Though no official number is publicly confirmed, financial institutions the world over estimate the Vatican’s wealth to be between $10 and $15 billion, making it one of the richest, tax-exempt organizations on the planet. The church’s abundance stems from its real estate, business investments, member donations, and of course, its priceless works of art that so famously adorn the Vatican walls. With a myriad of monetary resources and so much poverty in the world, one must ask why an institution that prides itself on morals of compassion and giving would choose to retain so many of its assets rather than liquidate and use the funds to help those in need.
The Papal Perspective
In a recent interview with Straatnieuws, a Dutch newspaper published by the homeless, when asked whether or not he’d consider selling the Vatican’s masterpieces, Pope Francis explained that, despite his strong concern for the poor, he will not sell the “riches of the Church.”
“This is an easy question,” he said, “They are not the treasures of the Church, [but] the treasures of humanity. For example, if tomorrow I say that Michelangelo’s Pietà is going to be auctioned, it can’t be done, because it’s not the property of the Church. It’s inside a church, but it belongs to humanity,” he said, explaining that this is true “for all the treasures of the Church.”
If Pope Francis wants to claim that church’s renowned artwork belongs to humanity, one needs to question what the pieces are actually doing for humanity – for the poor citizens of Rio de Janeiro, the Philippines, or the Congo – all areas where Catholicism is increasing, but in which the people are never going to be able to afford a visit to Rome, or to witness the glorious achievements of the age of faith, such as Michelangelo’s Pietà, Raphael’s Coronation of the Virgin, or Leonardo’s St Jerome. What sustenance, spiritual or material, can the works offer while they are locked away in the Vatican? Surely it would make more sense to swap the aesthetic and historic value that these pieces provide to those visiting Rome for a more immediate and necessary need – such as nourishing the bodies of those who cannot afford to do it themselves.
As to what would remain in the Vatican halls, and what would continue to draw crowds to the holy state, the Vatican itself will remain a sacred place with or without its artwork, perhaps even more so once the empty corridors come to symbolize the ultimate act of charity. If necessary, replicas of the originals could be substituted, or gaps could be left to emphasize the sacrifice. An entrance fee will still be required, though perhaps at a slightly lower rate, and can continue to be utilized by the the church for its faith-based work and / or its preservation.
Pope Francis claims to want the Catholic Church to be “a poor church, for the poor.” If this truly is the case, selling the Vatican art collection and devoting the proceeds to those in need would be a bold, redemptive gesture, pointing the church firmly in the direction of the poor, and proving to the world that it does indeed plan to dedicate itself firmly to its charity.
Not To Sell
Since the majority of the Vatican’s artwork is considered to be “priceless,” there is no confirmed number out on its actual value. However, those against the sale claim that no matter the monetary gains the pieces could provide, the earnings wouldn’t come close to providing the amount of aid imagined by those who are pro-sale, and definitely not enough to warrant the removal of these world renowned pieces of history from their sacred space.
“It would be a drop in the ocean; and once it had soaked into the desert, like water from a leaking tanker in the Sahara, it would be gone forever, leaving bare walls and a basilica without Michelangelo’s Pietà: a simpler but a less spiritually powerful place,” says William Oddie, journalist and former editor of the Catholic Herald.
Beyond the mere history and spiritual symbolism the pieces represent, the allure of the masterpieces brings tourists to the Vatican by the millions each year, generating funds to be used for the church’s charitable endeavors. By keeping the artwork within the church walls, continued flow of tourism dollars will inevitably bring in more charitable funds than a one time cash out – a cash out which very well may result in these magnificent artifacts being buried away from society’s eye, unable to inspire the masses and share stories of times past as they have for hundreds of year.
Many feel that the Vatican is being unfairly targeted in this matter, as the Catholic Church is already one of the leading organizations in the world when it comes to helping the poor. Its schools and hospitals provide a lifeline for millions, and its main charity, Catholic Charities USA, employs over 65,000 paid staff members that serve over 10 million people nationwide.
The Fight to End Poverty
Though every little bit helps in the fight to end poverty, the issue of poverty itself is less about acquiring funds and more about putting an end to personal greed, corruption, injustice, and improving faulty economic systems. While the Catholic Church does already do its fair share when it comes to charitable work, selling off the Vatican’s masterpieces would definitely generate a considerable amount of revenue to feed and clothe various corners of the world for a designated period of time. However, this isn’t the only way to do this, and the Catholic Church isn’t the only religious organization with a wealth of assets that can be asked to take these measures. If it was deemed of utmost importance that the Vatican’s art collection remain within the holy state, the church could instead sell some off some its real estate or stock for the same purpose, leaving the artwork as is, continuing to receive the resulting tourism dollars and using them toward charitable endeavors as well.
Other religious organizations such as The Church of England or The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, both of which are sitting on billions in assets, could also be asked to liquidate some of their wealth in the fight against poverty. Rather than just singling out the Vatican, a “power in numbers” approach could be taken for greater impact.
Whether you are for or against the sale, according to Pope Francis, it’s fairly certain that the artwork is staying put. The best way to help in the fight against poverty is for all of humanity to be aware of the issues, volunteer, donate, and spread the word. Every little bit helps, and continued support from the people of the world will most likely bring more positive change than a one time donation from any charitable organization.