Sunday, July 3, 2011
Reflections on the Vatican's annual financial report...
This Sunday’s readings include the Prophet Zechariah’s statement, “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass (Zec 9:9).” This same weekend, the Vatican released its annual financial report which listed revenues of $356.1 million against expenses of $341.8 million, an annual profit of $14.3 million. That much money can buy a lot of donkeys.
The pope calls himself “Vicar of Christ”, Christ’s representative. Jesus was homeless, reigned over a kingdom not of this world, traveled by donkey or foot, and owned almost nothing. In contrast Pope Benedict XVI resides within Vatican City’s edifices, is the absolute monarch of his own country, travels in a custom Mercedes Benz “pope-mobile” and garners $14.3 million in annual profits. Is someone a credible “Vicar of Christ” when his lifestyle differs from Jesus to the point of requiring $341.8 million in expenses each year to maintain his possessions and power structure?
In 1981, Pope John Paul II began publishing an annual financial report for the Vatican in hopes of dispelling notions that the Vatican held great wealth. A financial report typically includes building and property valuations, forms of wealth. Within its report, the Vatican declares each Vatican City building to be worth a very modest €1. For example, the pope says St. Peter’s Basilica is worth €1. Depending upon exchange rates, that’s typically some amount less than $1.50. This seems grossly inaccurate. I would hope the Sistine Chapel or St. Peter's Basilica could fetch more than $1.50 if placed on the real estate market.
Regardless of Vatican properties’ declared values, the pope spends $100s millions annually to maintain them. This makes a more profound value statement than the valuation claimed in the financial report. Would the pope spend so much to protect and maintain things he truly found worthless?
As currently derived, the Vatican’s annual report does not reflect its complete wealth. By the way, the Vatican is one of few entities whose annual report lists “gold” as an asset, an indicator of the quantity of its gold holdings. Nonetheless, with what is reported, under-reported or not reported as assets, the report seems to reinforce the exact message Pope John Paul II hoped to refute.
The Vatican indicated that their profits occurred despite a significant reduction in donations by the faithful. The primary vehicle through which individuals donate is the annual Peter’s Pence. Those donations declined 18% or $14.8 million, leaving the pope only $67.7 million from this collection. Vatican officials did not comment on causes of individuals’ marked decreases in giving but rather cited increased stock prices as the reason for posting a profit despite reduced contributions. So, in addition to owning enough gold to list it on their annual report, and owning properties, the Vatican owns enough stocks that their increased values can not only offset $14.8 million in reduced contributions but post $14.3 million in profit. That implies the Vatican has a significant stock portfolio…just like Jesus had?
The separately administered Vatican City also posted a $30.6 million profit. Vatican officials attribute this to the Vatican Museums’ booming sale of tickets, priced at about $22 each. The Sistine Chapel is accessed via a Vatican Museum ticket. Would Jesus turn holy places into for-profit tourist destinations? Scripture lends some insight into this. In the same passage where Jesus names the original twelve male apostles he tells them, “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give (MT 10:8).” Should the faithful permit today’s apostles to charge for access to holy places?
With total profits nearing $44 million, the Vatican seems to have financial sources independent of individual church members. Individual donations seem to be less and less relevant to church leaders, breaking communal interdependency. What impact does this have upon their connection to and intimacy with the faithful? What should the faithful do about this?