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Why is the Church so rich?

Giant bronze of Constantine the Great, at the Musei Capotolini, Rome. An ancient pope gave away his excess artwork for the city to maintain.

Because of those prayer sites I run, I spend a fair amount of my day studying Church history, art, architecture, theology and the like. I love pictures of cathedrals, statues and paintings of saints; studying these priceless works is like studying the history of Western art. But for a long time I’ve wondered, How did the Church get so rich?

What does this wealth mean for us today? Does it help us or hurt us in carrying out Christ’s mission? In particular, what are we supposed to do with these magnificent old buildings, where the visitors are many but the worshipers are few?

This problem first hit me over Christmas in 1971, when I went to Evensong at Westminster Abbey on the first Sunday after the Nativity. I’d been to midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the American Cathedral in Paris a few nights before, where I got to see a church packed to the rafters with believers, but there in London, at one of the most famous churches in the world, I was one of only a dozen worshipers rattling around in that giant old nave, while tourists traipsed around gawking and talking.

I learned a lot about the irrelevance of the Church of England that night, and I didn’t want my Episcopal Church to emulate its folly in any way. Still, the questions were obvious. Who built this place? Where’d they get the money? How much does it cost to maintain it? Shouldn’t we be feeding the poor with that money instead?

How did the Church get so rich? Lately I’ve started to come up with some answers. See what you think of my quick runthrough.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine, son of Helena, who ruled 306-327, converted to Christianity, ended the persecutions and replaced the old Roman paganism with Christian worship, he began to build many basilicas and endow them with lands, and even built a new imperial capital in the East, Constantinople, as a Christian city (with churches inside the walls, unlike Rome).

He seems to have been motivated both by piety (he saw a vision of the cross before the major Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, had the cross painted on his soldiers’ shields, and won the battle) and by power.

In pre-Christian Rome emperors were worshiped as divine. Constantine took on a different role as protector and patron of the divine. (He also instituted charitable works, which the old pagan religion hadn’t included, and which proved to be a popular form of piety.) These reforms marked Constantine as modern and progressive, while detaching him from the obvious illogic that equated the Emperor with God. The net result was that he consolidated power, co-opting the Church in the process. Whether his intentions were good, bad or mixed, the Church found itself rich and powerful from this alliance, where before it had been poor and outcast.

As historian Will Durant pointed out, politicians have always sought to harness the power of religion for their own purposes, and religions have always sought to assert power over politicians. (See Billy Graham and Nixon, JFK’s speech, American Bishops vs. John Kerry.)

The Church became the charity to give to, for the Roman nobility, politicians and the poor alike. The Church used this wealth to glorify God by building magnificent cathedrals, patronizing the arts, giving bread to the poor—and enriching the Bishops.

When Rome fell in the 6th century to the barbarians, who threatened it like today’s Tea Party, and who had guns like the Tea Party, the bishops and popes assumed the political power formerly held by the emperors. There was no one else to turn to; no other institution in society continued to function. Popes used grain from their estates to feed people.

Where did they get their estates? From Constantine and all his wealthy followers who paid to play – especially since it might also save their souls.

Thus today Popes remain the successors to the Roman emperors, at least in how their administration functions. It’s all top-down, an ancient model of monarchy.

Popes justify this by claiming responsibility for preserving the orthodox faith against heresies. Popes can now speak infallibly for this purpose, even though it leads back to the same illogical conclusion Constantine faced, that the Emperor is God.

Cathedrals thus are the showpieces of imperial power, modified for the worship of God.

The replacement of religious monarchy with religious democracy is a development of the Reformation.

We now live in a world that still has absolute monarchs, strongmen and dictatorship. But the trend, even in South America and Eastern Europe, is toward democracy. We lived until fairly recently in a world with Biblical slavery, but the trend is toward emancipation.

Meanwhile the Papacy is threatened by new barbarians – not “at the gate” but inside its own walls: an army of filthy pedophiles. The current Pope is slow to recognize the danger, the same tragic mistake that enabled the Huns to sack Rome repeatedly so long ago. The elites couldn’t bring themselves to get down and dirty fighting the barbarians, any more than Barack Obama knows what to do with Fox News, Sharron Angle or the governor of Wisconsin.

While the arc of history today seems to be bending toward democracy, other trends present rising dangers: the increased power of corporations, marketers and oligarchs threaten self-government, while endangering Earth’s ecosystems by pollution and global warming. It’s a good thing NASA sends spaceships to other planets, because our time on this one looks increasingly short.

If so, our cathedrals, fancy parishes and great artworks will end up in ruins like the Acropolis and the Colosseum, while the poor go hungry as always.

Perhaps Christ will come again right before the Earth explodes and is reabsorbed into the Sun. “Watch, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning, lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” Mark 13:35-36++

Once a Colosseum, now a tourist trap.

2 Responses

  1. I think you have the history roughly right. Christianity came on the scene when the Emperor signed on and it became the Thing To Do. From the Edict of Milan until perhaps the early 1970s Christianity has been linked to and associates strongly with the Establishment. that all began to change and now we areliving in an essentially post-Constantian age, where christianity is not necessarily assumed and where it is taking more and more commitment to be a believer.

    And your question is an age-old one: what is the balance between the “beauty of holiness” and “when you have this for the least of these….” It’s an age-old tension and i think a good one to hold. I would suggest that it is human nature to be associated with places – places are liminal and they are holy. And thus we, like Peter, want to build tents to dwell there. and so we build our cathedrals and churches and temples and mosques and all the rest. I think there is a natural – and admirable to a point – tendency to want to set aside places for worship. They remind us and inspire us and console us and teach us. For hundreds of years people couldn’t read and learned their Bible from the art and stained glass and statues and music that were in their churches. And for many people, the *only* beauty in their lives was found at church. There were no museums, no TV or internet, and the average peasant might never set foot even in the vestibule of the house of his local nobility.

    The Beauty of Holiness has its place and is, I submit, a hallmark of Anglican praxis. It’s not secret that we are known for the gloriousness of our worship, and for a good reason.

    Ultimately, it’s not a question of either/or. It’s both/and. Can we have sacred spaces and times in which to worship God and be inspired and uplifted so we can go do the hard work – and it is hard and usually not very fun – of feeding the poor and defending the widows? I believe so. We can’t simply be a St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, which has gone too far overboard on the Beauty of Holiness, nor can we only be the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, which serves more than 1300 people a day a free hot 2000 calorie lunch, no questions asked. We need both.

  2. You’re answering a question I didn’t pose, RSFJ. But thanks for your comments. I didn’t ask what we should do with our money today, but how the Church got so stupendously rich in the first place, so that bishops lived in palaces and built cathedrals, monasteries had vast lands (16% of all England, over 2 million acres).

    There’s a lot of money and power in religion, as televangelists and bishops can surely attest.

    Meanwhile that soup kitchen you referred to is part of a fully functioning parish in New York, with many more souls at mass than Westminster Abbey had at that long-ago Evensong.

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