I hope, when Pope Benedict XVI gave his Christmas Eve mass this year, he did so with a healthy sense of irony. The commercialisation of Christmas, or ‘superficial glitter’ as he put it, should be shunned in favour of a simpler, more Christian celebration. The obvious response, I would hope, from any reasonably educated individual would be that he should practice what he preaches.
The institution of the Catholic church, and indeed any religious institution, is a business set up to regulate and control the belief structure of its devotees, and to make money doing so. It is not necessary if, for example, you support Manchester United or Chelsea to belong to a supporters club, to go to matches at home or away, to buy merchandise or to subscribe to a pay-per-view channel to support your team. All these are part of a structure to facilitate your support and to make money from it. Your support is a given whether or not you participate in these activities. All it does is make it easier for you to do so.
Religious institutions are no different. They provide group activities, in a designated place of worship; they have paid individuals like priests who aid in this worship; they elicit donations of money and time from devotees; they sell merchandise such as medals, rosary beads, crucifixes; they support travel and pilgrimage by individuals and groups to other sites of worship; they even have their own radio and television stations and bookshops to spread their message. They are structured and behave in every way like a business, except that in many countries they enjoy tax-free status.
The current pontiff’s predecessor, John Paul II, instigated the practice of publishing the Vatican’s finance reports in 1981, to dispel the perception that the Holy See was rich. In the three years leading up to 2010, the Vatican reported small losses of a few million euros, before returning a profit of around ten million last year over an expenditure of 235 million. Any institution that has a cash flow of almost half a billion euros can be considered rich by any measure, whether or not they make small profits or small losses.
Not taken into account are the assets of the church, which must amount to billions in real estate, art and artefacts etc. I struggle to take seriously a message of fiscal modesty from a man who lives in the kind of extravagant opulence that would make most monarchs look like they hadn’t two palaces to rub together.
Compared to some, the Catholic church is relatively indirect in its methods. At its most extreme and obscene, daylight robbery is committed in the name of people’s good faith, exemplified by televangelists such as Oral Roberts. Amongst his fundraising methods were claims such as in 1987 when he said that God would call him to heaven – kill him, in other words – if he did not receive $8m within a set period of time. He raised it, and more. Unlike the Catholic church, pastor Roberts’ aides thought the flagrant bling he wore wasn’t an appropriate image for an honest televangelist, and his jewellery was airbrushed out of photos. That isn’t an example specific to the Catholic church, but I give it to highlight the fact that organized religion can be and is used as a vehicle to take individuals and institutions to the riches they desire.
The message at the heart of Christmas is a good one, with which I have little argument. This year I spent my first Christmas with my family for four years, and to be with them was more important to me than any amount of pretty baubles. Sure, I’d have been disappointed if there’d been nothing under the tree for me, but it would have been enough to spend time, have a drink and a good meal with those that are dear to me. The message of peace and love can often get lost among the modern trappings of the season.
The question is do we need this elderly, out of touch relic of an outdated belief system to tell us to be nice to each other, and that love is more important than money? The Catholic church certainly hopes so, because as soon as we don’t they have no need to continue to exist.