McDonald's Dispute Highlights Sensitivities Over Use of Vatican Real Estate

Cardinals complain to the Pope, a Hard Rock Cafe threatens to also open nearby, but a Church historian says they should be protesting about far more serious issues.

The McDonald's fast food chain is reported to have obtained a license to turn this 600 square meter, disused Vatican-owned property just yards away from St. Peter's Square into one of its restaurants.
The McDonald's fast food chain is reported to have obtained a license to turn this 600 square meter, disused Vatican-owned property just yards away from St. Peter's Square into one of its restaurants. (photo: Armin Schwibach)

Every now and again problems arise relating to how real estate around the Vatican is used.

The latest such headache concerns a bid by the McDonald’s fast food chain to open a restaurant on Vatican-owned property, just a few steps from St. Peter’s Square.  

The office responsible for managing Vatican property, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), has agreed to the idea. Some of the seven cardinals living in a block above the proposed new diner are not so keen and have protested by writing a letter to Pope Francis, asking him to intervene.

According to Il Fatto Quotidiano, Cardinals Gianfranco Ravasi, Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, Dario Castrillon Hoyos and Manuel Monteiro de Castro warned it would “bring chaos” to the area, disturb the “quietness of the building” and produce unpleasant “odors” which are likely to pass along the elevator shaft.

Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, a former president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, has publicly voiced his opposition to the move, telling the Italian daily La Repubblica it is “a controversial, perverse decision to say the least". The Italian cardinal doesn’t live in the property, a former bank that borders Borgo Pio and Piazza Leonina, but spoke on behalf of the residents who wrote to the Pope. Cardinals Walter Kasper and George Pell also live in the block and Benedict XVI was resident there when he was a cardinal.

Opening a McDonald’s so close to the Vatican basilica is "not at all respectful of the architectural traditions of one of the most characteristic squares which look onto the colonnade of Saint Peter’s, visited everyday by thousands of pilgrims and tourists,” Cardinal Sgreccia said. He added that the “business decision” is a “disgrace” which “ignores the culinary traditions of the Roman restaurant”, is “not in line with the aesthetics of the place,” and would “inevitably penalize” other restaurateurs in the area.

He also criticized McDonald’s, saying its mix of burgers and French fries are “far from the traditions of Roman cuisine” and that “according to analyses and studies by not a few nutritionists and doctors, do not guarantee the health of consumers.”

Cardinal Sgreccia said he would “never eat” such food, and warned there would be the knock on effect of extra “traffic and waste” that will be a “perversion of the neighborhood.”  More appropriate, he said, would be to “use the space for activities defending those in need in the area, offering places of hospitality, welcome and aid for those who are suffering, as the Holy Father has taught.”       

Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, head of ASPA, told La Repubblica he was "not going to back down" because the deal is legally valid and he didn't see "anything negative" about it. The commercial decision would bring in around $33,000 a month in rental income for the Vatican, according to La Repubblica. Meanwhile, a Hard Rock Cafe might also open near the Vatican, although at the moment it is expected to only sell t-shirts and memorabilia. 

The Vatican will take steps to avoid properties close to St. Peter’s being used for inappropriate ends if it needs to. In the 2000s, wealthy Saudis allegedly made a bid for empty offices on the Via della Conciliazione, the main boulevard leading up to St. Peter’s. The Vatican promptly turned the real estate in question into offices for a number of pontifical councils.

Success for McDonald’s is also not guaranteed, given its past record of closures in Rome. Several of its restaurants have ceased operating over the years, including one facing the Pantheon. Despite admirable efforts to make it inconspicuous and blend in with the surrounding Renaissance buildings, the locals never wanted it and poor custom led to its closure a few years ago.

But for some observers, the vehement protests of Cardinal Sgreccia and others are more regrettable than the restaurant’s designs on Vatican property. Pierluigi Battista, a columnist for Corriere della Sera, lamented the fact that cardinals would protest against “potentially harmful” foods, but only when they are in the vicinity of their own residences rather than when served in other parts of the city.

More serious for others, such as Church historian and Roman citizen Professor Roberto de Mattei, is that the cardinals would choose this issue to be most vociferous about. “Roman prelates will roar when they see their own residences threatened,” he told the Register, ”but lose their voices when faced with events that shake the faith and Catholic morals, such as the exhortation Amoris Laetitia and the embrace of Luther on October 31 in Lund.”