Tuesday, March 19, 2013

John Allen on the Myth of the Vatican's Wealth

The Vatican is not the place of financial indulgence it is often made out to be. Allen does a great job explaining the reality. I've added emphasis to select elements and put my comments in red.
Given the magnificence of St. Peter's Basilica and the Apostolic Palace, the Vatican may seem a counterintuitive place to pursue the dream of a poor church. Some may expect the new pope to hold a fire sale in St. Peter's Square -- in a metaphorical sense following his namesake, Francis of Assisi, by stripping the place naked before starting anew. 
Such a program is, in truth, easier to applaud than to accomplish. 
To begin with, the legendary wealth of the Vatican is to some extent more myth than reality. The Vatican has an annual operating budget of under $300 million, while Harvard University, arguably the Vatican of elite secular opinion, has a budget of $3.7 billion, meaning it's 10 times greater. The Vatican's "patrimony," what other institutions would call an endowment, is around $1 billion. In this case, Harvard's ahead by a robust factor of 30, with an endowment of $30.7 billion. 
The Vatican bank controls assets estimated at more than $6 billion, which is nobody's idea of chump change, but most of that isn't the Vatican's money. It belongs to religious orders, dioceses, movements and other Catholic organizations, and is managed by the Institute for the Works of Religion to facilitate moving it around the world. 
Of course, these figures don't include the value of masterpieces of Western art housed in the Vatican, such as Michelangelo's "Pietà." The Vatican considers itself custodians of these items, not their owners, and it's a matter of Vatican law that they can never be sold or borrowed against. [Allen neglects to mention that this is due to a treaty with the Italian government. The Vatican is permitted its sovereignty, but only within certain boundaries. In fact, the EU would make it impossible for the Church to sell these goods--they are seen as part of the Italian people's patrimony.]. As a result, they have no practical value and are listed on the Vatican books at a value of 1 euro each. 
Aside from selling off the papal limo, which Pope Francis doesn't seem inclined to use, and baubles such as the crimson-lined mozetta, which he doesn't seem inclined to wear, it's hard to see immediately what he could jettison that would dramatically alter perceptions. 
Moreover, Francis was elected in part on a platform of overhauling the Vatican's bureaucracy in the direction of greater transparency, accountability and efficiency. 
Assuming he assembles a team of reformers, he'll need to make sure they have the tools to do the job. At least initially, that might require more money for Vatican operations rather than less...
In any event, it might help matters if the outside world could see the relatively Spartan settings in which most Vatican officials actually live and work as opposed to the resplendent backdrops used to stage public rituals. Simply by lifting some of the veils of secrecy, Francis might move a long way toward recalibrating impressions.
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