ROME – “The Vatican is rich!” “All these assets they have … why don’t they sell them to give the money to the poor?” These are just two of the statements that we frequently hear when talking about the wealth of the Holy See or in general of the whole Church. But is it really so? This is what Mimmo Muolo, Vatican correspondent for Avvenire – the newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ conference – tries to find out in his new book The Church’s Money: Fabulous richness and evangelical poverty.

The book dispels many stereotypes and sheds light on the many inaccuracies that, more or less in good faith, go around when people talk about the Church and money. Katholiek Nieuwsblad spoke with Muolo to understand where all the confusion comes from and what the truth actually is about the wealth of the Church.

Katholiek Nieuwsblad: When did you get the idea to write this book?

Muolo: It was last September, at a time when the Church was attacked on many fronts concerning its assets. For example, the eternal question was raised again why the Church in Italy is not obliged to pay taxes on its properties. At that time people were also discussing the fact that, by welcoming migrants, the Church benefited from the €35 [around $40] offered by the Italian state for each migrant. I noticed a lot of confusion going around in the media and online, and also the spread of fake news absolutely not corresponding to reality.

Why is there so much confusion regarding the wealth of the Church?

The confusion is mainly caused by ignorance. People do not understand or know about the actual structure of the Church. They don’t know that the several entities – the Vatican, dioceses, bishops’ conferences – enjoy great administrative autonomy. Therefore, people tend to mix up everything, with statements such as: “The Vatican is rich!” Secondly, this ignorance often goes hand in hand with a bit of bad faith, in the sense that those who want to attack the Church today are attacking it above all on two fronts: The economic and sexual scandals.

The first myth your book tries to dispel, is the relationship between the Church and the Vatican.

Not only are the Church and the Vatican not the same thing, but when using the word ‘Vatican,’ people mix up two very different entities: The Holy See and the Vatican City State. Furthermore, the ‘Vatican’ is also a fairly small segment of the entire Catholic Church present throughout the world, while in the collective imagination the ‘Vatican’ stands for everything. For instance, it is widely believed that the salary of priests is paid by the ‘Vatican’. That’s absolutely not the case. With the exception of those priests who work for the Holy See.

In fact, it is the bishops’ conferences that support the Vatican, not vice versa.

It is not the Vatican that is rich and maintains all the other entities. No, the Vatican is poor and is maintained by every bishops’ conference in the world. Just the other day, at the end of the general assembly of the Italian bishops’ conference, we heard that in 2018 the Italian Church donated four million euros [approx. $4.5 million] to the Holy See.

Few people know that in many years Vatican budgets are in the red.

Yes, because the Vatican has no gross domestic product. It has very limited agriculture, no industries, the tertiary sector produces very little. So, it maintains itself economically thanks to the donations of the dioceses and the faithful and thanks to a whole series of activities such as visits to the Vatican gardens or museums. Another form of support is the money received for the papal blessings, the proceeds of which go to the poor. For this reason, the pope wanted them to be distributed only by the office of papal charities – led by the well-known Cardinal Konrad Krajewski – halting the distribution of these blessings by local traders who could previously act as intermediaries and so obtain a percentage of the revenues.

So, the Church is not rich then?

Is the Church rich because it owns works of art? Or a lot of real estate? If the latter include the basilicas, the churches, the parish halls, the canteens of Caritas, these are assets that cost a lot of money, they do not generate money. There are only around 1,800 of these famous Vatican apartments, in Rome and Castel Gandolfo, and 60 percent of these are rented out to Vatican employees with a highly subsidized fee.

Furthermore, everybody looks at the money coming in, not at the money going out. There are so many charitable works. Caritas Italy, for example, distributes six million meals a day to the poor for free. There must be some expenses to be able to feed six million people every day!

We often hear people say: ‘There are all these works of art that the Vatican owns… why not sell them to help the poor?’

Because it is especially thanks to these works of art that the Vatican is able to help the poor. Much of Vatican City’s spending budget comes from the people visiting the Vatican museums, or St. Peter’s Basilica. But let’s assume we sell the Pietà of Michelangelo and give the proceeds to the poor. In reality this would be damaging to the poor, because by keeping Michelangelo’s Pietà and all the other works of art within the Vatican, they will generate much more money over a much longer period of time than by selling Michelangelo’s work of art and handing that sum over to the poor.

There is another interesting topic you’re clarifying in your book: Does the Pope earn a salary?

The pontiff also fulfills the role of head of state, so it would not be weird at all. Even so, the Pontiff does not receive a salary. He has what he needs for his livelihood and his mission, but nothing belongs to him. The evangelical detachment from worldly goods also gets manifested in this way. And this is true for all those who preceded Francis. Just think of the testament of St. John Paul II, in which was written ‘I do not leave behind any property.’ Or the fact that, Benedict XVI, author of books with millions of copies sold all over the world, leaves all the proceeds to the Holy See.

Do you believe that the figure of Pope Francis can contribute to the dispelling of the stereotype that the Church handles a lot of money from uncertain origin?

I think so. Pope Francis shows extreme sobriety both in clothing and in personal behaviour – he carries his own bag, goes out on his own to buy a new pair of glasses – and he is promoting a series of reforms that tend towards a rationalization of resources. His actions create a mentality that is spreading also to other bishops, parish priests and laymen. Although it needs to be said that in this case, he really is no different than his predecessors.

This article was originally published in the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad on June 14, 2019. It was translated for Crux by Susanne Kurstjens-van den Berk.

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