When the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered Deacon Lawrence to surrender the riches of the Church as tribute in A.D. 258, Lawrence arrived before the emperor at the appointed time with a parade of Rome’s poor and suffering, insisting these were the riches of the Church. Though he was summarily roasted to death atop a metal gridiron, he was right. The Church is rich, but not materially wealthy. Founded by Christ and comprised of saints and sinners, nobles and paupers, scholars and knaves, pragmatists and dreamers, the Church has provided the world with advances in art, science, medicine, law, education, and nearly every facet of Western Civilization. None of these advances is the patrimony of a single person or entity. They belong to the human race. It is, therefore, misguided to suggest that what belongs to humankind should be sold to anyone for the sake of providing relief to the poor and suffering.
Christians believe the poor deserve to witness the great accomplishments of human creativity. There is no fee to see Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. Have the poor no right to experience such beauty? And what of those poor who live far from the cultural treasures of Europe? Do the poor in South America, or Africa, or Appalachia have no right to see, without cost, the handiwork of great artists in the stained glass that decorates their churches, in the vestments worn by their priests, or in the sacred vessels from which even the poor receive Holy Communion? Do only the rich have the right to surround themselves with beautiful things?
To sell the “riches of the Church” provides only a temporary solution to the problems of hunger, poverty, and homelessness. Surely money raised by the sale of art and such would amass a vast sum by which to provide rice and clean water for a period of time, but what happens after the money and rice have both been consumed? What will be sold next? Luckily, the Catholic Church is on the forefront of the effort to assist in such situations, distributing millions of dollars’ worth of aid annually to those in most need throughout the world. Could individual Christians give more generously? Certainly. Does their failure to do so demand the sale of the human patrimony to individual collectors? Certainly not.
Allegations of Church alliances with Nazis and associations between Jesus and fanatical Jewish sects always garner attention, but they bear little resemblance to fact. It is fact, however, that the Catholic Church protected thousands of Jews during the Shoah and worked tirelessly, albeit secretly, to remove Hitler from power. It is also true that in his entire ministry, Jesus never alleviated the material poverty of a single person. Moreover, he went to his death wearing an expensive garment woven without a seam, and before that he allowed himself to be anointed with costly oil by a repentant woman in spite of his betrayer’s suggestion that such expensive items could be sold and the proceeds given to the poor.
It is appropriate and necessary to place the best mankind can offer at the service of the worship of God. Art, vestments, buildings, and all manner of these “riches” give due honor to God and they acknowledge and revere the dignity of all whose eyes are permitted to fall upon them. Christians and all people have an obligation to care for the poor, and failure to do so is a serious sin. But to suggest that this feat is best accomplished by selling what rightly belongs to the whole human family is as misguided as were Judas, Valerian, and all those who have claimed the same from the Church’s foundation.