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Should Pope Francis sell off the Vatican’s art collection and give the money to the poor? The answer is an emphatic ‘No’

There are some irreversible changes which cause lasting damage: others which bring real spiritual growth. Pope Francis will know the difference

By on Monday, 25 March 2013

Pope Francis addresses diplomats in the Sala Regia on Friday (CNS)

Pope Francis addresses diplomats in the Sala Regia on Friday (CNS)

Already, Pope Francis has simplified the papacy, probably in some ways which are irreversible. He and the concelebrating cardinals at his installation wore very plain white chasubles (Pope Benedict wore gold), and he has worn very simple – not to say, in one case, distinctly cheap-looking – Mass vestments since. When seated in the presence of various groups, he has replaced throne-like seating with a simple, white chair, and has lowered platforms so as to be more at the same level as his interlocutors. He has replaced papal red shoes by plain black ones. He will not be wearing the gorgeous red ermine-trimmed mozzetta worn by his predecessors. And so on.

Now, I want to be quite clear that anything that follows is meant to be more by way of self-criticism than criticism of Pope Francis. I am finding all these simplifications both challenging and uncomfortable. I like my popes gorgeously appareled, and also high and lifted up. I think that Pope Benedict’s evident partiality for a sumptuous papal style was by no means an indication of any lack of humility; it was an emphasis on the importance of his office rather than of the man currently occupying it. It also indicated his ideas on the liturgy, and of the urgent need for its resacralisation after the down-pulling and vulgarisation of the post-conciliar decades. I do not like Seventies-style sackcloth vestments, and hope that I am mistaken in noticing what is beginning to look to me like a taste on Pope Francis’s part in that direction. He has undoubtedly very simple tastes and a dislike of conspicuous expenditure. He always travelled to Rome by economy class, saying that the money for first class should instead be given to the poor. It is of course a splendid story that when told that his gear as a cardinal would cost over 500 euros, he bought the material and got his sister to make it up.

On the other hand, what about the loss of employment that would eventuate if everyone did it? Hilaire Belloc wrote that “it is the business of the wealthy man/to give employment to the artisan”; and though of course the whole point is that Archbishop Bergoglio was not a wealthy man, the funding could undoubtedly have been found from Argentinian Catholics who were, and would have been delighted to pay for his cardinalatial tat. I speak of course as a fool: and, as I say, I am not saying that in any of this Pope Francis is actually wrong. He is changing the style of the papacy in certain ways, some of which which make me uncomfortable: but perhaps I, indeed all of us, need to be made uncomfortable. I have to admit that as a died in the wool monarchist, for instance, I do rather mourn the loss of the papal tiara, so that what used to be a coronation is now simply an “inauguration” (the Archbishop of Canterbury is still “enthroned”). But I have no doubt at all that Pope John Paul I was absolutely right to do what he so irreversibly did. And so will Pope Francis be, in what he does.

There is no doubt that Pope Francis’s austerity is not a pose, a kind of PR operation, as various media luminaries seem to be suggesting. On Saturday a man called Peter Watson asked “Is Pope Francis serious about helping the poor? He appears to be a humble man and seems keen to appear a humble man” (my italics). Why the slightly ironic tone? Well, this Watson, described in his Wikipedia entry as an “intellectual historian”, once stated in an interview that “Religion has kept civilisation back for hundreds of years, and the biggest mistake in the history of civilisation is ethical monotheism, the concept of the one God. Let’s get rid of it and be rational.” So he’s not exactly a friend of the Pope or the Catholic religion.

He does, however, make a suggestion that one might think could be attractive to Pope Francis, though I hope he doesn’t think of it and that if he does he won’t do it. “Since his election,” says this Watson, “[Pope Francis] has said that he wants ‘a poor church, for the poor’…. The new Pope’s Church needs a bold, breathtaking and above all redemptive gesture that will point it firmly in the direction of the poor and carry conviction that it is changing. There is one reform above all others that could claim our attention and respect. I propose that Pope Francis sells off the Vatican’s art collection and devotes the proceeds to the benefit of those who most need help… glorious achievements of the age of faith such as Michelangelo’s Pietà (c 1500), Raphael’s Coronation of the Virgin (1502-1503) and his Transfiguration (1518-20), Leonardo’s St Jerome (1481), Bellini’s Burial of Christ (after 1430), Titian’s Madonna de San Niccolo dei Frari (1523), are listed, as well as many others as well.” Watson reckons the Vatican could get $17 billion for its art treasures. Good copies could be substituted, he says, or gaps could be left on the walls to emphasise the sacrifice.

And how far does he think even such a sum as $17 billion would go in ridding the world of poverty? 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 Michaelangelo’s Pietà: a simpler but a less spiritually powerful place. And surely, the idea of those great religious works hanging in the houses of rich men for their private amusement is deeply unattractive. Even Watson says that part of the point of the Vatican is its art, “glorious achievements of the age of faith”: and the point of that, surely, is that that massive accumulation of artistic achievement is an evidence not merely of the spiritual power of the idea of faith but also of the truth of its objective content. It all reminds me personally of my own moment of conversion from atheism, or at least of its effective beginning: standing in the nave of York Minster one day, looking up, I suddenly had to ask myself if it was really possible that a building so glorious, so sublime, could have been based on a lie: and if it could not, then the existence of the God who had inspired it had to be seen as possible and even probable.

