Should We Sell Vatican Art for the Poor?

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This actually isn’t a debate coming out of Rome these days (thankfully) but I write about it because most of you have heard this question from some family member or a person on a plane at one point.  Should we sell Vatican Art for the Poor?  Of course, my answer is “No,” but I want to give you some new answers for your friends.

1) The first great commandment comes before the second great commandment.  Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”—Matthew 22:37-39.  For the Christian and Jew, any debate must be framed within the universal call of worshipping God before helping people.  Both are good, but Jesus Himself gives the priority in Matthew 22 above.

2)  The Vatican doesn’t have as much money as you think.  Yes, the Vatican bank is in charge of $6 billion, but they don’t own it.  The Vatican’s annual operating budget is $300 million.  For a billion Catholics, that comes to 30 cents per Catholic.  In fact, the endowment of the Vatican is only $1 billion, where the endowment for Harvard University is $30 billion.  Considering there are only 30,000 students at Harvard, this means that there is an endowment for $1 million per current student.  No one is clamoring for their Cambridge campus to be sold!  Again, remember that the Vatican is operating a billion person organization on $300 million a year.

3) The poor deserve more than food.  A priest in Rome made my favorite point:  The poor of Italy have soul-needs just as much as they have bodily-needs,  and the Vatican has the rare gift of free art for the everyone to see with no admission price.  If we get rid of Vatican Art, where will the poor go to worship?  To see beauty?  To be inspired to seek God in their poverty?  Or do we just want to throw food at them and sterilize them?   Everyone has a need to live the transcendentals of the human soul (unity, beauty, goodness and truth.)  The poor need a place of free art, not just food.  Although the Vatican museum and the Sistine chapel cost to enter, Saint Peter’s square and Saint Peter’s basilica have an entrance that are gratis.

4) Judas and the body of Jesus.  Martha’s sister Mary actually spends an entire year of income to anoint Jesus’ body before He died!  Judas rebukes her in honor of the poor. Jesus then rebukes Judas: “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”  1 Remember that the center of St. Peter’s Basilica is the  Eucharist, the resurrected and living body of Jesus Christ, God among us.  If billions of faithful, poor Catholics over 2000 years have wanted to give their blood, sweat and tears to honor the very body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, who are we to overturn such a gift?  Only a modern day Judas would insist.  Indeed, since Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, then He deserves all the gold and honoring that humanity can muster.  St. Francis of Assisi said “Poverty stops at the altar.”  In other words, he believed priests should be personally poor, but that the accoutrements of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass should spare nothing.

5.  The conformity of the soul to the building of worship.  The nine-minute video below was made by a young evangelical Protestant pastor.  In it, he explains that a Protestant Church conforms the place of worship to the extreme comfort demanded by the post-modern Christian.  But the Catholic Church conforms the soul to God.  His analysis is humorous and astoundingly accurate, except for his one historical error of saying that the Orthodox Church is older than the Catholic Church 2  In any case, the video below is worth it!

 


  1. This event happens one chapter before the Last Supper in John’s Gospel:  Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pinta of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages. ” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.  “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”—John 12:1-6.

  2.  Primacy of place was given to the Church in Rome no later than 110AD by St. Ignatius of Antioch, the personal disciple of St. John the Beloved (who wrote five books of the Bible.)  St. Ignatius writes in 110 AD: Ignatius . . . to the church also which holds the presidency, in the location of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and, because you hold the presidency in love, named after Christ and named after the Father. (Letter to the Romans 1:1 [A.D. 110]) and You [the church at Rome] have envied no one, but others you have taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions may remain in force. (Letter to the Romans 3:1 [A.D. 110).

Colbert vs. Mother Teresa

In this short video, Stephen Colbert (comedian-turned-theologian) says “Faith ultimately can’t be argued; faith has to be felt.”  Let’s cut through his poor philosophy and consider reality:

1) Feelings are often no different from biochemical pleasures.  God uses feelings in all stages of prayer, but it is not central to the substance of the soul where the Blessed Trinity resides.  If faith must be “felt” as Colbert said, then where does that leave Mother Teresa who couldn’t feel anything for 60 years of prayer?  But false-positives abound, too:  If I drink an enormous Chemex hipster coffee and feel like a saint who could take on the world, did I just “feel” an increase in my faith?  Of course not.  That is because there is some correlation between good spiritual “feelings” and the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norephinephrine. That’s why we called coffee in seminary “liquid consolation.”  But we were joking.  Sadly, Colbert was not.  Back to neurotransmitters:  These reuptake mechanisms are also found in more intense pleasures (like cocaine.) So, “feeling your faith” doesn’t increase faith anymore than cocaine.  Even atheistic scientists will agree with me here:  Spiritual “feelings” are frequently nothing more than the release of biochemicals in the brain. I make no moral judgment against either feelings or pleasure here.  God created both and can affect both in prayer, but it’s not the central tenet of faith.

