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The Wealth of the Church

The wealth and property of the Church is entirely at the service of its mission

Soon after the devastating fire engulfed the Cathedral of Notre Dame in April 2019, discussion turned to the mammoth and expensive task of rebuilding Paris’s parish. Wealthy individuals raced to promised hundreds of millions towards the restoration effort. Interestingly, along with pledges of money came criticisms, mostly directed at the wealthy donors and the French government.

Some of the criticism was focused on the relative ease with which billionaires promised to help pay for the rebuilding of an inanimate object, compared with what the critics believed was their reluctance to aid human beings in need. Others called into question the motives of the donors and saw a game of rich men’s “one-upmanship.”  On social media, especially Twitter, many questioned the need to even raise money for the rebuilding, since, they believed, the Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest organizations in the world.

Those who believe the Church should pay to rebuild Notre Dame are likely ignorant of the fact that the Church does not own the cathedral. Since the 1905 secularization laws were instituted in France, all churches built before 1905 are owned by the government. It is therefore the government’s responsibility to fund the reconstruction of the famous gothic cathedral.

However the many issues are ultimately resolved, the debate presents us with an opportunity to address some common objections raised against the Catholic Church with regard to her wealth and property. Many believe the Church should divest all temporal wealth in order to focus on spiritual matters and serving the poor. On this view, maintaining and commissioning art and artifacts is a departure from its mission. Further, it is claimed, given all of its wealth, the Church does not need donations from the faithful.

Case in point: When the young man approached Jesus to ask how he could attain eternal life, the Lord told him to follow the commandments. When the young man replied he had done so, Jesus then said that if he wished to be perfect he had to “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mat. 19:21). Many believe that here and in other places, Scripture clearly illustrates Jesus’ rejection of wealth. They also point to the example of the early Church, when followers supposedly rejected private property, held all things in common, and embraced a life of poverty. Opponents of the Church also believe that the Church’s wealth has been a reason for much discord in history. The solution is therefore for the Church to sell its wealth, give the money to the poor, and focus only on spiritual matters.

It is incumbent on Catholics to be prepared to answer such objections since, if left unchallenged, the false impression of Church rolling in cash and comfort will take further hold, making it much more difficult for all of us to do what we must do as Catholics.

Of course, those who argue for the divestiture of the Church’s temporal holdings mimic the argument proposed by Judas when he complained about the woman anointing Jesus with costly ointment (John 12:5). Jesus defended the woman’s actions indicating that it was appropriate to spend money on spiritual things (burial preparation in this case).

Jesus neither commanded destitution nor taught that wealth is evil. Indeed, St. Paul taught that it is the “love of money” that is the “root of all evils” not wealth itself (1 Tim. 6:10).  Christ focused on a spiritual poverty where his followers should maintain an inner detachment from material things. Jesus taught that man is made for an eternal, not temporal, destiny; therefore, happiness is not found in material possessions but rather in love of God and neighbor. This love compels the Christian to live simply and to practice asceticism, recognizing one’s neighbor as a brother or sister in need as one who we must serve with in solidarity. The Christian is called to a spirit of moderation rooted in the distinction between the necessities and duties of life on the one hand, and the superfluous and extravagant on the other.

Throughout history, the Church has recognized the need for beautiful works of art and magnificent structures built for the worship of God as well as a concern for the material needs of the poor. God commanded the Israelites to build and adorn the Temple in Jerusalem with precious metals and jewels in order for man to acknowledge the majesty and importance of God. Christians, especially after Roman imperial legalization in A.D. 313, continued the Old Testament practice of making beautiful objects and building ornate sacred spaces for the liturgy.

Those who criticize the Church and its extensive property holdings, priceless works of art, and historical artifacts also fail to recall that most of this precious inventory has been given to the Church by others over the past two thousand years. The Roman Emperor Constantine began the practice of temporal rulers endowing the Church with property when he gave the Lateran Palace to the bishop of Rome after his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. Attributing his victory to the intercession of the Christian God, Constantine favored the Catholic Church by building several magnificent churches, including the original St. Peter’s Cathedral and St. Paul Outside the Walls. His mother, Helena, travelled to the Holy Land and preserved numerous Christian holy places. Constantine also provided for the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, European feudal lords contributed to the property of the Church through land gifts by the nobility.

Finally, those who believe the Church is worth billions fail to understand that although the Church has a clear hierarchical structure in terms of authority, it is not monolithic in its finances. Even if the pope wanted to liquidate those assets and give them to the poor, he would be hard-pressed to do so. Those who think the Vatican is one of the wealthiest organizations in the world are gravely mistaken, just as assumptions about religious orders, and other Catholic organizations being so are also incorrect. In reality, the Holy See achieves a very modest profit in most years.

Although the Church has accumulated a vast number of buildings, sacred art, and property through her long history, much of that wealth is both expensive to maintain and not easily transferred into liquid cash. Despite the impracticality of selling off all its property, as desired by critics, the Church views her inventory of priceless works of art, manuscripts, and cathedrals as items belonging to humanity—a collection of wealth of which the Church is not the owner but the guardian.

Critics of the Church believe it should dispense with all but the most minimal property in order to fulfill what they believe the Church’s mission is. Yet this viewpoint betrays a misunderstanding of Gospel poverty and fails to recognize that the wealth and property the Church has is entirely at the service of its mission to bring the salvation of Jesus to humanity.

Rebuilding the cathedral of Notre Dame is a decision and responsibility of the French government and will take the combined efforts of private citizens, state and ecclesial funding to bring to fruition.

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