There are some irreversible actions which cause lasting damage: others which are both good and necessary. I have no doubt at all that Pope Francis, with the guidance of the God whose representative here on earth he undoubtedly is, will know the difference. And that Michaelangelo’s Pietà will remain immoveably where it is, and where it was always meant to be.

  • Daniel_Borsell

    So you think the children should suffer for the actions of their parents? Very nice!

  • Ignatz

    I don’t know about the Vatican, but that’s EXACTLY who is in the beautiful churches of New York’s Upper West Side, and yes, they do love the beauty. It’s about the only beauty they get. And the churches ALSO have soup kitchens. You nourish the WHOLE person.

  • C_monsta

    and in Angola? or North Korea? or Kyrgyzstan? or the Congo?….

  • PWC

    If it is a ‘spritual’ organisation the Church should not concen itself with historical patrimony.

    There wasn’t any treasures in the stable in Bethlehem.

    Is the Catholic Church happy to continue to go in directions that cannot be reconciled with the teachings and actions of Christ.
    A true Christian church would not need to be propped up by such earthly wealth and material goods.

    When you’re looking for an excuse for hypocrisy historical patrimony is as good as any though.

  • C P

    More to the point should the question not be – Where are the street children’s neighbours?

    Clearly you do not consider yourself one.

    Judgement is easy, as is unsupported generalised claims about most of the children in the U.S. – would you care to share or cite your sources?

  • C P

    Historical patrimony is not the concern or the preserve of a spiritual organisation and the love of the poor should not be assumed and exploited in order to hoard wealth.

  • C P

    If your conditions are satisfied it makes sense. To you. And your example of Hitler means what exactly? How exactly does it justify your decision to judge?

  • C P

    The British Museum has over 2 million objects within it’s collection. A big number but clearly not countless. The British Museum has also paid for many of the objects it holds, often in accordance with the UK Treasure Trove Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme. I do believe the Elgin marbles should be returned regardless of whether they will be less safe and well looked after.

    However the British Museum has a very different role to play than the Catholic Church which is why it cannot be justified by this completely separate argument.

    Regardless of how the Vatican came by possessions, (some donated freely by Nazi war criminals obtained as the spoils of war to ensure safe exodus via ratlines, planned in the Vatican for example) they are now hoarding it – this can be checked with any dictionary. They are hoarding, have hoarded and will continue to hoard (verb) and the treasure constitutes a hoard (noun). Save your “quotation marks” and check your sources.

    The Vatican has a moral and spiritual obligation that Cultural Instutions do not.

  • C P

    And is a University not a spiritual organisation which purports to be based on the teachings of Christ – and as far as I know I don’t donate money to Harvard when I go to mass.
    What would Jesus do… if he went to Harvard

  • C P

    Also to get things into perspective – how is that valid or relevant? Does the Church have a moral obligation or not? Let’s decide that before we start judging everyone.

  • C P

    Why does the Vatican need to be compared to Universities, museums, royal familiesCountries and even banks to justify this hypocrisy?
    I have never heard a lecturer or head of state excuse their child abuse by stating ‘Priests do it’.

    The Church has a moral and spiritual obligation to lead us and to practice what is preached. It can choose to continue to ignore this obligation revel in hypocrisy.

    No idea at all what the Manchester Museum element of your story is intended to illustrate other than if these things were owned by a real museum people may be able to learn from them?

    Also if while on your knees ‘family silver’ is all you want to pray to the Holy Father for then maybe you need to consider your priorities.

  • Dr Falk

    Thank you Henry for your comments. I have wondered if Jesus ever returned in bodily form to the earth at the time of the Inquisition and saw the torture and killing of people what he would think – all done in His Name. I have also wondered what the Inquisition would have done to Him.

  • Henry

    I remember Pope John Paul 1 who only lasted about 33 days, I believe that this Pope deep down inside remembers him too, more than any other. As an aside though, I am not really a movie person but I watched a movie the other day entitled “The Mission” with Jeremy Irons. It is about the Jesuit missions in South America in the days of Alexander Vl and Isabella of Spain. When I finished watching the movie I thought of Pope Francis and Jesus The Christ and really deeply wondered what had gone wrong with the Church and if this was at long last an opportunity to have it corrected. How then is this to be done? He must open uo the Church for all to see, good, bad and ugly!

  • adios

    Catholic Church is a very large Charity institute, feeding the poor, aiding the sick, etc etc. now question is, What have you done to help the poor?

  • Adios

    the Church helped the poor, She always does, havent you heard of Charity works in the Catholic Church? the Church is FULFILLING Her spiritual obligations, question is, Are you?

  • adios

    yea, as if the Catholic Church is not helping the poor, wake up, how about you? what have you given to the poor? why not sell your house and give it to the poor? lol, you should practice what you preached too, cuz that would be hypocrisy if you dont.

  • Dr Falk

    Thanks Henry. I agree that honesty about what has happened is totally necessary. Like you I remember with great affection John Paul 1. His simple humble loving approach touched the Church and the world. Have a good weekend

  • tang

    I am agree with you 100%. I am Chinese and it’s the same in China. In China, most people can truly make a decent living but people waste their lives away in alcohol, prostitution, gambling and obsession with branded goods. The poor have opportunities presented but they are only interested in making the millions and billions in the blink of an eye. Gosto muito de seu pais e eu acho que ha dois Brasis dentro dum Brasil.

  • Cathy Smith

    I agree. The papacy should continue to be seen as it always has been. Pope Francis will make even Blessed Pope John Paul II look like a lover of riches and pomp.