Should Pope Francis sell off the Vatican’s art collection and give the money to the poor? The answer is an emphatic ‘No’

Pope Francis addresses diplomats in the Sala Regia on Friday (CNS)

Already, Pope Francis has simplified the papacy, probably in some ways which are irreversible. He and the concelebrating cardinals at his installation wore very plain white chasubles (Pope Benedict wore gold), and he has worn very simple – not to say, in one case, distinctly cheap-looking – Mass vestments since. When seated in the presence of various groups, he has replaced throne-like seating with a simple, white chair, and has lowered platforms so as to be more at the same level as his interlocutors. He has replaced papal red shoes by plain black ones. He will not be wearing the gorgeous red ermine-trimmed mozzetta worn by his predecessors. And so on.

Now, I want to be quite clear that anything that follows is meant to be more by way of self-criticism than criticism of Pope Francis. I am finding all these simplifications both challenging and uncomfortable. I like my popes gorgeously appareled, and also high and lifted up. I think that Pope Benedict’s evident partiality for a sumptuous papal style was by no means an indication of any lack of humility; it was an emphasis on the importance of his office rather than of the man currently occupying it. It also indicated his ideas on the liturgy, and of the urgent need for its resacralisation after the down-pulling and vulgarisation of the post-conciliar decades. I do not like Seventies-style sackcloth vestments, and hope that I am mistaken in noticing what is beginning to look to me like a taste on Pope Francis’s part in that direction. He has undoubtedly very simple tastes and a dislike of conspicuous expenditure. He always travelled to Rome by economy class, saying that the money for first class should instead be given to the poor. It is of course a splendid story that when told that his gear as a cardinal would cost over 500 euros, he bought the material and got his sister to make it up.

On the other hand, what about the loss of employment that would eventuate if everyone did it? Hilaire Belloc wrote that “it is the business of the wealthy man/to give employment to the artisan”; and though of course the whole point is that Archbishop Bergoglio was not a wealthy man, the funding could undoubtedly have been found from Argentinian Catholics who were, and would have been delighted to pay for his cardinalatial tat. I speak of course as a fool: and, as I say, I am not saying that in any of this Pope Francis is actually wrong. He is changing the style of the papacy in certain ways, some of which which make me uncomfortable: but perhaps I, indeed all of us, need to be made uncomfortable. I have to admit that as a died in the wool monarchist, for instance, I do rather mourn the loss of the papal tiara, so that what used to be a coronation is now simply an “inauguration” (the Archbishop of Canterbury is still “enthroned”). But I have no doubt at all that Pope John Paul I was absolutely right to do what he so irreversibly did. And so will Pope Francis be, in what he does.

There is no doubt that Pope Francis’s austerity is not a pose, a kind of PR operation, as various media luminaries seem to be suggesting. On Saturday a man called Peter Watson asked “Is Pope Francis serious about helping the poor? He appears to be a humble man and seems keen to appear a humble man” (my italics). Why the slightly ironic tone? Well, this Watson, described in his Wikipedia entry as an “intellectual historian”, once stated in an interview that “Religion has kept civilisation back for hundreds of years, and the biggest mistake in the history of civilisation is ethical monotheism, the concept of the one God. Let’s get rid of it and be rational.” So he’s not exactly a friend of the Pope or the Catholic religion.

He does, however, make a suggestion that one might think could be attractive to Pope Francis, though I hope he doesn’t think of it and that if he does he won’t do it. “Since his election,” says this Watson, “[Pope Francis] has said that he wants ‘a poor church, for the poor’…. The new Pope’s Church needs a bold, breathtaking and above all redemptive gesture that will point it firmly in the direction of the poor and carry conviction that it is changing. There is one reform above all others that could claim our attention and respect. I propose that Pope Francis sells off the Vatican’s art collection and devotes the proceeds to the benefit of those who most need help… glorious achievements of the age of faith such as Michelangelo’s Pietà (c 1500), Raphael’s Coronation of the Virgin (1502-1503) and his Transfiguration (1518-20), Leonardo’s St Jerome (1481), Bellini’s Burial of Christ (after 1430), Titian’s Madonna de San Niccolo dei Frari (1523), are listed, as well as many others as well.” Watson reckons the Vatican could get $17 billion for its art treasures. Good copies could be substituted, he says, or gaps could be left on the walls to emphasise the sacrifice.

And how far does he think even such a sum as $17 billion would go in ridding the world of poverty? It would be a drop in the ocean; and once it had soaked into the desert, like water from a leaking tanker in the Sahara, it would be gone forever, leaving bare walls and a basilica without Michaelangelo’s Pietà: a simpler but a less spiritually powerful place. And surely, the idea of those great religious works hanging in the houses of rich men for their private amusement is deeply unattractive. Even Watson says that part of the point of the Vatican is its art, “glorious achievements of the age of faith”: and the point of that, surely, is that that massive accumulation of artistic achievement is an evidence not merely of the spiritual power of the idea of faith but also of the truth of its objective content. It all reminds me personally of my own moment of conversion from atheism, or at least of its effective beginning: standing in the nave of York Minster one day, looking up, I suddenly had to ask myself if it was really possible that a building so glorious, so sublime, could have been based on a lie: and if it could not, then the existence of the God who had inspired it had to be seen as possible and even probable.

There are some irreversible actions which cause lasting damage: others which are both good and necessary. I have no doubt at all that Pope Francis, with the guidance of the God whose representative here on earth he undoubtedly is, will know the difference. And that Michaelangelo’s Pietà will remain immoveably where it is, and where it was always meant to be.