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The Eternal Paradox: The Church And Money
Oliver Moor

Those without faith, or at least those who “don’t agree with organised religion”, usually cite the fact for their disapproval -- at least partly -- on the fact that the Church -- particularly the Catholic Church -- is enormously wealthy. “They’ve got all those fancy churches and works of art. Why don’t they sell all that junk and give the money to the poor?” tends to be a fairly stock response. Obviously, there is an argument for doing this, and, in certain cases, the Church has sold off secular works and used the money for more “charitable” work. But usually the gains produced by flogging unwanted trinkets are pretty minimal. In any case, selling off the odd painting here and there isn’t going to stop the Church being wealthy.

Religion and money have always inextricably linked. Unlike love and marriage, (which seem, quite often, to be mutually exclusive), you cannot have one without the other. Without money, religion - other than one’s own homegrown personal one -- cannot exist. From the outset, any form of religion which has involved telling other people your own philosophy has produced large sums of money, which is somewhat ironic given that most religions argue that money - or excess of it - is A Bad Thing. But the generation of cash is something that just happens with religion. It’s inevitable and entirely understandable.

St. Peters, Rome: too many worldly goods?

Imagine you’re living in Judea around 2000 years ago. You’ve been having a few thoughts recently, a philosophy perhaps, something along the lines of “love one another” - which, to you, is far more appealing and more constructive than the existing creed - “an eye for an eye”. You’re really, really excited about this new and different way of thinking, and want to tell all your friends because you think they’d really relate to the idea and that it would really help them.

But before you do, you realise that you don’t actually know that many people, and anyway this is something that might be of use to the whole world. How, you think to yourself, am I going to tell everybody in the whole world? You’d have to involve others as you couldn’t do it all yourself. So you’d have to get some other people to do it as well. Then you’d find that some people are better at doing it than others, so you’d end up with some sort of pecking order. You’d have to send the really good ones out into the provinces to spread the word.

Travel would be involved. You’d have to buy tens, perhaps hundreds of camels. You probably would also find that people like you might form friendships and would like to meet up to discuss what the message means: ("it seems so simple -- surely there must be more to it than that?") So you’d end up having to construct a building for everyone to meet up in, you’d have to feed them all, you’d have to collect the subs from everyone -there’d probably be quite a bit of money involved, and you’ve never been much good with money, it’d be an organisational nightmare... sod it, you think, I’ll leave it to someone else. The “someone else” eventually turns up a few months later, with a similar idea, but with a slicker PR organisation running the show -- and two thousand years later we have the modern Church, laden as it is with the trappings of two thousand years of accumulated wealth: imposing cathedrals, vast palaces and priceless artworks.

This, of course -- particularly to the non-churchgoer - ensures that the Church comes across as hypocritical. The age-old question raises its head: how can an organisation that preaches poverty have so much money? Why doesn’t it just die off? Most people (95% of the world’s population) believe in some form of deity. Why, then, don’t people see through the double standard and go off and “be spiritual on their own terms”?

The answer is beyond the scope of an article of this length. Part of the reason is that the Church does have, at its heart, a message which is both totally understandable and good - in absolute terms. (“Love one another” is not something many people would describe as being evil.) In addition, there are the aesthetic qualities of the Church. Some enjoy the ritual of the worship; some enjoy the beauty of the scripture, the power of the music, or the magnificence of an individual church’s architecture. In addition, people have a need to feel they’re on the right track, which means getting the support of peers; and there is, of course, the Church as a social institution.

But the main reason is that finding one’s own path is exceptionally difficult. Throughout history, there are only a handful of people who have been able to do it - and this includes figures such as the Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, and Jesus of Nazareth: the leaders of the world’s great religions. To attempt to achieve what they did is beyond the reach of most. And should you achieve it, the process would simply begin again - you’d have another religion on your hands. There’s no way around this. All one can do with this, as with all paradoxes, is accept it.

© Oliver Moor 2001

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