Should We Sell Vatican Art and Give the Money to the Poor?

luca-giordano-le-bon-samaritain_i-G-50-5080-LYZ2G00ZIs this the Franciscan message? On the final Monday of Lent, Mass at Thomas More College was celebrated by one of the monks from St Benedict’s Abbey in Still River. It is always a pleasure to have them here because they celebrate Mass and chant the Latin so beautifully. Beyond this, their homilies are always interesting and stimulating.

The gospel passage on this occasion was about Martha and Mary: Martha tended to the guests and Mary washed Jesus feet with expensive nard, a fragrant ointment. Unusually, (in my experience at any rate), the homily spoke not so much to the contrast between Martha and Mary, but between Mary and Judas. It was the latter who suggested that the money spent on nard would have been better given to the poor. Here was a lesson about allocation of resources.  Mary made the right choice, we were told, in choosing Christ even before giving to the poor. Then an even more interesting point was made. There is an equivalent choice facing us today every time we have to decide about having beautiful churches and art, intricate vestments, ornate jewel-studded chalices and so on. Is it right to direct money to these things when there is poverty? The answer is yes when these things, through the liturgy, elevate the souls of the faithful to Christ and this is greater than giving to the poor.

However, in order to understand how this can be so, some additional points must be made. First is that there is a point beyond which spending money on ornamentation of churches would constitute extravagance. But provided that point has not been reached then spending money on that nobler end, it is not asking the poor to make a sacrifice either. The first point is that all of us, rich or poor, can go to church and need our souls saving, so the poor benefit from this spiritually as much as the rich do. Second, is that when we see the greater picture, the poor will benefit materially as well. It will inspire the rich to give to the poor directly. Further to that it will allow for the generation of greater wealth for the benefit of the poor. This is the principle of superabundance at work.

Johannes_(Jan)_Vermeer_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_Google_Art_ProjectIt occurred to me as I pondered on this afterwards that it is this last point that escapes so many people. Life is not a zero-sum game. Love is always fruitful – and when it is it invokes the principle of superabundance which means that something is created out of nothing.  The miracle of the loaves and fishes applies to wealth as well when we place Christ first. So inspiring holiness will not only cause people to give more of their wealth to the poor, it will also mean that love permeates all of their interactions to a greater degree, including economic ones. As a consequence, their attitude of being interested in the other will make their economic activity more superabundant. It is a double whammy! More wealth is generated to for rich and poor alike and those for whom it is generated are more inclined in turn to give to others who need it.

It is not surprising that this mistake should be made. Quite apart from consideration of the spiritual aspects of this, which require faith in order to be accepted, it is a basic principle of economics that seems to be beyond so many people who really ought to know better – right up to the level of finance ministers. Wealth is generated out of nothing through economic activity. It is superabundance that creates wealth. Once we realise this then it becomes obvious that tax policy, for example, will be effective if directed towards promoting wealth generation rather than only wealth redistribution.

It is also the reason, incidentally, that there is such fear about the availability of resources for the future that result in advocating population control, contraception and abortion. Without the realisation that man’s ingenuity, inspired by God, can invoke the principle of superabundance to allow greater things to emanate from less and less it is impossible to believe that we can live beyond the next generation.

siBasilicaSuperioreS_Francesco-viThink now of Pope Francis’s call to charity and the poor and his citing of St Francis of Assisi as a model. I claim no insights as to how the Holy Father hope to see this manifested, but his words have inspired me to think about how I might contribute to what he asks for. Certainly it is true that St Francis himself and the Franciscan order generally is known for their concern for the poor and the model they give of personal poverty. However, Francis was also told to rebuild Christ’s Church. He did both and he did both lovingly and beautifully. So many of the great artists from the time of Francis were third order Franciscans or worked for them at the very least, and they were great innovators – Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Raphael, Michelangelo. They were contributing to the building of great and beautiful churches and this is evidence, I would say, that points to strong belief in the value of the liturgy. Furthermore, these were innovators who were contributing the creation of a whole new culture of beauty, which through a greater appreciation of nature also fostered huge progress in natural science that generated material wealth for society. All of this is consistent with these twin aims of rebuilding the Church and caring for poor. When you rely on God you tap into the infinite. Inspiring people, rich and poor alike to come closer to God will create benefits in every area of our lives.

So it is only those who have a limited either-or mentality in regard to these things who would interpret a call to help the poor as one that also diverts money away from the support of beautiful churches and liturgy.

There is one argument for less ornate and simpler decoration in churches that is valid. That is one put forward by St Bernard of Clairveaux. If the beauty of the church is so alluring that it acts to distract us from Christ, then it is problematic. If you want to know if this applies to you…then ask yourself when you close you eyes: does your imagination takes you to somewhere lower that the art of the churches, or somewhere higher and closer to heaven. If you naturally think of things lower, then beautiful art in churches is beneficial to you. Those who are hindered by beauty in churches are exceptional. Bernard who was a lot higher up the spiritual slopes than most of us was clearly someone for the problem was the opposite. The imagery of the church was lower than the natural place of his imagination, and so were a distraction to him. I am happy that the Franciscans had a charism that meant they were more directly engaged with people beyond their own order and outside the confines of their communities and built churches to elevate the souls of the spiritually weak, such as me.

So please, keep everything in Rome…except for the ugly concrete buildings and abstract garish stained glass windows from the 1960s, you can sell those…if anyone will buy them.


David Clayton


David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at

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  • rich J

    What about the treasures that get stored away? Never to be seen by anyone what value is that?

