Should the Catholic Church Sell Her Great Art to Feed the Poor?

“Why such waste? For this ... could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” —Judas Iscariot

Raphael, “La Disputa del Sacramento,” 1510
Raphael, “La Disputa del Sacramento,” 1510 (photo: Public Domain)

A friend of mine, a Protestant, traveled to Rome – and while there, he and his wife visited St. Peter's Basilica. Speaking later of his experience that day, he shared with me his reflections. “I looked up at the great basilica,” he said,

“...and I had two reactions: First, I appreciated its beauty and reverence; but then I thought, ‘What corruption caused someone to spend so much on this building when people are hungry’?”

My friend had a good point. And I know that his question is echoed by many others who see the Church from the outside, but who have never talked to a real Catholic to get an insider's perspective.Certainly there are widows and orphans to feed, refugees to house, expectant mothers to assist and abandoned spouses to comfort. Mindful of all of these profound needs, shouldn’t the Church divest itself of its great wealth and give it all to the poor?

I’d like to suggest four key reasons why selling all is NOT the approach mandated by the Scriptures.

First, Gratitude requires that we preserve the gifts of those who have gone before us. 

Wouldn’t you seem ungrateful if your parents had scrimped and saved to give you a pricy wedding gift, only to have you cast it aside? Likewise, past generations of the faithful–grateful for God’s beneficent care, and eager to share their appreciation by giving of their blessings–have donated the funds, or contributed the artwork, or supported the artist, with the expectation that their gift will be appreciated and will serve as an inspiration to prayer for future generations.

Second, Jesus himself expected that we would honor him with our wealth. 

Remember the story in the gospels, when the woman washes Jesus’ feet with her hair, and anoints them with expensive nard? It’s Judas who objects — insisting that the perfume could have been sold, and the money used to feed the poor. But rather than agreeing with Judas, Jesus scolds him — reminding him that the poor, we will always have with us. Here is the story as told in Matthew 26:6-13:

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 

a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 

But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 

For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 

But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 

For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 

By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 

Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” 

Jesus is God, and is worthy of adoration. Even though there were poor people to be served, it is fitting that he should have been honored by her anointing with the precious oil. In the same way, it is right and good to build something (or paint something, or sculpt something) truly beautiful for God.

Third, the poor deserve beauty, too.

If the great art of the Church were sold, it would most likely be preserved behind closed doors, in private collections of the very wealthy. Better, I think, to allow everyone — even persons of humble means — to enjoy the works of the Masters, to allow their hearts and minds to be drawn upward toward heaven by the rich imagery of the saints, by the glow of alabaster and the sheen of marble and the intricacy of fine metalwork. The Church has been a repository of great art, and has made its treasures available for all to enjoy.

Fourth, beauty leads us to holiness.

Thomas Aquinas listed three characteristics of beauty: integritas (integrity), consonantia (proportion), and claritas (clarity). Beauty is something which we recognize in creation, and it leads us to greater understanding of God, who in creating the Beautiful has shown us a little of His boundless Beauty. As we appreciate the beauty of a flower, we begin to understand a little more of the beauty of its Creator, and we are drawn to love Him more. Likewise, when a stained glass window enraptures us with its shimmering color and its profound imagery, we appreciate the creator (the artist), and the Creator of the creator (God).