2) One’s opinion of truth is only as good as the evidence that one has to support it. Few doubt this truth in science, but if religion refers to truth, then this is true in religion also.  Regarding feelings and logic together, Colbert does admit that “they do not defy each other but complement each other. ”  He then says, “Logic itself will not lead me to God.”  This is partly true,1 but there’s a glaring omission in the above video:  The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical binary event (true or not true) upon which hinges our entire creed.  “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”—1 Cor 15:17.  Colbert inadvertently disparages the starting point of Christianity, namely, that the Resurrection and Divinity of Jesus Christ can be given some real evidence. Or rather, we can not prove that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but we can disprove the contrary with pretty air-tight historical arguments found in books like Kreeft/Tacelli’s Handbook of Catholic Apologetics.

For all the Social Justice Catholics that promote Colbert, we have to admit it’s ironic that Colbert puts the emphasis on feelings—something the poor don’t have the luxury of always enjoying in their daily walk with Christ.  The Christians being crucified by ISIS may not “feel” their faith, but they have a hope in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ based in a historical event.  But I guess feelings are good for a multi-millionaire hanging with the Jesuits of Manhattan.

Yes, for Colbert, “faith ultimately can’t be argued; faith has to be felt.”  In this philosophy, random biochemicals in the brain must take precedent over truth. Besides this conclusion being false for both Jesus on the cross (not good feelings but lots of truth) and St. Thomas Aquinas (who says very little of feelings and lots of truth) there’s actually another odd problem with Colbert Catholicism:  It’s the most boring version of Catholicism we have heard since the 1970s.  Almost all of my Gen-X friends raised by progressive-Catholic baby-boomers have left the Catholic Church.  Inclusive-Catholicism turned out to be exclusive-Catholicism, precisely because it was founded on the feelings of a few ex-hippies instead of the Truth.

Most normal people long for one of two ways of life:

Feelings=Pleasure=Religion of hedonism (max out on pleasure.)

or

Logic=Truth=Religion of Catholicism (max out on truth and love, but it hurts just a little on the way to heaven.)

At the end of the day, here are our best two options: An-unbridled-pleasure-fiend or a total saint.  I don’t believe in a middle-ground—practical or theological—where you get neither.

This isn’t to say that Catholicism is cold-cut syllogisms without any affections of love of Jesus Christ.  Nor does it mean that all pleasure is bad.   God made feelings and God made pleasure.  But at the end of the day, we have to decide if we’re going to live for feelings or the truth.  2

So, what is faith, then?  “Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.”—Heb 11:1.  Evidence means just that—evidence, as I wrote above in regards to the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ.  But if Colbert wants this at a more personal level, the word “faith” in Greek (πιστις) is actually also the same as trust.  It means a trust-of-life, not just a single statement of salvation.  It means daily decisions, not just a single act of consent of the intellect (Protestantism) or emotions (Colberism.)  You see, if faith is trust, then this includes loving and hard decisions in the body all day long, including chastity, for “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”—2 Cor 5:10.

Jesus rarely said “Believe in me.”  He frequently said “Follow me.”

Mother Teresa’s faith went deeper than both emotions and logic.  For 60 years she did not “feel her faith.”  Yet she got up at 3am or 4am to pray for two hours before her Eucharistic Lord and served Jesus in the poorest of the poor in the streets of Kolkata for decade after decade.  Mother Teresa was living trust in the body when the feelings weren’t there.  These were decisions she lived out in her body, and yet her emotions were so dark that she had to make constant acts of faith in God via her will—acts that were above and beyond the dark night of the soul that lasted a grueling 60 years.  This is a tough marriage to a Divine Spouse!  She often complained lovingly of her silent lover…

In fact, at the risk of scandalizing my readers, I’ll point out what she once wrote to a friend:  “Pray for me, pray that I may have the courage to keep on smiling at Jesus—I understand a little the tortures of hell—without God.”  I used the word “scandalized” because you should be surprised that Mother Teresa felt herself (not made herself, but felt herself) to be “without God.”  And yet, she made constant acts of faith—essentially hope against hope—of having no feelings of God, yet seeking Him anyway.

Since her death, many people who felt on the verge of suicide have since found strength in the ways of Mother Teresa.  People who had struggled their whole life with very personal sins and thought God abandoned them found hope in Mother Teresa.  Why?  Because, they reason,  if God loved Mother Teresa even when she couldn’t feel Him, then His love must still be there.  If God could love Mother Teresa as she was, maybe He loves me in my serious sin.  They are right.  And it is still His kindness that leads us to repentance.

