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No Bag for your Journey (Matt 10:10)

In March, the Business Review Weekly estimated that the Roman Catholic Church in Australia is amongst the top ten wealthiest institutions in the country with revenues estimated as at least $15 billion a year. And the silence from Catholics was deafening.

by Ted Lambert

Whenever the truth is uttered that the Church is massively wealthy in terms of land and buildings, various defensive arguments are trotted out. I suppose the most reasonable would seem to be: "Why not?" There is simply no advertence to the issue as a problem. The Gospel perspectives on wealth (mammon) are furthest from the forefront of the mind. When the Australian bishops commissioned a Survey into Wealth Distribution in Australia, the terms of reference did not even contemplate that the Christian Churches should be assessed along with other wealthy corporations.

Credit must be due to some respondents who pointed out this remarkable lack, because when the final document was issued in 1992 under the title of "Common Wealth for the Common Good: a Statement on the Distribution of Wealth in Australia" it contained a short reference to Catholic Church wealth. For me, this had the character of a 'disclaimer'. It was summarised by the Online Edition of the Green Left Weekly in May 1992 as follows: "Reflecting on the church's own wealth, the bishops say much of it is not centralised but held by schools, parishes and similar bodies. While a separate document is needed to address this issue, they remind church workers that those in need should come first and that all funds should be invested ethically". To my knowledge no 'separate document' has been forthcoming.

This hauntingly reminds me of a recent (March 2005) statement by the General Secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference that this same argument of de-centralisation of church assets should also exempt it from further financial regulation or reporting.

I've gone to some lengths here to emphasise that the clergy are not likely to examine this scandalous attachment to mammon. Ordinary catholics must embrace their Christian origins, listen to their Spirit, and then heroically roll back the accretions of history. It matters not one bit that the parishes, schools, hospitals, other charities and catholic individuals do immeasurable good in Australia. The same good and more could be done under a different, more Christian, system.

Other defensive arguments against disposing of church property include one that goes: "But you don't want to sell all the cathedrals and churches, do you? Or the art treasures of the Vatican?" Well, yes. Art Treasures have no intrinsic need to be owned by a church. A church which needs to own them should question its Christian identity. So Bill Gates buys them, they still belong to the world. And the church is freed from a responsibility which has nothing to do with preaching the Word of God. The ownership of a large segment of the world's art has more to do with imperial and princely grandeur than Christlike simplicity. Truly, it does!

Places of worship, roofs over the heads of the assemblies, might seem indispensable. Can we do without them? Well, we don't have to own them. Our reason for owning them is financial and communal security. Not Christian values, but values of the world. Not even good business. We tie up perhaps the major share of the church's asset in land and building.

Retail chains know better. If you rent your place of business it carries taxation advantages (how long will it be before exemption from State and Federal taxes is withdrawn, in whole or in part, from Churches?) but also you are free to devote your especial genius to carrying on your chosen business. The Church's business is preaching the Gospel. Owning cathedrals takes time, money, human resources and stability. Stability may seem a good thing - it is often a drag on freedom. The shortage of priests in Australia might not exist if there were not so much property to look after!

Could we find suitable spaces for worship? Of course we could. Our worship might even be more communal and unifying if we had to live closer to the Spirit. Is worship better the larger the crowd? Not likely, although the recent extravaganza in Rome might seduce one into thinking so. For the odd show of strength there is always the local oval or park, which the people own already - no need to build and maintain a cathedral for desultory services. A bishop with mitre and crozier would look beaut in a park. Even better without the accoutrements, more like Jesus on the plain or up the hillside?

Can we run schools or hospitals in rented or temporary premises? OK, I'll need help with some answers. But let us make a start. A Diocese could decide not to buy any more land or build any more buildings. In some dioceses it may be that unused land and buildings are already available for sale. Future bequests or donations of land and buildings could be treated as available for sale. Some buildings sold could, for the present, be leased back.

The Catholic church has a long history, hardly ever told except in defence of the centralised authority that prevailed over most of the two millennia. What an enlightened use could be made of the Vatican, St Mary's Cathedral and other masonry icons by converting them into genuine museums. Donate them to National Governments but retain a role as custodians, forever enshrining the history of Church seduction by mammon. Our active involvement as custodians of our shameful past would be the best guarantee we could give ourselves against yielding to future temptation.

The first perception of a new beginning would be to recognise that acquisition of wealth is inevitable to a Church. It happens willy nilly. The first commandment of the new epoch would be "Thou shalt not hang on to things!" The poor, as Jesus said, are always with us, so let us pour out the spikenard on them until it becomes habitual with us.

The ACBC could develop a document for discussion in dioceses and parishes urging that decisions be first pastoral (gospel and people value) and hardly ever merely financial, except in the separation stages. Separation will be bloody and will take a generation. Rome and Canon Law will be fences to jump. But isn't it time that the Australian bishops began the process of de-centralisation?

The Holy Spirit has given each Australian bishop ordinary power in his own diocese. Let him use it, albeit in this day and age in close consultation with his people, also endowed with the Spirit. It would be contradictory to assert that it was the same Holy Spirit who stripped him, bit by bit, of his apostolic power. No, a lesser spirit would have done that. As for Canon Law, what distinguishes it in kind from the Torah? St Paul was right to assert that the Law never saved anyone. In his time it was holding Jews back from Christ. With due respect to Canon Lawyers, what makes them think it has been any different since 1917?

History, which gave the world Christ and, for a single generation and within a confined space, freedom, painfully thereafter groaned through patriarchal inflation and war and suppression and, almost by accident (but only in the western world), abolished slavery, usury (until credit card interest rates), contempt for women (until a papal declaration in 1994) and some other inhumanities. History, over the same period, embroiled the Catholic Church in property. It is schizophrenic, mammon and the Holy Spirit. The cure is Jesus, our Friend, who had nowhere to lay his head. Let us have another Bethany.

I have been told that I am a "fool" to advance this thesis. Foolishness has the very best of credentials in early Christianity. It is the love of mammon which is condemned.

Ted Lambert is a laicised priest. He was a Missionary of the Sacred Heart for 33 years, a cleric for 30 years and a functioning priest for 27 years. He unilaterally resigned the clerical state in 1985. He and his wife are practising catholics in Adelaide. Ted writes on reform topics.

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