  • ichosefrancis

    They are a part of church history so it has value. If we were to sell “treasures” and give the money to the poor and they were feed, clothed etc for days, months, years, what happens when the money is gone Yes they have been poor for that time but eventually the poor will become poor again and the cycle begins again.

  • Consider the amount of money — $1 trillion — that has been spent on welfare in the U.S. What has it accomplished? The poverty rate has remained the same and many of the families receiving welfare are, uh, dysfunctional, to put it mildly.

  • Richard III

    I think treasures like that in the Church are far less common than the treasures out in the open for all to see and enjoy.

  • Joseph

    Let’s hope Pope Francis won’t borrow a page from the Anthony Quinn movie “The Shoes of the Fisherman”, at least the ending.

  • There’s either a conceptual or a grammatical problems with this passage. At least I’m confused:

    “…when you close your eyes: does your imagination takes you to somewhere lower that the art of the
    churches, or somewhere higher and closer to heaven. If you naturally
    think of things lower, then beautiful art in churches is beneficial to
    you. Those who are hindered by beauty in churches are exceptional.
    Bernard who was a lot higher up the spiritual slopes than most of us was
    clearly someone for the problem was the opposite. The imagery of the
    church was lower than the natural place of his imagination, and so were a
    distraction to him.”

    When I close my eyes does the art remind me of heaven and take me there, or do I despise the art because my imagination of heaven is more brilliant than the art? I think, David, you meant the latter, but usually art, in the mind of the observer, does the former. You might want to clarify.

    I greatly appreciate your description of this problem of “selling the oil” and giving the money to the poor. I recently defended the Gaudi Cathedral, Sagrada Familia, in Spain. Pudits were suggesting that the money for building the Cathedral be better spent by giving it to the poor. (Judases all.) I’m sure they were blindsided by the fact that indeed that is what happeniing: The potentially poor were paid wages to build the cathedral, and thus avoided poverty…for hundreds of years it took to be built. Further, the simple existence of this fabulous structure attracts millions of dollars a year to Barcelona and those tourist dollars support businesses in the area that would be povertry stricken without the attraction. And lastly, as you pointed out that Sagrada Familia inspires us to think of God and obey him, so we give money to the Church which in turn gives it to those most needy. Sagrada Familia has been and is a money generator that both keeps people out of poverty, and supports those still in it.

  • Clement_W

    Hasn’t it always been easier to give away something that belongs to someone else and easy to ignore the fact that the gifts of the pious believers throughout the history of the church was given to ALL of us? Just because we are stingy in our individual and personal works for the poor, having outsourced our charity to a king/president/tax collector, should we forget what the poor widow’s mite meant to her?

  • Clement_W

    The treasures that have gotten ‘stored away’ are still gifts given to the church in KIND. The treasure given in CASH is being spent and has been. Is there corruption, foolishness and ill-conceived expenditures of this CASH Treasure? Sure! Aren’t we all sinners and bad stewards of others’ belongings and of even our own children’s patrimony?

  • RAB

    It’s not just the superabundance, which is truly there. God, in the Old Testament, ordered very elaborate use of gold and other precious items in the building of the Holy of Holies in the desert. We have to remember that there is a greater reality than just this world and its comforts (ours and those of others). God is more important than the poor and our service to the poor should be only because of our love of God. And our service to the poor should definitely not be our primary goal; love of God and our relationship with Him is.

  • JCR

    I hope the Church is never so foolish as to let any of its great art go. As for those who prefer a very plain church, I have to say I am just the opposite. I grew up going to the church on the other side of town, which was traditional and beautiful, and which was an inspiration to everyone – just a tiny hint of the glory of God. Several years after being married in that church we moved to a new home and have been members there ever since. The church there was built in the mid-sixties, is quite plain, and doesn’t even have a crucifix, for heaven’s sake! We see one only when the altar boy carries it in at the beginning of Mass. It is also “art” from the sixties. It doesn’t give one a sense of the sacred. Most of the people, after arriving for Mass on Sunday, talk to one another while waiting for Mass to start. Not exactly conducive to prayer. The priest is a very nice man, and is getting close to retirement. Meanwhile, at the church where I grew up, they have a young, traditional priest who has all kinds of things going on and the parish is vibrant and alive with faith. I go there for Mass when I can, but my family seems to prefer the one we’re at now. Go figure!

  • Steve

    Perhaps those who criticize the Church’s practice of erecting beautifully ornate churches and possessing expensive works of art should lead by example and sell everything they own that doesn’t constitute a necessity, and sell the proceeds to the poor. I suspect more than a handful of the critics live comfortably enough that they’ve accumulated “creature comforts” and nice home decorations that they don’t technically need.

  • Juan

    That decision should be made by the Pope.Individually you may sell or give your
    possesions away.That would be up to you!

  • lightedlamp97

    I believe it was St. Francis who also said what good was two loaves of bread when can only eat one. Better to sell one and buy flowers so that the soul might be fed as well. The church has never spared expense for beauty. Why should we start now. This is another trick of Satan, he loves when God’s people erect churches in quansit temples. It diminishes God’s return in a bigger way, both in love and financial charity. Just like when we dine at a five star restaurant, does our tip not match our experience. Beauty raises our eyes first and then our hearts!

  • Daniel c Pierre

    The beautiful art and architecture in the possession of the
    church is serving the poor every day, just as a song or a beautiful piece of literature
    or any true creative pursuit.

    From a monetary standpoint it is the it is a pillar of strength
    for the economy in those areas creating millions of jobs with a flavor of timeless
    beauty if all wore sold to the wealthy there wood be worse poverty and not a
    thing to be thankful for. And you can be certain the wealthy would shift every burden
    tax or otherwise to the poor. It would be a state of depression indeed.