Filthy Lucre: The Church and Wealth (2019)
“Filthy lucre,” wrote Titus (1:11), and Matthew (6:19, 24) concurred: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth,” for “Ye cannot serve both God and mammon.” Luke (12:33) instructed his flock: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” And if the New Testament’s attitude toward wealth is not clear yet, consider Mark (10:25): “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Or take heed of 1 Timothy (6:10): “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
How do good Catholics reconcile these pearls of wisdom with Cardinal Pell’s announcement that the Vatican had discovered “hundreds of millions of euros ‘tucked away'” off the books in various departments of the Holy See (Pullella and Heneghan, 2014)?
As journalist Kristopher Morrison pointed out years ago:
[The] Wealth of [the] Roman Catholic Church [is] impossible to calculate. There is no doubt, however, that between the church’s priceless art, land, gold and investments across the globe, it is one of the wealthiest institutions on Earth. (Morrison, 2013)
In fact, the Vatican’s investment portfolio alone is valued at approximately $8 billion (Flynn, 2015).
So what could the Church do with its enormous wealth? Here are some problem areas for which an urgent infusion of funds could go a long way:
- Nearly 600 million people live in extreme poverty (i.e., live on less than $1.90 per day)—see the world poverty clock (United Nations, 2019).
- Infant mortality in African countries is 55 deaths per every thousand infants, compared to 2 to 3 deaths per one thousand in Hong Kong, Israel, or Japan (World Health Organization, 2019).
- In developing countries 12.9 percent of the population is undernourished, and worldwide 25 percent of children are stunted due to hunger (World Food Programme, 2015).
- Diarrhea caused by dirty water and poor toilets kills a child under 5 years old every 2 minutes (WashWatch, 2019).
- The World Health Organization reported that “Nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria. In 2015, there were roughly 212 million malaria cases and an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths…. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to carry a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden. In 2015, the region was home to 90% of malaria cases and 92% of malaria deaths” (World Health Organization, 2012).
And if none of these areas is of special interest to the Church, they could also invest in fighting HIV infection, illiteracy, pedophilia, or drug addiction in general and opiate abuse in particular.
To be fair, the Catholic Church does invest in numerous charities (Wikipedia, 2019). This, however, does not excuse the construction and maintenance of over 3,000 lavishly furbished cathedrals, built worldwide at great expense, to say nothing of the countless basilicas, minsters, churches, chapels, convents, monasteries, priories, and abbeys. The recently constructed People’s Salvation Cathedral in Bucharest, Romania cost half a billion euros. Similarly, the cost of building Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles, California was estimated at $102 million in 1998 (Robinson-Jacobs, 1998), and who knows how much it actually cost by the time that it was built 6 years later.
The high cost of worship is hardly a novelty. According to Amy Denning, the total estimated explicit cost of building the Gothic churches in the Paris Basin between 1100-1250 is about $22 billion in today’s dollars; the Cathedral of Chartres alone was built at a cost of over half a billion dollars (Denning, 2012). And how much continues to be spent once these structures are built? Daily maintenance cost is £6,000 (~$7,300) for Ely, £12,000 (~$14,600) for Salisbury, £18,000 (~$21,900) for Canterbury, and £20,000 (~$24,300) for York Minster (Graham, 2016). There is no lack of apologists who twist and turn in their efforts to explain the blaring discrepancy between the New Testament’s condemnation of wealth and the mammon accumulated by the Church. Their motto is the “prosperity gospel.” Here are a few examples:
- Pastor Tom Nelson (2018) claims that the rejection of wealth (“the poverty gospel”) is just one interpretation of the New Testament, and “that material wealth and wealth creation are essentially good, and are part of our creation design and cultural mandate. Taken too far, this can lead to the belief that God blesses his true followers with health and wealth.” He went on to cite the evangelical philosopher Dallas Willard: “The idealization of poverty is one of the most dangerous illusions of Christians in the contemporary world. Stewardship—which requires possessions and includes giving—is the true spiritual discipline in relation to wealth” (Willard, 1988, p. 194).
- Financial coach Kenn Edwards writes: “[W]hen Christians support God’s work they are following the command of God to give. Giving is an act of faith and obedience to God…. Actually, if God is the provider, then we become the manager of everything He has put into our hands. As His servants, our job is to use those resources wisely. Doing so will bless our families and provide for God’s Kingdom work too” (Edwards, 2014).
