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The Church and The Poor

It happens every time some senior figure of the Roman Catholic Church attacks the government for oppressing the poor: the radio call-in stations and other outlets for public outrage are swamped with demands that the Vatican flog off all its art and other treasures.

“Basically, what I want to say is this,” the callers begin.  “The Vatican has piles of stuff worth billions, like art and what have you, down in its vaults.  So why don’t they sell it off and give it all to the poor?”

The latest cleric to provoke calls for a vast Roman garage sale is the Right Reverend Vincent Nicholls, the Archbishop of Westminster, who recently called the government’s cuts in welfare a “disgrace”.

My invariable first thought is to dismiss the callers as hopelessly naïve, or as resentful misfits harbouring some horrible childhood experience at the hands of the church.   At an intellectual level I still react that way.  But a more visceral response is that they may have a fundamental point, however simplistic.

Archbishop Nicholls, it must be said, could have stage-managed his heartfelt plea a little more judiciously.  But two days after making it he was jetting off to the Vatican to be received into the Church as a cardinal, along with eighteen other inductees.   The Vatican put on a spectacular show for its new ‘princes’, as only the Vatican can, the scarlet-splashed vistas reminiscent of one of those MGM musicals of the 1950’s.  I half expected Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse to leap out of the scarlet-robed throng to stage one of those pseudo-ballets beloved of post-war Hollywood.   

The point is that the juxtaposition of the Archbishop rallying to the cause of the deprived, and a day or so later participating in the meretricious pomp of St. Peter’s, was unfortunate.  Those ceremonies and celebrations in Rome must have cost a pretty penny – a few million something-or-others, would be my guess – which only serves to underline the point made by the protesters, many of whom I presume are, if not atheists, members of the more down-to-earth forms of Protestantism.        

The Church of England, the Roman Church’s errant stepchild – and definitely not Protestant – for all the claims to the contrary – has also recently made similar appeals for the poor, criticising the government more than by implication. 

These ecclesiastic concerns are no doubt genuine, but the message is blunted when it emanates from people who live in palaces and call themselves princes and indulge on the slightest pretext in egregious medieval of wealth and power.   (All, I might add, tax-free).

I can’t help wondering what the founder of the Christian faith would make of it all.  Actually, I don’t have to wonder, since he was a man of humble origins who preached an absolute form of Marxism, demanding that the rich distribute their wealth to the poor.  If he, or rather He, were to ‘return to Earth’ there can be little doubt what position he would adopt on the subject.  He would angrily demand, as he did on a famous previous occasion, a new ‘cleansing of the temple’.

Incidentally, returning for a moment to Archbishop, now Cardinal, Nicholls, looking him up on the Internet as a background check, I got no further than Wikipedia before finding one of his earlier quotes on the subject. “The last government was too overarching.  In attempting to create a state that provides everything, it ended up losing touch with the people it was trying to serve.”

So the Nicholls message, it seems, is not only hypocritical but confused.

The best way to divest the churches, of all denominations, of their wealth is not a garage sale organised by Sotheby’s or Christie’s but the removal of their tax-free status as institutional charities.   

My bet is that the outrage expressed by Archbishop Nicholls et al would quickly be transferred to one of self-preservation.

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