I was reminded of this just yesterday, driving through the “little Vatican” around the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. I am reminded of it when I pass the Episcopal Church’s replica of Canterbury Cathedral on prime property on the highest spot on the city or when I chance on televangelists shilling for donations.
All are a far cry from the vision of the Galilean who warned an enthusiastic scribe who wanted to follow him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Matt 8:20)
Similarly, when a man named Simon saw that by laying their hands on people the apostles conveyed the power of the Holy Spirit, including speaking in tongues, he offered money for this gift, but Peter refused him, saying, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money!”
The sin of trying to sell or purchase sacred things, ecclesiastical preferment, benefices and so forth is even today called simony.
Indeed, Paul of Tarsus, the great evangelizer from Asia Minor to Rome, made a living as a tentmaker and refused any payment from the churches he founded or visited. The groups were then mostly tradesmen and a few middle-class intellectual workers, mostly not rich, and initially they held all things in common, although that does not seem to have lasted long.
Wealth Comes to the Archbishop
Even under persecution, there were Christians wealthy enough to welcome a congregation into their homes. Accounts of raids and materials confiscated from bishops and priests show that they had valuable books and chalices and other ritual utensils made of gold and silver.
Yet the floodgates of wealth opened when clerics became imperial officials—the present liturgical vestments are the garb of Roman bureaucrats—and buildings set aside for worship and prayer were built thanks to imperial subsidies.
Then came the many donations and benefices showered on clerics and monks, including some who were wealthy, such as Gregory, and gave their inherited family property to the Church.
For example, the cathedral of Rome, St. John Lateran (not St. Peter’s Basilica), was built on land where once stood the palatial mansion of a Roman patrician clan, the Laterani. The Lateran Palace became Emperor Constantine I’s when he married his second wife, Fausta. The palace was given to the bishop of Rome by Constantine and was for a while a papal residence and papal offices, until it was converted and extended into the cathedral.
Because the clergy became a socioeconomic class by virtue of its privilege of learning, and inducted members of the barbarian nobility into its ranks, it did not take long for the institution to accumulate land (some of it arable and productive), buildings (many used almost exclusively for religious purposes, but later for broader public uses) and income from donations, tithes and even taxation.
Eventually, some bishops even became feudal lords.
The 1964 film “Becket,” starring Richard Burton as Thomas Becket and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II, illustrates in its retelling of high drama and conflict between monarch and primate archbishop, how ecclesiastical wealth became a bone of contention between church and state. One of the original historical inflammatory issues was the archbishop of Canterbury’s refusal to pay taxes to the king.
The much-vaunted vaults of the Vatican are now effectively empty: the microstate survives on donations, the sale of artifacts and green energy. Average U.S. bishops make no more than average priests (between $35,000 and $45,000). Still, not many people earning such salaries get paid trips to Rome and to dozens of conferences all over the place.
Clearly, clerics even today live well, if not luxuriously. In the Middle Ages they were among the wealthiest people, by title if not personally. Indeed, this situation gave rise to the scandal of wealth among Christians in general, even in the face of appalling and widespread poverty.
When I stop to consider the vast economic divide between me and a child in the slums of Calcutta, I have to consider myself no more than a dreadful sinner. That sin flies in the face of the one who counseled a rich yet very good young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”