The Myth of Vatican Wealth–on Helping the Poor

St. Peter's Basilica

In light of all the media buzz about Pope Francis, I have encountered a surprising number of criticisms aimed both at Pope Francis and at the Catholic Church, specifically concerning the wealth of the Vatican and the lack of the Pope’s “real” concern for the poor. In response, I’ve hastily written this overly large post. Hopefully someone will find it beneficial.

John Allen explains, in his National Catholic Reporter article, “Challenges to vision of a ‘Poor Church for the Poor,’” available here,, that “the legendary wealth of the Vatican is to some extent more myth than reality.” He then points out the often ignored fact that the yearly budget for operating the Vatican is less than $300 million. He contrasts this with Harvard University (which he labels as “the Vatican of elite secular opinion”) whose annual budget is $3.7 billion. Allen points out further that the patrimony (or endowment) of the Vatican is about $1 billion. Harvard, on the other hand, as a whopping $30.7 billion endowment. Allen concedes that the Vatican bank is in charge of the equivalent of over $6 billion, but then points out how the majority of that money is not actually the Vatican’s, and thus the Vatican would not be at liberty to use most of that amount for any purpose whatsoever.

Some confusion exists about the Vatican property, relics, artwork, etc., itself. Shouldn’t the Vatican just sell St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, all of its religious patrimony? First of all, I don’t think it should, but even if it should, it can’t. What critics fail to realize, probably due to their ignorance of European history, Church history, etc., is that the Vatican has the independent autonomous sovereignty of a modern nation state, but with caveats. Unlike many modern nation states who created their own autonomy through revolutionary and civil wars, the Vatican achieved its sovereignty purely by negotiations without an army. Readers may not recall the history of the Avignon Papacy, when the pope lived not in Rome, but in France. This was not a glorious time for the Church. In fact, one of the

St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena

reasons St. Catherina of Siena is a patron Saint of Europe, has to do with the fact that she had the holy courage to put the pope in his place—to put the smack down, as it were—and tell him to get his tuchus back to Rome–even though (and especially because), the pope, every pope, was and is, in her words, “the sweet Christ on earth.” Church history demonstrates the danger to all when the pope becomes a pawn of a particular state. This was one of the reasons the papal states were seen as so important prior to the 20th century. We may debate the wisdom of having a pope function as monarch of the papal states, but the centrality of securing papal autonomy (from other states) is non-negotiable. Here’s a bit of history from Eamon Duffy’s Yale University Press Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes:

“This restoration of the Papal States is the single most important fact about the nineteenth-century papacy. For more than a thousand years, since the time of Pepin, the security of the papal office had been linked to the defence of the Patrimony of Peter. In the nineteenth century, however, that link took on a new and all-devouring importance. As pressure built for the unification of Italy, the Papal States, dividing the peninsula and enclosing its natural capital, became more and more of an anomaly. The papacy became the largest single obstacle in the way of the national aspiration of the Italian people. In the light of the Napoleonic era, however, it was entirely natural that the popes should identify the defence of the Papal States with the free exercise of the papal ministry. On the lips of Napoleon the call for the Pope to lay down his temporal sovereignty and to rely solely on spiritual authority had been blatant code for the enslavement of the papacy to French imperial ambitions. Without his temporal power, Pius VII had been reduced to saying his prayers and mending his linen, and he had come within a whisker of signing away even his spiritual authority” (272-273).

The context for Duffy’s comments is the fact that the 18th century ended (1799) with the death of Pope Pius VI who was languishing in French prison after he had been kidnapped by Napoleon. At the dawn of the 19th century, we find Pius VI’s successor (Pius VII) also in French prison after Napoleon had him kidnapped (1808)—where he languished for about six years. The Pope’s crime? Refusing to abdicate the papal states. Pius IX eventually loses the papal states in 1870 during the middle of the First Vatican Council, when the papal states were taken by force, thus allowing Italy to become a modern nation state. Vatican City as its own independent nation state was created through a concordat with Italy in 1929 (the Lateran Concordat), which made Vatican City the smallest territorial state in the world. Article 18 of that concordat states the following: “The artistic and scientific treasures existing within the Vatican City and the Lateran Palace shall remain open to scholars and visitors, although the Holy See shall be free to regulate the admission of the public thereto” (you can read the concordat online here: The Holy See would automatically violate its right to be sovereign if it overstepped these bounds. That is, since the property, art, etc., are seen to be the patrimony of all of Europe, and the Italian state obviously has concern for it, Italy would be well within its legal rights to take the Vatican back should the pope ever try to sell the Vatican property or artistic (etc.) patrimony (each part of which is officially labeled as worth one euro each)—which the pope cannot legally do.

What about all the property of the Catholic Church across the globe? What about all of the various dioceses’ funds and land? Why can’t the Vatican sell some church buildings or something in the U.S., or in Ghana, or Japan, or elsewhere? Again, even if this were a good idea (which I do not think it is), the Vatican can’t do that. Just think for a minute about the history I have just recounted. Could the Vatican sell, for example, the University of Notre Dame? While I would think that to be a foolish and unwise move, the point is moot, since the Vatican does not own the University of Notre Dame. The University of Notre Dame was established in 1842, almost a century before Vatican City existed as a sovereign state. The concordat with Italy only gave the Vatican the patrimony within the Vatican and in parts of Rome like the Church of St. John Lateran. Italy didn’t have (nor does it have) the authority to give the Vatican land and property in the U.S. or in France, etc. The Congregation of the Holy Cross (a religious order) is responsible for the University of Notre Dame. What about local dioceses that are not under the responsibility of religious orders? They are, to quite a large degree, financially independent. If a bishop sells a church, so long as he is not breaking canon law, that bishop makes that decision, not the pope. Nor could the pope force a bishop to sell church property (as far as I’m aware). In addition, some of these Catholic organizations operate in buildings and on grounds not owned by Catholic dioceses or the organizations themselves, but rather by non-specifically-Catholic private foundations (on whose boards many non-Catholics may sit).