In fact, in that same letter, Mother Teresa explained her suffering for the life of the world:  “I have no words to express what I want to say, and yet last First Friday—knowingly and willingly I offered to the Sacred Heart—to pass even eternity in this terrible suffering, if this would give Him now a little more pleasure—or the love of a single soul.”

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  1. St. Thomas Aquinas found this debate so important that it’s his very first response in his 3000 page “summary” of the Catholic Faith: “It was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.”—ST I.1.1 respondeo

  2. Colbert, if you ever read this, I’ll happily discuss this on or off the air in your studio.  Our mutual friend, Fr. Z (not the blogger), can hook us up.  

All Souls Day and Syria

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I have no intention of making this blog page a news source (much less a newsletter of personal prayer intentions) but I thought that today, All Souls, would be an important day to highlight the civil war in Syria. Today, I write a very short post to simply beg for your prayers on the behalf of 250,000 who have died.

St. Thomas Aquinas said that the greatest work we can do on earth is to pray for the dead, as I blogged about here.  It is good to visit the cemeteries and to pray for the repose of the souls of our loved ones, but our family is bigger than that; we can let the internet create a one-world order of evil or we can let the internet unite a one-world family by baptism and charity.

Right now, your family in Syria needs your prayers. The land of the Apostle Paul has recently seen 8 million ejected from their homes amidst torture and unspeakable pain.  A quarter million people have been killed, including the recent crucifixion and beheading of 11 Christian missionaries. Obviously the latter is surely in heaven, but satan is hard at work:

ISIS is predicted in the next couple days to attack a town of Christians called Sadad, about the last city in the entire world that speaks Jesus Christ’s own language of Aramaic. Imagine a group of Catholics who pray the Our Father in the same language that Jesus did. They are about to be killed and they depend on your prayers.  Let us pray for their protection, but if God allows them to join the army of white-clad martyrs, may they die “as sorrowful—yet always rejoicing, as poor—yet making many rich, as having nothing—yet possessing everything.”—2 Cor 6:10

Repost: The Greatest Work

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All Souls Day and all of November is the month to pray for the dead, so I decided to run my first “re-post” on this very topic.  (Don’t worry.  I have a new blog post coming out Friday called “Stephen Colbert vs. Mother Teresa,” and also don’t miss my recent commentary on New York Times’ Ross Douthat.)

Every Christian is called to do the “Works of Mercy,” upon which our final judgment will be based, as seen in Matthew 25: 1 Did you know that St. Thomas Aquinas considered one of them to be the greatest and most encapsulating? Before scrolling down to see the answer, see if you can guess which one:

The Corporal Works of Mercy are:

  1. To feed the hungry;
  2. To give drink to the thirsty;
  3. To clothe the naked;
  4. To shelter the homeless;
  5. To visit the sick;
  6. To ransom the captive;
  7. To bury the dead.

The Spiritual Works of Mercy are:

  1. To instruct the ignorant;
  2. To counsel the doubtful;
  3. To admonish sinners;
  4. To bear wrongs patiently;
  5. To forgive offences willingly;
  6. To comfort the afflicted;
  7. To pray for the living and the dead.

Answer to my quiz:  St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Of all prayers, the most meritorious, the most acceptable to God, are prayers for the dead, because they imply all the works of charity, both corporal and spiritual.”

As if the picture didn’t give it away…In any case, the last one of all fourteen is considered the most important:  Praying for the dead.

How beautiful that a person in a wheelchair on earth can do the greatest work of mercy that entails all of the other ones! To pray for the souls in purgatory is considered the greatest deed a human can do, according to St. Thomas Aquinas.  It is the greatest petitionary prayer we can utter on earth, in which we do all 14 works of mercy.  (No time to explain right now, but you can probably figure it out.)

I am convinced that never in the history of the Church have the Holy Souls of Purgatory been so ignored.  As you probably know, they cannot pray for themselves, but they can pray for us.  This is one of the reasons we must pray for them.  Are they in the millions?  billions?  I hope so, because that means a lot are saved.  Some saints have claimed that their power to intercede for you and for me is greater than the intercession of the saints.

Love the souls in purgatory by praying for them a lot. That is my resolution at my new parish, for I have utterly failed up to this point.

The early Church documents I have read seem to say that the earliest Christians prayed more for the dead than they even prayed for the living. Love the souls in purgatory by praying and offering sacrifice for them a lot. If you don’t love the souls in purgatory as a lover (for the others’ sake) then love them as a mercenary, for in praying for them they will reward you a thousandfold while you are on earth and/or purgatory one day…a speedy exit will be assured, they say.


