The new Pope, Francis: great guy. He loves the poor. He's cool with atheists. He's even pretty chill about gay marriage and abortions. Yesterday's photos of him embracing a severely disfigured man were genuinely touching. Still, the best thing that this nice Pope could do would be to dismantle the Catholic Church.
Many U.S. presidents have been charismatic guys. Some of them have been truly good guys. But most of those same guys presided over a massive and powerful entity that was doubtless committing some sort of atrocity, whether slavery, imperialistic conquest, or secret illegal assassination programs. The point is that we must not automatically project the goodness of a person onto the entire institution that that person controls. George W. Bush is probably a fun guy to go bowling with. Not so much a fun guy to have your country invaded by.
Pope Francis—by all accounts a truly humble man who has demonstrated real concern for the world's less fortunate—has done nothing so far to indicate that he is not, at heart, a good man. He is also the leader of the Catholic Church. The church is an institution which, as a policy, has sheltered priests guilty of child sexual abuse, fought against common sense family planning measures in the third world, and shamed gay people the world over. How many suicides have come about as a direct result of just these policies of the Catholic Church? Eh, who knows? We all have our flaws.
Perhaps more saliently: how much money does the Catholic Church have? No one outside the Vatican really knows, precisely. But it almost certainly has wealth that would rival that of many national governments. Last year, The Economist calculated that the Catholic church in America alone had a $170 billion annual operating budget. Globally, the figure is much larger. When you add up the value of the church's worldwide holdings—land, buildings, and treasures—it's reasonable to imagine a huge, huge number.
Is the Catholic church using its wealth in the best way possible? That is, is it using its resources in the way that most effectively embodies the Christian ideals that the church purportedly stand for? Leaving aside some of the church's odious political positions, is it even spreading the good kind of Christian Love For They Neighbor as Thyself very well? The Economist's estimates found only about $5 billion in annual charity spending out of that $170 billion total— less than 3%. Even if the actual charitable spending were triple that amount, it would still mean that the American Catholic church spends less than 10% of its budget on direct good works.
That's not even enough for a proper tithe.
Here is where we roll out some of those pesky Bible quotes, which can famously be used to justify anything. In this case we will use them to argue in favor of Jesus's fundamental concern for the poor. That is, we trust, not a controversial belief among the faithful.
"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life."
-1 Timothy 6:17-19
"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
"Jesus answered, 'If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'"
It is nice that Pope Francis is a nice man. It is nice that he spends time making personal phone calls to sad people. It would be much nicer if he would fully leverage the power of his huge and powerful global institution to maximize the amount of good it could do for the world's neediest people (all of whom will be waltzing into heaven as the Vatican's accountants struggle to thread themselves through the eye of that needle). If the Catholic church wants to be the most Jesus-like institution it can be, it needs to first stop advocating hateful, divisive, and backwards political positions. Then, it needs to spend its wealth properly.
Pope Francis doesn't need to build any more churches. He needs to start selling churches. Let's imagine that, by liquidating some holdings of the Catholic church, he could cobble together $600 billion. (That seems like a number that is well below the church's total wealth.) What could be done with that money? Well, about a fifth of that cash could be used to fully eradicate malaria, a disease that kills almost a million people every year. Then, hell, you could take the rest of it and give a thousand bucks each to every single person in the bottom half of the wealth distribution in Africa, the world's poorest continent. Or, you could fully eradicate world hunger for a dozen years. Take your pick of causes, really You could do a lot of things, for the world's poorest people.
And if you sold off all of the Catholic church's holdings, you could do even more for the world's poorest people. This would also stop all the lobbying and proselytizing against them having access to birth control and abortion. Everyone wins. Poor people would see their lives materially improved. Denizens of the Catholic church, a wealthy institution, would greatly improve their chances of getting into heaven. Pope Francis could smile on his good works. And the faithful could spend their Sundays outside helping people, rather than sitting inside a stuffy old church. Because the church has been sold.
Total liquidation. It's what Jesus would want.