Friday, July 29, 2016


36: Vatican City Bank
I get this one a lot, but I've never really been interested in writing up a whole article about it or anything because I'm not a financial expert and so, who cares about what my analysis of this would be. But I think it's worth at least shaking up the popular opinion about this, especially since, today, for some reason, I've had this subject come up a couple of times. Why is it so popular today? I don't know.

It has to do with the perceived wealth of the Vatican City State.

A lot of people over many years have beaten me over the head with this notion that Vatican City is obscenely rich as a kind of guilt trip to try to get me to question my alignments.

Here is a quick and simple minded response. I'm not like an expert on finances or economics or anything, so don't treat me like I am, but these are things that I just know from having been a practicing Catholic for 15 years.

Vatican City is a country. A lot of people don't know this, which is surprising to me. Vatican City is not a City in Italy, Vatican City is literally it's own country. The property is not owned by any single person. The Pope doesn't have the power to sell off sacred art or treasures of humanity. He can't sell the whole city as if it is his own the way some have suggested. The fact that he lives in an apartment and wears a white cassock has never struck me as a sign that he is independently wealthy either, though, for some odd reason, this seems to signify personal wealth for some people.

The Vatican Bank controls about 8 billion dollars in assets. Much of Vatican city's wealth is composed of priceless treasures of humanity that cannot be sold. Whether because they are things that just literally belong to our collective Catholic culture (not to a single person or group of people) or because they are historically important to all of humanity.

Even considering that we are talking about the total wealth of the national bank of an entire sovereign nation, it is only about 8 times the worth of American Televangelist Pat Robertson's personal assets alone.

If the number actually represented assets that could be liquidated and dispersed evenly between every single Catholic on the face of the earth in the form of cash, it would still only amount to about 6 and a half dollars per person.

There is also apparently a common misconception that the wealth of the Vatican is represented by the collective wealth of every Catholic parish in the world at once. As if the Catholic Church is all linked together by an elaborate tax system that funnels money out of individual parishes and up the chain where it eventually lines the pockets of Vatican officials or accumulates in this unimaginably vast amount of wealth in this one place. This isn't true. We can give money to the Vatican if we want to, but it's not a systematic tax. Any collection taken up at a Mass is kept by the Parish unless the collection is specifically announced as being taken up for another purpose. That means we know when we are giving money for our own parish or for our own diocese or when we are giving money that might go to the diocese of Rome (which is rare) or to some other cause. In short, the money we give to our local Church is not "taxed" by the Vatican. We keep it unless we choose to give it away. Even money that is collected just for our own parish is usually clearly separated out for different purposes, which means that even the money that stays in the parish is often used for things that I'm being told it will be used for before I even put it in the basket. My point is that every diocese in the world is autonomous financially, each supports itself and they are usually quite transparent, allowing parishioners a measure of control even over which causes they support financially within their own parish. That includes the diocese of Rome.

The only time I've ever seen a bishop order money to be moved from one parish to another was when he was giving it to a struggling parish within his own diocese. That's the total opposite of the idea that the money funnels toward the bishops.

The closest thing I can think of that resembles money flowing out of parishes and toward the Vatican is an annual collection that takes place once a year throughout the entire Catholic Church called "Peter's Pence." During that time a second collection is taken up in every parish that is specified aloud as the Peter's Pence collection. The purpose of the Peter's Pence Collection is strictly to provide the Pope with the financial means to respond to those who are suffering as a result of war, oppression, natural disaster, and disease. This collection only lasts for one weekend and it is completely voluntary. The sad thing is that if you look up "Peter's Pence" online, even sources that you might consider very reliable get the history and function of this yearly collection completely wrong.

There is a similar phenomenon on the diocesan level in the form of a collection called the "Bishop's Ministry Appeal." It's a collection that takes place in order to support certain of our own bishop's ministries, all of which are transparent to us and, of course, our participation is in no way forced. Though, the bishop does have more direct authority over us than the pope does, so he can give us goals and say he expects us to reach them. Though I've never heard of any sort of consequence for not reaching them. Even at that, most of us have a sense of stewardship for our diocese and loyalty to our bishop and are happy to have a way of helping with these ministries.

