Note: I have posted one version of this text or another in various places previously.
Is the beauty in our churches and other institutions ultimately depriving the poor of something that is rightfully theirs?
Once here in Rome at the train station I was approached by a young man and his friend, who seemed to want to start a little trouble. They asked me the provocative question why the Vatican shouldn’t sell 80% of its possessions in order to help the poor in Africa. (I don’t know where they got the 80% number from – maybe it just seemed like a “reasonable sacrifice” to them.) Whether they had a prejudice against the Church or not, I don’t know – after all, the question could also be asked in response, Why shouldn’t the Italian state liquidate all of its priceless museum holdings for the same purpose? In any case, it was not a new question to me. Sadly, I’ve heard it many times.
The question presents a proposition that is perhaps initially appealing. There is a certain facile logic to it. But when we dig into it a little more, we see how superficial it really is.
“The poor, you always have with you.” – John 12:8
We can start to answer this question by asking some of our own: After we sell everything we have and buy food for the poor with the proceeds, then what? What happens when they get hungry again? What happens when a new generation of poor is born? I suppose the answer is: then the people that bought all of the stuff will be obligated to sell it and give the money to the poor. And so on, ad infinitum… Oh, but there’s another way we can approach it: Why should the Church have to sell its stuff? Shouldn’t the people with the money give it to the poor instead of buying works of art?… You see how the original question isn’t quite as facile as it might first seem.
We can also go deeper into the issue.
First, we could raise the point that it was often poor people who made heroic sacrifices to build the churches that now stand as treasured monuments of beauty in so many places throughout the world. Apparently they thought that God should be given their best and finest, even as they themselves went without. The gospel passage about the Widow’s Mite comes to mind (Mark 12:42-43).
Second, if the Church did not patronize the arts and foster beauty in our world, it would deprive the poor of a great consolation. Consider the fact that all are welcome in the Church; that each Sunday – sitting in the very same pew – there could be a famously wealthy person, and not far away, a person wondering how he will feed his family that day. In the Church we all stand before God as equals, as his sons and daughters; we are all children of the King and have access to the royal palace. The fact that beauty is a consolation in a difficult world is self-evident, and to rid our churches of beauty would make an already-difficult life even harder to bear for the destitute and suffering.
Third, people who ask this question need to be challenged to examine their own standard of living. It is easy enough to point fingers, especially at an institution as conspicuous as the Church. But to the person who poses the question, I ask in return: How are you living? Do you have a comfortable home? Do you have luxuries? What sacrifices of your own resources have you made to support the poor? It is often the case that the person is pointing while forgetting about the three fingers pointing back at him or herself.
Fourth, at what point did we start looking at artwork and beautiful things and seeing dollar signs? Is this not a terrible commentary on our modern culture, that we see everything as a commodity? Beautiful things that are to be enjoyed because of their beauty stand as a reminder to us that there is far more to life than money.
Finally, to claim that the beauty and expense of our churches deprives the poor is to forget or ignore that the Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world. With her network of hospitals, shelters, crisis pregnancy centers, Catholic Charities, centers for assistance, and so forth, the Church provides a plethora of services daily to millions of people throughout the world. We must always do more: we must always be more generous in sharing the love of Christ and reaching out to those in need. Pope Francis has recently reminded us so many times about this. But it does not mean that to help the poor we must make the world an ugly place in the process.
After all, isn’t heaven going to be beautiful? Isn’t the Church preparing us now on earth so that we can spend eternity in that beautiful heaven? All of the beauty of this world combined does not compare with the beauty of heaven: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). The beautiful things of this world open our souls to the Lord more and more – they “warm us up”. So that at the end of our lives, please God, all of us – rich and poor alike – will see him face to face in the glorious beauty of heaven, for ever. Amen.