Vatican Wealth

Someone asked me to respond to this question that zen-spirit posted last night:

Here’s what I don’t get - Vatican City has a ton of gold and silver and stuff. Why not sell some of it to help people in third world countries and such? I get that there are already quite a number of hospitals and outreach programs, but Rome could do so much better.

I mean look at the Pope, he might teach people about self-sacrifice, but what has he got to lose? Event though Rome may donate millions to those who are suffering, the fact that he is not really losing any of his luxuries makes him out to be a hypocrite. The way I see it, sacrifice is about giving despite what you have, not any excess of what you have.

I keep stating this point to Roman Catholics, but no one seems to have an answer. Why is this so?

As a sort of joke, since I had been hearing so many myths about this, I wrote a quaestio disputata in the medieval style maybe 5-6 years ago or so to answer this. (I just updated a couple numbers now, but if something doesn’t say “in 2009” or “in 2010,” you can assume that this data is from around 2003 or so. It’s partly drawn from a book by John Allen.)

Is the Vatican fabulously wealthy?

Objections

1. It seems that the Vatican is fabulously wealthy. It is full of priceless artistic treasures, some of which were built with the sale of indulgences.

2. Moreover, the Vatican’s annual operating budget is $260 million. That is a lot of money.

3. Further, the Vatican’s properties are worth $770 million. That is even more money.

4. Again, the Vatican runs an annual world fundraising campaign.

5. Again, the scandals of the Vatican Bank in the 1970s and 1980s reveal that it is managing an enormous amount of money.

Sed contra:

The Holy See spent 23 consecutive years in the red, from 1971-1993.

Respondeo dicendum quod:

The Vatican’s wealth is extremely modest for its size and needs. That’s why only a minimum of Vatican officials get to work in rooms decorated by Raphael. Personnel of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Council of the Laity end up working in an anonymous bureaucratic space that might as well be in the Pentagon or General Motors. While there are a few black Mercedes limousines to ferry VIPs to and fro, and some cardinals do have fairly nice apartments, most offices are sparsely furnished and rather low-tech, living quarters are plain, and salaries for most officials are strikingly low by First World standards.

Answers to the Objections

1. The Holy See considers these artworks part of the artistic heritage of the world, which may never be sold or borrowed against. In fact, they are a financial liability, since their protection and upkeep costs millions of euros each year, and it would be impossible to sell a literally priceless property like St. Peter’s Basilica.

2. The budget would not place the Vatican in the top 500 of major social institutions. Harvard University has an annual operating budget of a little over $1.3 billion, 5 times more than the Vatican. Microsoft Corporation did $297 billion in sales last year, 1140 times more than the Vatican’s budget. The budget in fact places the Vatican in the range of mid-size American colleges.

3. The word “patrimony” in Vatican terminology means “endowment” in American college terminology: funds and other assets designated to support the institution if operating funds fall short. The University of Notre Dame has an endowment of $3.5 billion, 4½ times bigger than the Vatican’s. 

4. The Peter’s Pence collection (which raised $67 million in 2010) goes entirely to support the Pope’s charities, mostly emergency relief worldwide. In contrast, the Salvation Army was able to spend $3.1 billion in 2009.

5. The Vatican Bank, which is not even owned by the Holy See, manages $3.5 billion in annual assets, but as in any bank, these assets belong to the depositors. Profits and dividends from the bank go to the Holy See, but even presuming a substantial rate of return, the bank might produce $3.5 million each year, precious little for offsetting operating costs.

More specific concerns of yours:

The Pope, even though he’s surrounded by fabulous works of art, lives a very simple lifestyle and has a work schedule that would drive most of us into the ground… and he’s 84! He doesn’t really “have” any of that stuff personally. Don’t forget that if Joseph Ratzinger had asked insistently to be allowed to retire and go live in Germany, it was for a reason!

Because many of the Vatican’s great works of art are tied up in the Vatican Museums, the Museums can generate most of the Vatican’s income, but even that is very modest. The Vatican’s finances were finally in the green last year, but in the red in 2009. Also, the upkeep and constant refurbishing of so much artwork is such a job that the Vatican has a separate organization just to raise money for it. Otherwise it wouldn’t happen.

Besides, you can’t sell any of that art anyway. It’s world patrimony stuff, and it would be illegal under Italian law to take it outside of the country (and probably even to melt it down to sell the gold leaf that some things are coated with).

By the way, I’ve seen some of those Vatican offices personally, and I can tell you that I’d rather work in the office I have than those! Most of them are off-site anyway, in drab and cramped office buildings in the city of Rome proper, not in the Vatican itself.

Hope that helps. God bless!

- Father Shane

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