So, the Vatican is not nearly as “wealthy” as people seem to think. Nor would it be a good idea, in my mind, to sell all the art, all the buildings, etc. Often mention is made about the importance of building for God (as in the case of Solomon’s Temple in the OT). But there is something else too. Art, music, etc., serves a purpose. It is good that Michelangelo’s Pietà is in St. Peter’s Basilica. That statue does good for people’s souls, not merely for the tourist attracted to the beauty. Our history is full of conversions in which such art played an important role—and I don’t simply mean the conversions  to Christianity, to Catholicism (which can take place in a moment), but even more so the continual conversions and reconversions of us sinners who are working out our sanctification (the work, not of a moment, but of a lifetime). Such conversions are what we need to really help the poor. I need to give more, to be continually more committed to the poor. It’s easy for me to play the part of Judas Iscariot:

“Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair….But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it” (John 12:3-6).

Downton Abbey

Or again, we can think of King Henry VIII, who took over quite a bit of the Church’s patrimony in England (just read Eamon Duffy’s massively documented account in his Yale University Press The Stripping of the Altars), with the justification that the Church has tied up all of this wealth which could be spent instead on the poor. As Anthony Marx (and others) has shown in his Oxford University Press Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism, Henry didn’t give this money and land to the poor, but rather to his supporters among the wealthy noble elite. This is how the real families, like the fictional ones in Jane Austen novels and on t.v. shows like “Downton Abbey,” inherited “abbeys” which belonged to Catholic religious orders.

We often forget the good work for the poor that such orders and Catholic organizations often do. The Catholic Church, it’s various organizations and religious orders, have done more for the poor in its nearly 2,000 year history, than any other organization and institution, in the history of the world. This continues to be the case. The Catholic

Pope Francis as Bergoglio taking the bus
Pope Francis as Bergoglio taking the bus

Church is the world’s largest charitable organization (although of course I do not think this is all that it is, even though if it were, that would be a very large thing indeed) although it is not the wealthiest organization on earth, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. The history of this is quite beautiful, which you can read about (in part) in Robert Louis Wilken’s recently published Yale University Press book, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, in his chapter, “The Sick, the Aged, and the Poor: The Birth of Hospitals.” Not only did the Church invent hospitals, but they were invented to serve the poor and needy, free of charge. We can criticize the Church all we want, but as historian Peter Brown reminds us (in his Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire), the Church invented the poor as a category of people who exist and have needs that we need to meet. Wilken comments on this:

“the notion that the ‘poor’ made a claim on the community as a whole was unknown in the ancient world. In Greece and Rome there was a long tradition of public giving by prominent citizens, and cities relied on the benefactions of the wealthy to construct civic building and adorn streets and places of assembly….The poor were invisible, and a civic screen shielded citizens from the destitute lives of the impoverished living in their midst. Lepers were excluded from society and kept at a safe distance from the city. In the Scriptures, however, the poor stand out as a distinct category of persons to whom justice is due, a kind of divinely constituted holy order….The admonitions of the Scriptures were translated into concrete deeds and instruments to serve the needy” (156-157).

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

Where does the Church’s money come from to help the poor across the globe? From you and from me, or from no one. The money comes from donations, from those who give. If we want the Catholic Church to do more for the poor (as I certainly do), then as opposed to sitting there and criticizing the Church, as if it did nothing for the poor, we should try giving her money to help the poor. We can donate to the Missionaries of Charity, or through the Rice Bowl project, or a host of any other ways in which our money will directly help the destitute. Or, if you think you might be called by God to a religious vocation to spend your live serving the poor, you can look into giving up all that you own and joining a religious order that serves the poor, like the Poor Clares, the Missionaries of Charity, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, etc. It is doubtful that any of us are giving all that we can (time, money, prayer, etc.) to help the poor. I know that I certainly am not. The answer to the problem of the poor is not for the Catholic Church to sell all that it has and uses (it couldn’t do that if it wanted to, and then of course there would be the problem of renting….you have to have somewhere to meet right?), but rather for all people to live out the virtues of charity and justice that the Church calls us to. If each one of us, regardless of our religious background, lived out to the fullest what the Catholic Church calls the corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead), we would eliminate poverty. Instead of criticizing Pope Francis for not doing enough, we would do a lot more to help the poor by supporting him in his efforts. Something tells me, however, that some of the criticism of the Catholic Church on this matter, doesn’t really have to do with the poor at all, but rather is a smokescreen for something else. The fact of the matter is that fewer than 50% of Catholics

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

attend Sunday Mass regularly, and of those fewer than 50% who do, only a portion give money. I can’t judge how much each of those who do give actually give what they could and should give. I know that I don’t always give as much as I should. Mother Teresa famously said that if you’re not sacrificing some small comfort (like a cup of coffee or that extra dessert, etc.) in order to give that money to someone or group in need, then you’re not giving enough. I think all of the criticisms—wrongly directed but rightly or wrongly meant—can serve usefully for an examination of conscience. What am I doing for the poor? How can I do more?

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