How rich is the Catholic Church? I answer by citing two facts which are on the public record. In 1978, the year of the three popes, the Vatican had to go into debt to Italian bankers to pay for the second papal funeral and the second conclave. Not a very impressive performance for an institution which according to hoary anti-Catholic bigotry possesses fabulous wealth. There was perhaps a time when the Church was truly rich (and that is another story), but the Reformation and the French Revolution ended that. Catholicism is property poor. What, for example, is the replacement value of St. Peter's in the Vatican? Who would buy it? How much income does it produce a year?

In fact, the votive candle offerings--its only source of income--barely pay for maintenance. And what would someone do with it if they purchased it, especially once they discovered it was a loss leader? Build condos over it?

What would one do with the Vatican museum? Maybe the Italian government could buy it as a station on the unfinished Roman metro line.

The Vatican's endowment is less than that of a mid-level American Catholic university. It necessarily lives a hand-to-mouth financial existence. It puts on a great show with its splendors and its ceremonies, but the wealth that paid for its splendors vanished long ago and it can barely pay for the ceremonies. Many authors have received fat book contracts to expose Vatican wealth and produced books which admitted there was little if anything to expose.

In the United States most large city archdioceses have their back to the financial wall because of the cost of maintaining inner-city Catholic schools as an alternative for the minority poor to the terrible public education, a work for which the Church receives little credit and much abuse. If all the deficit-funded Catholic schools were closed - something which would delight editorial writers and public educators - the archdioceses would ease over into the black. Indeed, Rome assigned Cardinal Egan to New York allegedly to clean up the "mess" which the late Cardinal O'Connor had created by his refusal to close losing operations. Now he has created his own mess which he can never clean up.

These facts provide a background to the noise made by those who proclaim that they are going to cut back on financial contributions to punish the Church for tolerating and apparently even promoting sexual abuse by priests. It would appear from the various surveys that most of these folk don't go to church regularly and don't contribute much to begin with. The rest of the Catholic population has a pretty good idea where the money goes and, while they would like to have more to say about how it is spent, are realistic enough to know that they would be cutting off their nose to spite their faces if they refused to contribute to the Church.

But let us assume that the narcissists are successful in their crusade to punish the church through its pocketbook. Who will they really punish? School children, especially those for whom a Catholic school in their neighborhood may be the difference between success and failure in their lives? The sick, the troubled, the lonely whom the various Catholic charities serve? The training of future priests? The elderly who would have to shiver at Mass in frigid churches on winter mornings and participate in darkness?

They might be able to take away the fancy homes in which many bishops live (in Chicago the Residence is about as warm and comfy as a Victorian funeral home) and force them to live in old rectories and ride in second hand cars. Such economies might trouble some bishops and might not be noticed by others. Not very good as "punishment" however.

I can see shutting down the collection to local parishes if the pastor is an insensitive and authoritarian jerk (and there are not a few such around), but even that would be hard on the school kids and their teachers.

Bishops don't make a lot of money, they don't get annual bonuses, their life style isn't affected by the success or failure of their annual fund raising campaigns. They don't have stock options or "golden parachutes." In most cases you can't really get at them by holding back your contribution, such as it may be. You punish other people though - the young, the elderly, the poor, the sick, the homeless, the lonely. If that sort of thing makes you feel good, go ahead and do it.

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