by Michelle Arnold
Gospel Reading for November 13, 2022
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:5–6).
“Why is the Catholic Church so rich?” is probably one of the most common questions non-Catholics and anti-Catholics alike ask. Why do clergy dress in expensive silk and lace vestments, wearing gold rings, scarlet slippers, and embroidered miters proportionate in size to their…. Well, you get the idea.
The question is so common that anyone who practices Catholic apologetics either as a hobby or a career will answer it at least once—and, more likely, many times in many different forms. There’s something about seeing a portly man with fleshy cheeks decked out in expensive fabric and jewels that makes people wonder how he can be a designated spokesman for a Church that preaches self-denial and detachment from the world.
The answers to the question are numerous—and, for the most part, fair. The Church isn’t actually as rich as its detractors assume. Sure, the Vatican is stuffed with priceless works of art and fabulous churches dot the landscape wherever the Barque of Peter has docked. Yes, there are costly vestments in storage around the world that would keep a small army of underprivileged children fed for years. In liquid assets though, the Church is cash poor.
Those statues and paintings the Vatican has from all the artists it commissioned over the centuries to deck out its churches are considered part of the patrimony of mankind. The Church’s response to suggestions it sell off these treasures to feed the world’s poor (and to satisfy judgments won by clerical abuse survivors) is that the art belongs to the world and the Church is merely its humble custodian.
As for the overweight clerics stuffed into silk and rolled in lace trimming, why, they, without regard for themselves, graciously allow themselves to be paraded about for the sake of the poor who give their last few pennies for the purpose of offering up Something Beautiful for God. (Yes, really, there are Trad priests who make this argument with a straight face.)
There’s some truth to these arguments. Even though I spoke in rather biting tones about some of the more absurd examples I offered, it’s true that the Church has long taught that beautiful art can be an expression of devotion and offered up to God (and the textile arts, such as those used to create costly vestments, are no less fine art than oil paintings and marble sculpture).
In recent years though, I’ve wondered if there isn’t some merit to the claims that Jesus wouldn’t be caught dead (or alive in glory, if you prefer) in embroidered silk, gold, and precious gems, carried in litter on the shoulders of attendants and fanned with ostrich feathers, after the style of some of his pre-Vatican II vicars.
Of course, “What would Jesus do?” has limited value as a theology. Just because Jesus wouldn’t wear ermine and require a cadre of men to carry a mile-long red silk train behind him doesn’t mean he necessarily objects to certain Trad cardinals doing so.
A few years ago, I ran across a meme that informed the world: “While it is true that Jesus was born in a stable, he didn’t stay there. He came down so that we might go up, and a beautiful church reminds us of our ultimate destiny and our heavenly calling.”
Again, not untrue. And not entirely true either. Jesus was born in a stable because he identified in a special way with the poor and the outcasts, not so that we could have beautiful buildings in which to worship him. Being born poor, on the fringes of society, wasn’t a costume Jesus assumed for the sake of a thrilling rags to riches story. It spoke in a real way to his own self. To who he is now, not just his origin story.
Looking around at the world today, we’re seeing what I believe is the disintegration of civilization. Cultural iconoclasm and political anarchy are rampant, venerable institutions such as American democracy are disintegrating, and scientists are warning that our planet could become unfit for human life within a century.
Why should the Church be exempt from this global apocalypse? Apologists would say that Jesus promised the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against his Church. What they won’t tell you is that Jesus didn’t promise that the institutional Church would never die. He didn’t guarantee that his disciples would remain within the Church, that they might abandon the visible confines of parishes and dioceses without necessarily abandoning him.
In fact, if we accept that the Church is the mystical body of Christ on earth, then it would seem that the Church must die if it is to emulate its Lord. And if we see the Church as having to go through the same passion, death and resurrection that Christ did, then it sheds new light on the apocalyptic warnings of Christ, St. Paul, and the author of the book of Revelation that temples will be destroyed (Luke 21:5–6), Christians will flee the Church (Rom. 11:21–22), saints will demand vengeance against their persecutors (Rev. 6:9–11).
If the Church must enter into its passion, prepare for its death, and hope for its resurrection, then perhaps the first step would be to remember that Jesus’ own passion began when he was stripped of his garments and publicly flogged. Rather than defending the Church’s wealth, perhaps the Church’s apologists might reflect on the crucified Christ who did not come that men might wield swords (literal or rhetorical) in his name (Matt. 26:51–52), but to do the will of his heavenly Father (Luke 22:42).
His Father’s will, as it turned out, was that he die a shameful death and be raised for the salvation of all humankind (John 3:14–16).
Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.