Pope Francis's election has reignited the old chestnut that the Church should get rid of her possessions, in particular her art, and give the money to the poor. This suggestion tends to pop up a great deal, particularly among critics of the Church. Well, William Oddie of the Catholic Herald has his view on the question and it is well worth reading. It is a view I would largely agree with. However, I think I'll explain my position lest I be accused of not loving the poor.
First of all if the Catholic Church was an organisation that simple horded wealth and did not help the poor, then certainly the suggestion would be one to take seriously. However, she is one of the largest charitable organisations in the world (if not the largest). Every year the Church and her many organisations spend billions on care for the poor. Millions of her members are dedicated to working with the poor, and all of her religious, regardless of the particular charism of their congregations, engage in some form of charitable work usually making sacrifices to do so. These same religious often work without pay, and those who do get a wage for their work go far beyond what is required. The Church cares for Catholics and non-Catholics - she seeks to help anyone who needs help, she makes no distinction - she simply sees the need and responds to it as generously as she can.
In this the Church does more than her critics in her work. Indeed she usually ends up caring for those that society rejects or polite and sophisticated society does not even see. Most of her work is hidden because she does not want to draw attention to her charitable organisations, except when she is trying to raise money for her poor. Someone estimated that the Vatican would get $17 billion for her art: a mere drop in the ocean: that sum would not feed all those in the Church's care for long.
Secondly, one has to ask the question - does the art serve a purpose in the Church? Well, if we are concerned with mere financial matters, the answer is yes. The Vatican art collections raise money for the Church's mission. Like every other organisation the Church needs an income - she cannot exist on fresh air. Now the excessively pious may suggest that she should rely on God's providence, and she does, but we need to ask the question: how does God's providence work? Does God shower money down from heaven every morning like the manna in the desert? No, he doesn't. He will inspire people to help through donations, but he will also provide the means for the Church to raise money herself. But God also expects the Church, as he expects all of us, to earn our keep simply because he does not want us to become loafers. Laziness and expecting continual handouts is not the Christian way: the Church has to earn money too. So how? Many ways. One of them is to take the gifts of art which benefactors have given to the Church down the centuries and put them in a museum and charge tourists a fee to see them: that fee is income which will help the Church in her mission, pay the wages of those she employs, pay various bills that come up and then, with what's left over, help the poor.
If the Church did not have this income, then she would rely even more on our donations. So next time a Catholic says the Church should sell everything and give it to the poor ask them how much they personally contributed to the upkeep of the Church - how much did they put in the Peter's Pence envelope. When I ask that question, people tend to decline to answer and the conversation is quickly changed, or ended all together.
A third point, and an important one. In yesterday's Gospel we read of St Mary of Bethany's anointing of Jesus. As the fragrance of the ointment filled the room we hear that Judas was complaining - he saw the adoration but could see it only in financial terms. So too with the critics - they see art and they only see money. In their eyes, it seems, the artistic patrimony of the world is about money, and perhaps only those with money can own these works. Working with artists and learning from them I see that while they need to eat and live, ultimately their work is not about money - it is about things much more transcendental. It is about expression and exploration; it is about God and humanity; it is about beauty and suffering. These are things beyond finance - to reduce art to objects to be bought and sold is to diminish it - the real place of art, ultimately, is not in an auctioneer's gallery, but in a public one where people can come and experience it; where they can listen to what the artist is saying, and to learn something about God, the world and ourselves. To see art in terms of money is to be another Judas who not only betrayed Christ, but betrayed basic humanity in selling that which was beyond price. W. B. Yeats used to call such people "philistines".
In preserving her artistic works - many of which are gifts, the Church first of all seeks to give glory to God - many of the works are actually artistic works of praise. She also wishes to encourage the work of artists and ensure that this means of expression continues - hence she commissions works (in doing so she helps artists earn a livelihood - many artists are poor too). The Church also wants to ensure that these works are available for people to appreciate regardless of their financial status. When you listen to artists speak about their work it is obvious they do not want their pieces to be hidden away in the private collections of the rich - and that's where Michelangelo's Pieta and various other works would end up if the Vatican sold them. The rich should not have a monopoly on the world's art - just because they have money doesn't mean they can become the sole possessors of beauty. Too often beauty is seen as the preserve of the wealthy, and ugliness the inheritance of the poor. The Church does not believe that: beauty is for all. Too many works of art are hidden away in the mansions of the rich, at least the Vatican holds her works so all the world can see them.
And while I'm on the point - should our churches be beautiful? Often connected with the demand that the Church sells her art, is that our churches are too resplendent - they should be plainer, dare I say, uglier? We are told that our beautiful churches offend the poor. I think this reveals an existentialist problem: some cannot cope with beauty, or at least beauty in the service of God. We are told that authentic, honest worship of God is naked, bare, unadorned. Well if that is the case, then our worship would be inhuman, because it is in our nature to offer what is beautiful to those we love. If we love God, then God's house will be a place of beauty, where we praise by our words, our actions and our works - and our artistic works would be included as works of praise. If we resent making our places of worship beauty, then we are envious of God: we do not want to give him what we want to keep for ourselves. Remember, during the Reformation as the reformers denuded the churches to make them less Catholic, less "ornate", we can ask: Where did the art and precious vessels go? Straight into the homes of the rich and powerful: they took the beautiful things from God's house in the name of reform and put them in their own. So much for spiritual renewal; I'd call that stealing. And what about the poor? Well, with no monastries to help them and the Catholic Church persecuted, they ended up on the streets.
No, the Church should keep her art, and she will continue her worldwide mission helping the poor and outcasts: it's not either/or, but both.