls thinking bitterly of how many mouths could be fed if the greedy popes would just sell a picture or two.

Is it "the Church's"?

Here's the part that seems hardest to convey to critics. There's a perception that the Big Evil Corporate Church wrests away money from the poor Catholic faithful and spends it on its own aggrandizement. But it doesn't look that way from the Catholic point of view. We see our parish churches as our own; the bishop and his house as our own; the Pope and his regalia as our own. Especially at the local level, much of the expensive stuff comes from wealthy private donors (if you look closely, their names, or the names of someone dear to them, are often on the windows or undersides or sills, so we can remember to pray for their souls), who have chosen to spend their money on something beautiful for the community, rather than for themselves alone. This is bad?

The Church didn't take treasures for itself. Offerings of money and talent were made by communities of the faithful, sometimes generations ago, with the understanding that these things would be memorials to the love of Catholic families for Christ and his Church. Loose talk about "taking away the Church's hoards of wealth and giving it to the poor" (that's a pretty much verbatim quote I encountered quite recently) sounds a lot to us like "we non-Catholics, through the agency of the State, would like once again to rob Catholics of the things they have offered to God and for His worship."

Some of the treasures of the Church, particularly its art or architecture, rightfully "belong" to humanity at large. Even if they could be sold for high prices (which isn't a given; see below), it would be to private collectors. Often enough these things were created or gifted to the Church in order that the public at large might benefit from their display. Often they were gifts from foreign governments, which the Church has no moral right to sell to private buyers.

Dorothy Day was once given a diamond ring. After discussion with others at the Catholic Worker House, she gave it to a poor and elderly woman. Her co-workers were astonished, pointing out that the ring could have been sold and the money distributed to the poor. Day's response was, "God did not make diamonds only for the rich."

When the beauty of the world, natural and man-made, is carefully guarded for the enjoyment and benefit of the many, the custodian is not greedily hoarding it for itself. It is making sure that even the poor have diamonds.

Finally, I've heard more than enough about bishop's palaces and the Pope living in his palace at St. Peter's. First, "palace" is a technical term; our own bishop's "palace" is a structure usually identified as a "house." Second, like most bishops, his living quarters are the upper story (basically a flat), with the lower story available for general use for retreats and meetings. Similarly, the Pope lives in a modest apartment; most of the huge buildings you see in Vatican City are offices. Just because he shows up at the balcony window doesn't mean he has the place to himself. "The Pope and bishops live in luxury, while the people starve" is just nonsense.

Is it alienable?

Property law is more complex than "X gives A to Y; now it belongs to Y and Y can do with it as he wishes." One of the things that made the English Reformation desperately unpopular at the grassroots level (as documented by historian Eamon Duffy) is that the Church possessions confiscated (as usual, under the guise of taking away the hoards of wealth the Church has taken from the poor) were nearly always conveyed to the Church through instruments (most often wills) that specified the land or items given were to be used only for specific ecclesial purposes, and that if they ceased to be so used, ownership would revert to the donor or his heirs. The king knew this, and knew also that if an outright grab of Church property were attempted, it would be challenged legally. The smart move was giving the goods to the nobles; which not only put the nobility on the side of the Reformation (and made getting the property back, even under Mary's reign, a practical impossibility), but made it legally inaccessible. As it was, by the time the faithful figured out that the "inspectors" and "accountants" were actually confiscators, individuals would go into churches themselves and try to take back grandpa's donated chasubles or altarpieces before the state could take them.

The point being that, when you seem some land or building or art "owned" by the Catholic Church, don't assume the Church has the simple right to sell it and do something else with the money.

Is it valuable?

Question the starting assumption that that piece of art, or that building, would fetch gobs of money on the open market. But who do you think would really buy St. Peter's? It's a truism that the Catholic Church is land-rich and cash-poor; the reason is that much of the land and buildings owned by the Church really can't be sold for as much as people think, and it's a wiser investment to hold on to it for future use for the benefit of the faithful.

Is it really the money, or is it the beauty?

To my astonishment (at first), the news that the gorgeous interior of our parish church is mostly fake doesn't shake the outrage of critics. Yet talking about the huge amount of money that has been spent on our new roof (repairing a hundred years of water damage) doesn't raise eyebrows. I've come to believe that the very beauty offered for worship is the scandalous thing. There are those who would be happy just to see the walls and altars stripped bare, even if not a penny were to go to the poor. And if I may offer a tentative word to Protestant brothers and sisters who offer criticism, I will be more attentive to hearing about the wastefulness and hoarding of the Catholic Church when we can discuss what your church's sound system and other high-tech gadgets cost. Bet it was more than our rose window, glowing jewel-like in the rays of the setting sun.


Blogger sophia said...

I loved the paragraph that starts "Here's the part that is hardest to convey to critics." I also appreciated the story of the diamond ring. When I hear people criticize the church for spending money that could be used for the poor, I always think about Mary anointing Jesus feet with precious oil. It is a blessing for us all, rich and poor, to worship God with that which is precious and beautiful to us and to take care of His ministers of grace.

You make some great and thoughtful points here, that I never thought about.

9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You nailed it once again.

The scandal of beauty is the key. Even Catholics are uncomfortable with a sacred space that looks -- inspiring.

We live in an age and place that worships ugliness -- DON'T get me started.

I got the same sort of foolishness you're remarking on from my beloved brother. On making a short trip to Rome (he had business in Milan) he commented about the Basilica of St. Peter, "The pope must be the richest man in the world." My brother's a cradle Catholic, married a Catholic, raised his two kids Catholic, but he has no sense that the Basilica of St. Peter belongs to everyone.

"We give God only our best when we worship him." For years that was the rationale behind the beeswax candles (considered the purest wax available), linen altar cloths and communion vessels made of precious metals. Many people are completely unaware of this concept. Josemaria Escriva said something similar when he said, "the best room in the house, you give to God." If you go into an Opus Dei retreat house or study center, be sure to check out the chapel or oratory. Its decoration may not be expensive (paint is cheap), but it will refresh your spirit.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Dorian Speed said...

Excellent, very informative post. I am glad to have discovered your blog (via the Darwins').

3:14 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Thanks for the comments, and special thanks to new visitor ATP. I hope to pick up the posting frequency at the blog a little when the not-school year gets underway.

5:06 PM  

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