A subject of both urban legend and plenty of nasty memes, the Catholic Church’s wealth and spending habits are frequently attacked. What is the Catholic church doing with all its money (besides paying off the Illuminati, and covertly running the world bank, of course)? I cannot go into much detail because, frankly, I don’t know (and neither do the folks making these vague complaints). Here are a couple considerations, though: one for the secular world in general and another for non-Catholic Christians who share its attitude.
The basic complaint from the secular world is that the Catholic church has billions of dollars that it wastes on things like beautiful places of worship when it could be feeding the poor.
First the numbers: The Catholic church does not release its budget, so it’s all something of a guess; but from my intensive two-minute internet search, it seems the Vatican’s annual revenues are around $350 million (which is basically equal to its expenses). Given that the Vatican is its own city-state, that does not seem too bad.
Catholicism’s total annual spending, however, is currently around $170 billion. That number may seem insanely huge, but such an intuition is mitigated by some comparisons. If this figure is correct, it is comparable to a large American company like General Electric who made the same amount in 2010. Further, Catholic institutions employ over 1,000,000 people – comparable to only half the employment of Walmart (which took in over $400 billion that same year). What is important, though, is not how much one brings in but what they do with it (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Did General Electric or Walmart give as much as Catholic charities did that year? I doubt it.
Yes, Jesus told the rich young ruler to give all he had to the poor, but that was to make a personal point to him (viz., that his riches were more important to him than following Jesus). Jesus told no one else to do this, and neither did anyone else in the Bible. And of course if all Christians gave all they had to the poor, it would simply be a trade of states – not a solution. Yes, the money made by selling a beautiful chair might help some people out – but then it would be gone. What we need to ask is how much wealth something generates, not just what it would be worth if sold (this sort of thing happens too, for example the Pope’s Harley was sold to benefit a soup kitchen!). A $10 million church would be worthwhile if it brought in $1 million annually for centuries. And that would save more lives than one short-term lump sum (helping the poor is just not that simple).
Finally, ignoring all spiritual aspects of the issue, consider simple economics. Giving to the poor requires wealth – something that is generated over time, not simply possessed. Right or wrong, those big beautiful Catholic churches draw a lot more people than do small ugly ones. More people, more giving. With over 1.6 billion Catholics in the world, each one need give only $10 a month to hit that $170 billion mark (not to mention all the Crusader gold the Vatican has hidden in that super-secret vault that everyone knows about). It is well known that Catholics contribute a LOT to charitable giving (in America they represent about half the total giving of the entire nation).
Example: people donated almost half a billion dollars to the American Red Cross to support Haiti after the 2010 eathquake, but after five years, NPR reports that “It’s difficult to know where all the money went.” Meanwhile, in just the first 3 years, Catholic Relief Services resettled more than 10,500 families, provided 10,000,000 meals, constructed over 10,500 shelters, gave 71,000 people medical care, employed over 11,000 people, removed almost 1,500,000 cubic feet of debris (much of which was recycled), and installed or repaired 2,397 sanitation facilities.
The basic complaint from the non-Catholic Christian world is that the Catholic church has billions of dollars that it wastes on things like beautiful places of worship when it could be feeding the poor.
Drive past your average Catholic church, and you will often notice a striking difference between it and its non-Catholic counterpart’s meeting place (if it even is a church building). Catholics obviously spend a good deal more than many (but certainly not all) non-Catholic groups in making beautiful church buildings. This leads many to wonder why that money is not going somewhere better.
Giving to the poor is indeed a very important part of the Christian life (e.g., Dt. 15:10; Prov. 14:31; Mt. 23) – but it is not the only good thing wealth can be used to accomplish. God demanded that his “house” be one of extravagant beauty even when it was only a box or a tent in the desert (Exodus 25-26). When Israel got its own land, the temple in Jerusalem was even more glamorous (1 Kings 6; 2 Chron. 3). No gyms or movie theaters for their “worship space”!
Interestingly, in the New Testament we find a very close analog to this modern complaint. It was made when Mary Magdalene “wasted” a jar of perfume anointing Jesus (Mt 26:12 ; Mk 14:8; Jn. 12) instead of selling it and giving the money to the poor. And guess who raised the complaint? Yeah, that would be Judas Iscariot. Ouch.
So this complaint often reflects an unbiblical notion of spending – but even if it didn’t, there would be a larger issue for non-Catholics.
An Uncomfortable Comparison
If the Catholic Church is wrong to spend so much money on their churches, then non-Catholic churches may be in an even worse position. How can that be, given that Catholics usually have far more luxurious buildings and accoutrements? The issue is that no matter how little a given non-Catholic church spends on itself, that amount must actually be multiplied many times over for a fair comparison. Here’s why.
Back to the numbers: The average salary of a Catholic priest in the United States is currently around $40,000/year – about the same as the average salary of a non-Catholic American pastor. While this figure is pretty normative for Catholic priests (who pocket only about half that salary), it can diverge wildly among non-Catholic pastors. The average Southern Baptist pastor makes over $65,000, and the average salary of a mega-church pastor is about 300% higher. If we include prosperity preachers, the numbers enter into the realm of the ridiculous. The amount of wealth spent on frivolity amongst many American pastors is simply sickening.
But even if pastoral income differences were not very dramatic, there’s the additional problem of competing churches. Whereas there is only one Catholic church per given population area, there can be (and usually are) numerous non-Catholic churches in the same area. For example, the little Southern Baptist church my family once attended was only one of over a dozen Baptist churches in the surrounding area. Now, even though we only had about 70 members, we had had two full-time pastors. If these other dozen churches were even close to our numbers, that’s over $1.5 million a year in pastor salaries alone.
And that’s just the Baptists! Given that there were plenty of non-Baptist churches around as well – many of which had multiple pastors plus other staff members and mortgages – the area support could easily reach several million dollars.
Let’s say the total number of churches in a given area is 25 (not hard to imagine – there are 4 churches less than a mile away from where I am sitting on the same road). Let’s also say that each of these churches supports only one average-salaried pastor (unlikely). If this were the case, then that area would spend a total of $1 million annually on pastor salaries alone. If each church had two pastors making average Southern Baptist wages, it would be over $3 million/year. Throw in a mega-church and you’re looking at $5 million/year easy.
Meanwhile, the area’s single “big fancy Catholic church” only had to come up with $40,000.
People can complain about the grandeur and beauty of Catholic worship, but at least these things are true:
- It’s biblical to make beautiful churches.
- Catholicism supports more education, healthcare, and charities than practically any other entity on Earth.
- Catholic self-spending is minimal compared to that of the combined thousands of other Christian groups.