  1. The Final Judgment

    “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

    “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    (Matthew 25:31-46 ESV)

New York City and the Vatican

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Surprisingly, the best description on the Vatican’s recent “Synod on the Family” comes from New York Times Op-Ed Columnist, Ross Douthat.  Here it is:

The Plot to Change Catholicism

The Vatican always seems to have the secrets and intrigues of a Renaissance court — which, in a way, is what it still remains. The ostentatious humility of Pope Francis, his scoldings of high-ranking prelates, have changed this not at all; if anything, the pontiff’s ambitions have encouraged plotters and counterplotters to work with greater vigor.

And right now the chief plotter is the pope himself.

Francis’s purpose is simple: He favors the proposal, put forward by the church’s liberal cardinals, that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion without having their first marriage declared null.

Thanks to the pope’s tacit support, this proposal became a central controversy in last year’s synod on the family and the larger follow-up, ongoing in Rome right now..

But if his purpose is clear, his path is decidedly murky. Procedurally, the pope’s powers are near-absolute: If Francis decided tomorrow to endorse communion for the remarried, there is no Catholic Supreme Court that could strike his ruling down.

At the same time, though, the pope is supposed to have no power to change Catholic doctrine. This rule has no official enforcement mechanism (the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the crucial check and balance), but custom, modesty, fear of God and fear of schism all restrain popes who might find a doctrinal rewrite tempting.

And a change of doctrine is what conservative Catholics, quite reasonably, believe that the communion proposal favored by Francis essentially implies.

There’s probably a fascinating secular political science tome to be written on how the combination of absolute and absolutely-limited power shapes the papal office. In such a book, Francis’s recent maneuvers would deserve a chapter, because he’s clearly looking for a mechanism that would let him exercise his powers without undercutting his authority.

The key to this search has been the synods, which have no official doctrinal role but which can project an image of ecclesiastical consensus. So a strong synodal statement endorsing communion for the remarried as a merely “pastoral” change, not a doctrinal alteration, would make Francis’s task far easier.

Unfortunately such a statement has proven difficult to extract — because the ranks of Catholic bishops include so many Benedict XVI and John Paul II-appointed conservatives, and also because the “pastoral” argument is basically just rubbish. The church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble has already been pushed close to the breaking point by this pope’s new expedited annulment process; going all the way to communion without annulment would just break it.

So to overcome resistance from bishops who grasp this obvious point, first last year’s synod and now this one have been, to borrow from the Vatican journalist Edward Pentin’s recent investigative book, “rigged” by the papal-appointed organizers in favor of the pope’s preferred outcome.

The documents guiding the synod have been written with that goal in mind. The pope has made appointments to the synod’s ranks with that goal in mind, not hesitating to add even aged cardinals tainted by the sex abuse scandal if they are allied to the cause of change. The Vatican press office has filtered the synod’s closed-door (per the pope’s directive) debates to the media with that goal in mind. The churchmen charged with writing the final synod report have been selected with that goal in mind. And Francis himself, in his daily homilies, has consistently criticized Catholicism’s “doctors of the law,” its modern legalists and Pharisees — a not-even-thinly-veiled signal of his views.

(Though of course, in the New Testament the Pharisees allowed divorce; it was Jesus who rejected it.)

And yet his plan is not necessarily succeeding. There reportedly still isn’t anything like a majority for the proposal within the synod, which is probably why the organizers hedged their bets for a while about whether there would even be a final document. And the conservatives — African, Polish, American, Australian — have been less surprised than last fall, and quicker to draw public lines and try to box the pontiff in with private appeals.

The entire situation abounds with ironies. Aging progressives are seizing a moment they thought had slipped away, trying to outmaneuver younger conservatives who recently thought they owned the Catholic future. The African bishops are defending the faith of the European past against Germans and Italians weary of their own patrimony. A Jesuit pope is effectively at war with his own Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the erstwhile Inquisition — a situation that would make 16th century heads spin.

For a Catholic journalist, for any journalist, it’s a fascinating story, and speaking strictly as a journalist, I have no idea how it will end.

Speaking as a Catholic, I expect the plot to ultimately fail; where the pope and the historic faith seem to be in tension, my bet is on the faith.

But for an institution that measures its life span in millennia, “ultimately” can take a long time to arrive.—Ross Douthat, 17 October 2015, New York Times op-ed

NB Fr. Nix writing now.  Certain professors from my alma of Boston College and other Universities wish to silence Ross Douthat in their letter to the editor of the NYT.  Notice that they sound like Glavlit, the group that was in charge of censoring all publications and broadcasting for state secrets in the former USSR.  Of course the ultra-elite friends of Pope Francis want to keep Ross Douthat’s secular prophesies at bay, considering how they want to slowly snow the whole Catholic world.  Best not to alarm the stupid sheep until liberal totalitarianism has fully taken hold of Our Catholic Faith.