ROME – When James Joyce used the phrase “here comes everybody” to describe the Catholic Church, he wasn’t kidding. The glorious, and also maddening, thing about Catholicism is that it contains both everything and the logical opposite of everything.
Two headlines on Crux yesterday make the point anew: “Amazon bishops pledge poverty,” alongside “Leaked documents detail $200 million Vatican deal for swanky London property.”
On Sunday morning, roughly 40 bishops taking part in the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon trekked out to the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome in order to renew a pact originally signed at the Second Vatican Council in 1965, pledging themselves, among other things, to a “happily sober lifestyle” in contrast to what they called an “avalanche of consumerism,” vowing to live in a manner that’s “simple and in solidarity with those who have little or nothing.”
On their way to the signing, however, they may have seen a feature article in the Italian news magazine L’Espresso based on leaked Vatican documents that detail the fashion in which the Secretariat of State, possibly in violation of the Vatican’s own norms on financial transactions, ended up owning a former Harrod’s warehouse in the swanky London district of Chelsea destined to be converted into luxury apartments.
So far, five Vatican employees have been suspended in an investigation of the affair while the commander of the Vatican gendarmes, Italian layman Domenico Giani, was compelled to resign due to leaks of the details of that same investigation.
What the ironic juxtaposition of the two stories on the same day illustrates is a chronic confusion within the Church about what an “option for the poor” actually means.
One way of interpreting it is that the Church ought to shun worldly wealth entirely, in which case the sort of wheeling and dealing captured in the L’Espresso article by Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi would be completely out of place.
On this theory, money is the root of all evil and the role of the Church is to renounce it, embracing instead a simplicity of life that allows it to speak credibly as a tribune of the world’s poor because its leaders are living the same life as the oppressed persons on whose behalf they claim to speak. That was the sense of the “Pact of the Catacombs” renewed on Sunday by the bishops taking part in the Amazon synod.
In his homily at a Mass at the catacombs preceding the signing of the pact, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes defined money as the driving force of “everything that is evil today,” including, he said, war and violence.
Another way of interpreting the “option for the poor,” however, would be that the Church ought to maximize its return on investment so that it has the greatest resources possible to devote to its charitable and spiritual aims.
This conception of what a “poor church for the poor” means might be thought of as the “Paul Marcinkus” model, for the late American archbishop who served as president of the Vatican bank from 1971 to 1989 and who was apocryphally credited with saying, “You can’t run the Church on Hail Mary’s alone.”
If that’s the standard, then in all honesty the financial maneuvers detailed in the Fittipaldi article Sunday perhaps aren’t scandalous at all, except in the procedural sense that confidential reports of a Vatican investigation ended up in an Italian news report.
For anyone who knows the ways of the world, $200 million probably isn’t an outrageous sum to acquire a substantial chunk of property in one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets. Assuming the intended renovations actually occur and the projected 50 or so luxury apartments on the Chelsea site materialize, it’s not unreasonable to project that the Vatican could double or triple its investment over time, despite the short-term impact of Brexit on property valuations.
If so, that would represent an additional $400 million to $600 million that the Vatican theoretically could use for charitable purposes. Given that the estimated cost of wiping out hunger in Africa is $5 billion, that could be a ten percent down payment on ending one of the world’s most persistent humanitarian scourges – assuming, of course, that such are the ends to which the revenues from these sorts of transactions are put.
When Australian Cardinal George Pell, who’s now facing his final appeal of a sex abuse conviction in his native country, was the Vatican’s financial czar, this was his vision of “reform.” He wanted transparency, certainly, but he also wanted the Vatican’s investment portfolios to perform at the level of the best international models out there, drawing additional resources from Catholic entities all over the world who would be attracted by the returns being delivered.
What the collision of Sunday’s two headlines thus raises is the question of what, exactly, being a “poor church” actually means.
Does it mean bishops spurning luxury, rejecting the use of plastics and taking public transportation, as the new-fangled “Pact of the Catacombs” suggests? Or does it mean the Vatican making intelligent use of the considerable resources at its disposal, generating additional funds for its humanitarian scope?
Can it, perhaps, mean both? Such are the contradictions of Catholicism — a religion so vast, in the immortal words of Walt Whitman, that it contains multitudes.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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