All of this means that estimates on the Vatican's wealth that take into account weekly collections from all over the world are quite unfair. Some parishes have a lot of money. Some don't. Some parishes have large congregations, some are very tiny. The wealth is not collective and it is not controlled by the Vatican. We may choose to help another parish or to help our diocese or even another diocese, including the diocese of Rome, but it's entirely by choice. The amount of money taken up at collections world-wide by no means represents the amount of money that Vatican City controls. Neither is the magisterial and governmental unity of the Church throughout the world even mildly represented by or dependent on the flow of money.

Even the beauty of a single Church, which is often also held up as evidence for the clergy's obscene wealth and wanton extravagance, really says nothing of the sort. I am currently a parishioner of a Cathedral parish (Cathedral means "house of the Cathedra," which just means that the parish is the seat of a Bishop.) It is an incredibly beautiful Church and, to someone ignorant of our ways, very expensive looking. The mistake would be to assume that we've been duped somehow into making someone else rich. The beauty of these places are important to us and it's the parishioners who donate their time, skill and money to build these places. The idea being that we give the very best of what we have in worship to God. This includes the best of our skills, the best of our talents, the best of our time, the best of all we have. So, naturally, our Churches are the most beautiful places in our lives. Everything else comes second.

So when you accuse the Church of wasting it's money on beautiful architecture or art, you are accusing me personally. And you are accusing the men and women who have often provided materials and skills themselves, out of pocket, so that the whole community could share this treasure of humanity free of charge.

You can't take photos inside the Sistine chapel. What does this have to do with how rich the Vatican is? A Japanese company owns the copyright on any photos or videos taken inside the Sistine Chapel in exchange for renovations that they paid for because Vatican City couldn't afford to pay for them itself.

The maintenance of ancient treasures of humanity, including manuscripts, statues, art and architecture alone, which we consider to be a monumental service to us and all of humanity, is quite expensive. Combine this with the cost of it's ministries and just general expenses of running a City and the Vatican actually usually runs on a deficit. It doesn't even own an airplane. Planes are rented from an airline for Apostolic journeys to other countries.

I recently requested a papal blessing on my marriage from Pope Francis . These are commemorated by beautiful certificates that are mailed to those who request them. Even in this case, where this beautiful object is going to cost the Office of Papal Charities at least 20 to 30 dollars to make and mail to me, they insist that I not send them any reimbursement for this in order to avoid the risk of committing the sin of Simony. That is, the sin of selling or buying blessings or Sacraments or attempting to sell or buy the charism by which they are conferred. (Acts 8: 9-24) The Office of Papal Charities still receives donations in return for this that far exceed the costs and go on to directly benefit the poor in Rome.

As for clergy being "in it for the money," a priest's salary in America is usually under 20,000 dollars a year and has no set hours. He's a priest 24 hours a day. That's something like less than 3 bucks an hour.

Monks and Nuns and Sisters and so on accumulate no personal wealth at all. They don't receive paychecks and they don't retain personal assets. They give these things up by choice.

I've noticed that a popular method of criticism on this subject is to show a photo of the Pope in full liturgical vestments sitting on the ornate cathedra in Saint Peter's Basilica and contrast it with a photo of kids starving in Africa or something. This, to me, symbolizes the uncharitable approach to this entire subject by the accusers. It seems to imply that the pope spends all of his time in resplendent, kingly costuming and sitting on an extravagant throne as a demonstration of his own limitless wealth and power. This intentionally deceptive prejudice excludes any understanding of Catholic culture anywhere in the world. The understanding that none of those things even belong to the Pope. That he only wears those things and sits in that place when performing the specific service that is the liturgy on behalf of the people he serves. That every bishop does this for his people and that, indeed, every priest also does the same at every Mass. Even in the poorest places in the world. Take away the liturgical vestments of our priests and bishops and we will make them new ones ourselves by hand if need be. That is our culture that they serve. Those are our signs. Tear it down and we will rebuild it anew, more resplendent than before. Such things have been done, even out of poverty. The liturgy is central to Catholic life and even the most impoverished of us know it. Take it from them and you are taking it from us. Even our priests are put forward by us. They are us. They come from our communities, they are our brothers and sons and friends. A portion of what we have to offer, set aside to serve at the center of all Christian life. They are not mysterious strangers from on high who trick us out of the change in our pockets by feeding us sneaky superstitions.

These are the general reasons that the whole "the Church is too rich" line doesn't carry any weight with me. Again, I'm not a financial expert or anything, so don't hold me to the exact letter of the law on all this stuff, but these are the things that I know about it from experience.