With the new Pope naming himself after arguably the most renowned beggar who ever lived – Francis of Assisi – some commentators are hoping that the Catholic Church will at last divest itself of the wealth it has been clinging to for thousands of years and begin to preach the authentic Gospel of Christ. These calls though are reminiscent of the Apostle Judas who protested at Mary Magdalene’s use of costly ointment on the feet of Jesus’ which was followed by the Gospel writers’ astute comment, “he did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief”. How many of those who criticise the Church for her alleged wealth are concerned about the poor rather than simply desiring to bring down the influence of Christianity in society? It is not wealth in and of itself that is evil but an inordinate attachment to it. None the less the Church does and should have a preferential option for the poor and Pope Francis has rightly expressed his desire for a Church that is poor and for the poor. So just how wealthy is the Catholic Church?
When people think of the supposed wealth of the Church they most likely picture the grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica and the works of art within the walls of the Vatican. It is wise to recall though that the Church does not consider itself the owners of these items but rather the custodians of them for all humanity. For if the Catholic Church had not safeguarded the great treasures of culture for two thousand years through war and through peace, who do we suppose was going to do it? Something else worth remembering is that many of the pieces that are today regarded as great works of art were originally created as works of devotion, and the only reason they have existed long enough to be considered so valuable, is again because the Catholic Church has watched over them with solicitude across the centuries.
The Vatican has for some years publically released its annual budget, although as a sovereign nation it is under no requirement to do so. The Vatican runs with an annual operating budget of around $300 million but keep in mind that the Vatican employs close to 3000 people and supports 1000 retirees. With that same money it keeps St Peter’s Basilica and the key Churches of Rome in operation, it maintains the Vatican museums and provides important missionary services such as the Vatican radio and newspaper. This budget does not include the monies that are sent in from the lay faithful around the world to support the charitable works of the Pope known as ‘Peter’s Pence’. Totaling around $70 million each year, Peter’s Pence is used to support ecclesial communities most often in mission countries who have no one else to turn too. The Vatican Bank, or more properly, the Institute for the Works of Religion, controls a much larger amount of money estimated to be around $6 billion, however most of it is not the money of the Vatican but religious orders, dioceses and Catholic organisations which use the money for their particular work of ministry and charity.
The specific ‘wealth’ of the Vatican does not cover the many dioceses in individual nations which essentially manage their own expenditure. As an example, it has been estimated by The Economist that the Catholic Church in the USA spends collectively in excess of $170 billion each year but this is not on caviar and fine wine. The money goes to fund healthcare, universities, schools, parishes, charities and the payroll of the one million people who work for the Church and make it all happen (this includes the tens of thousands of priests and religious who give their lives for Christ and the service of the Church and must be thus housed and provided for).
Those who think the Catholic Church has a lot of money are correct but those who think the Church holds onto money for the sake of it are incorrect. The Catholic Church is not a ‘fly by night’ organisation that is flippant about money. Working to bring the message of Jesus Christ to every generation and to serve the needs of humanity requires funds, and as the single most charitable private organisation on the planet the Catholic Church uses its money as a wise steward should.