Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Judas Iscariot Plan for Wealth Redistribution

Recently, comedienne Sarah Silverman posted a video where she rants about the pope, claiming that he ought to sell the Vatican. Uh, huh. Of course, that idea has been proposed many times before. Mark Shea hilariously calls it the Judas Iscariot Plan for Wealth Redistribution (pick up your dusty ol' Bible and go to John 12:3-8 to find out why).

A few Catholic blogs have already pointed out John Allen's excellent rebuttal to the Judas Iscariot Plan. Let me quote the pertinent part here:

In the public’s imagination, the Vatican is awash in priceless art, hidden Nazi gold, plundered treasures from around the world, and vast assets tucked away from prying eyes in the Vatican Bank. Reality is far more prosaic. To put it bluntly, the Vatican is not rich. It has an annual operating budget of $260 million, which would not place it on any Top 500 list of major social institutions. To draw a comparison in the non-profit sector, Harvard University has an annual operating budget of a little over $1.3 billion, which means it could run the equivalent of five Vaticans every year and still have pocket change left over. The Holy See’s budget would qualify it as a mid-sized American Catholic college. It’s bigger than Loyola-Marymount in Los Angeles (annual budget of $150 million) or Saint Louis University ($174 million), but substantially less than the University of Notre Dame ($500 million).

The total patrimony of the Holy See, meaning its property holdings (including some 30 buildings and 1,700 apartments in Rome), its investments, its stock portfolios and capital funds, and whatever it has storied up in a piggy bank for a rainy day, comes to roughly $770 million. This is substantial, but once again one has to apply a sense of scale. What the Holy See calls “patrimony” is roughly what American universities mean by an “endowment” – in other words, funds and other assets designed to support the institution if operating funds fall short. The University of Notre Dame has an endowment of $3.5 billion, meaning a total 4.5 times as great as the Vatican’s.

But what of the some 18,000 artistic treasures in the Holy See, such as the Pietà, that don’t show up on these ledgers? From the Holy See’s point of view, these artworks are part of the artistic heritage of the world, and may never be sold or borrowed against. Michelangeo’s famous Pieta statue, the Sistine Chapel, or Raphael’s famous frescoes in the Apostolic Palace are thus listed at a value of 1 Euro each. In fact, those treasures amount to a net drain on the Holy See’s budget, because millions of Euros have to be allocated every year for maintenance and restoration.

You see, not only does Silverman somehow ignore the centuries of world history showing how much the Church cares for the poor, she doesn't even realize just how pointless it would be for the Vatican to sell most of its property. There is a difference between the genuine love for the poor that the Church has continuously manifested from the start, and the foolish iconoclasm of throwing away religious art for temporary financial relief. But of course, what else can we expect from Silverman, who worships the cult of Differently Different and Shockingly Shocking and Totally Radical Radicalism that is so very popular among the oh-so-very modern moderns of today*?

Oh wait, blindly following the fashionable fads of our Modern Moral Superiors contradicts the concept of Being Different? Oh, pish posh!

In the end we have to look back at the first person who suggested this supposedly charitable plan almost 2000 years ago. The Gospel of John says that Judas whined about expensive oil being wasted in the adoration of Christ instead of being "sold, with the proceeds given to the poor", not because he was particularly fond of the poor, but because he wanted to take the money for himself. If Silverman was truly moved, her heart bleeding and broken, for the plight of the less fortunate, then she would applaud the very real contributions of the Church in that regard. As it is, her actual reaction leads me to suspect that she, in her contempt for the authority of the pope, merely enjoys fantasizing about the pope going down, humiliated and exiled from his temporal base of power. And when the Vatican becomes open for looting, maybe then she could have one of the cooler Vatican treasures for herself and treat it as a status symbol.

I'd bet she thinks the Pieta would look nice in her back yard.

Edit: Let's not forget that the issue of selling the Vatican artwork is mostly a cultural issue rather than a religious one. As this article points out:

...suggesting that the Vatican should exchange its treasures for food in Africa is an impossibility due to international law...

In reality, he said, the Church "has the duty to conserve the works of art in the name of the Italian state." He affirmed, "It cannot sell them."

The prelate recalled an incident in the 1970s when a benefactor made a donation to renovate the Collegio Teutonico inside the Vatican, and the residence director wanted to give this person a small statue -- of a meager value compared to the others in the Vatican Museums -- as a gesture of gratitude.

The German benefactor had a lot of problems with the Italian state, as he was accused of taking goods that Italy was charged with safeguarding.

"In every country there are a lot of measures for the defense of works of art, because the state has a duty to maintain them," Cardinal Cordes added, noting that the Holy See treasures are also part of Italian cultural history.

* Who, incidentally, are mostly not very modern (in the sense of having new ideas), after all, since most of the arguments they proudly spout originate from very old heresies.