- Catholic Exchange cofounder Matthew Pinto enlisted Jesus himself to support his twisted theology: “First, there’s nothing wrong with having beautiful, well-designed churches. Jesus Himself worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple, which was certainly exquisite and expensive (1 Kings 6). While He condemned the moneychangers for turning it into a marketplace (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17), He never rejected the Temple on the grounds it was ornate or costly” (Pinto, 2003).
- Bruce Wilkinson’s bestselling book The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life is based on a somewhat obscure quote from 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. There Jabez (a distant descendent from Yehuda) asks the God of Israel to enlarge his territory, and his request is granted. This anecdote is then used by the author to justify the accumulation of wealth (Wilkinson, 2003).
- Another example of clutching at a biblical straw was made by the organization Growing Prosperity. Their tagline offers “Christian Resources to Help You Prosper in Life Spiritually, Physically, and Financially!” (Growing Prosperity, 2009). The verse that they (and many others) use to defend amassing goods is Deuteronomy 8:18: “But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.”
Pope Francis appears to be cut from a different cloth than his predecessors. It is fitting to conclude this list of hypocrisies with his observation: “It is a scandal to say one thing and do another. That is a double life” (The Guardian, 2017).
 See also Mark 4:19 (“And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in; it chokes the Word, which becomes unfruitful”) and Luke 6:24-25 (“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry”).
 Yes, that Pell, the Catholic Church’s most senior official to be convicted of child sexual abuse (Younger, 2019).
 Perhaps not in pedophilia, given the conflict of interest.
Denning, Amy. (2012). How Much Did the Gothic Churches Cost? An Estimate of Ecclesiastical Building Costs in the Paris Basin between 1100-1250 (Unpublished bachelor’s thesis). Florida Atlantic University, Jupiter, Florida.
Edwards, Kenn. (2014). “Why Does the Church Want All of My Money?” Christian Broadcasting Network. <https://www1.cbn.com/questions/why-does-the-church-want-all-of-my-money>.
Flynn, Eileen P. (2015, May). “A Primer on the Vatican Bank.” The Montréal Review. <https://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/vatican-bank.php>.
Graham, Ysenda Maxtone. (2016, March 26). “The Price of a Cathedral—and How Deans Pay It.” The Spectator. <https://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/03/the-price-of-a-cathedral-and-how-deans-pay-it/>.
Growing Prosperity. (2009). “Prosperity Power from God, Deut. 8:18.” <https://www.growingprosperity.com/growing-prosperity/prosperity-videos/power-from-god>.
The Guardian. (2017, February 23). “Pope Francis: Better to be an Atheist than a Hypocritical Catholic.”
Morrison, Kristopher. (2013, March 8). “Wealth of Roman Catholic Church Impossible to Calculate.” The National Post. <https://nationalpost.com/news/wealth-of-roman-catholic-church-impossible-to-calculate>.
Nelson, Tom. (2018, October 19). “Should Christians Build Wealth or Avoid It?” The Gospel Coalition. <https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christians-build-wealth-avoid/>.
Pinto, Matthew. (2003). “Wealth and the Christian Call to Poverty.” Catholic Education Resource Center.
Pullella, Philip and Tom Heneghan. (2014, December 4). “Vatican Finds Hundreds of Millions of Euros ‘Tucked Away.’.” Reuters. <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vatican-economy-pell-idUSKCN0JI1CG20141204>.
Robinson-Jacobs, Karen. (1998, March 5). “Cathedral Cost Now Estimated at $102 Million.” Los Angeles Times.
United Nations. (2019). “World Poverty Clock.” (2019). <https://worldpoverty.io/>.
WashWatch. (2019). “WASH [WAter, Sanitation, and Hygiene]: A Global Issue.” <https://washwatch.org/en/about/about-wash/>.
Wikipedia. (2019). “Catholic Charities,” § “List of Catholic Charities.” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_charities#List_of_Catholic_charities>.
Wilkinson, Bruce. (2003). The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. Waterville, ME: Thorndike Press.
Willard, Dallas. (1988). The Spirit of Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
World Food Programme. (2015, September 30). “10 Facts About Hunger.” <https://www.wfp.org/stories/10-facts-about-hunger>.
World Health Organization. (2012, April). “10 Facts on Malaria.” <https://web.archive.org/web/20120425233127/https://www.who.int/features/factfiles/malaria/en/>.
World Health Organization. (2019). “Global Health Observatory (GHO) Data.” <https://www.who.int/gho/child_health/mortality/neonatal_infant_text/en/>
Younger, Emma. (2019, February 25). “George Pell Guilty of Sexually Abusing Choirboys.” ABC News (Australia). <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-02-26/george-pell-guilty-child-sexual-abuse-court-trial/10837564>.
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