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At one point in history, the Roman Catholic Church was the largest land owner in Europe. Given the power of compounding, the length of time for the compounding to take effect plus the huge principal size to start with, the Catholic Church should easily be the world's richest organization today. However, it is not. What happened to the accumulated wealth of the Catholic Church?

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    Is this a valid history question? IMO Suits to politics.se than history.se. Also how do you find and define the world's richest organization? – AskingStory Oct 5 '13 at 8:33
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    I'm an on-again off-again member of politics.se so I can say this question would not qualify for politics.se. If there was a forensic-economics.se it could go there, but history.se is good enough fit. – LateralFractal Oct 5 '13 at 10:31
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    IMO this is a perfectly valid question. It's not asking about "the world's richest organization today", it's asking a very simple historical question, as stated in the title: What happened to the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church? – user2590 Oct 5 '13 at 22:10
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    When was it that the Roman Catholic Churches land ownership in Europe was at its peak (making it the largest land owner there) in your opinion? – Drux Oct 6 '13 at 6:37
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    The power of compounding only works if you believe in usury :) – DVK Oct 10 '13 at 17:16
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Most was circulated back into the community through Church charities and hospitals (scroll down to 'History of charity in the Church').

Some was taken by the state and thus became eventually owned by people (see Dissolution of the Monasteries: Continental Precedents for example).

Some was converted into buildings, icons, frescos, statues and other forms of patronage.

The remainder was converted in real estate, bullion and other investments. This residual might be a modest fraction of the total money that has flowed through the church, but does add up over the centuries.

The simple answer is no one quite knows how much money the Church has retained.

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    Note that New Advent's Catholic Encyclopaedia is not remotely unbiased regarding modern society, but the resource is fairly good and the bias is fairly obvious and easy to work with. – LateralFractal Oct 5 '13 at 7:28
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    In other words, no one knows for sure. The Catholic Church could still be the world's richest organization today but no one can verify it because the Church is not subjected to an audit. – curious Oct 5 '13 at 7:31
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    It really depends on 'wealth' means. The church has about 1.2 billion members which divides the pie pretty thin if the church actually uses/spends the wealth. If church doesn't use or distribute the wealth (it isn't a democracy after all) then the wealth is more consolidated ("wealthy") but like a tree falling in the forest that no one hears - the wealth doesn't quite exist until it is spent. And I don't see the Church having a fire sale of its assets any time soon. Decentralising their wealth through democratic reforms is more likely to happen first. – LateralFractal Oct 5 '13 at 7:46
  • +1 - " no one quite knows how much money the Church has retained" Indeed. There are many things about the Church, its workings, its holdings, its archives and its storehouses, which remain unknown... The Vatican is the smallest nation-state, with perhaps the most secrets! – user2590 Oct 6 '13 at 19:58
  • "Some was taken by the state" More like stolen. Currently in France, for example, the State owns all the churches. – Geremia Jan 12 '18 at 3:20
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Money can be spent, as other answers pointed, but the wealth of the Church was mostly as real property - land were money came from - , and those property couldn't be alienated (mortmain). That wealth made the Church the biggest landowner in most places until it was confiscated - an irregular process that took place in different countries at different moments. A non exhaustive list:

  • OTOH, they still have their own country. Though it's a small one, it's crammed with valuable art works, lots of ornaments made from precious metals & gems, &c. – jamesqf Mar 13 '17 at 17:48
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the Church is not a company, the pope is not the CEO. Every parish and diocese is a juridic entity in canon law and often in civil law. The same for every religious order. Administratively they are all independent.

Many dioceses have more patrimony than the Holy See. The Diocese of Rome itself has a much larger patrimony, personal, and budget than the Holy See (yes, the Holy See is juridically and administratively separated from the Diocese of Rome, even if the pope directly heads both. The Vatican City State is also a different entity.)

National Episcopal Conferences are not owners of dioceses, and are not even 'superiors' except in some very limited roles.

In Brazil, some people are amazed that the Catholic Universities are completely independent of each other. They belong to foundations, somewhat controlled by the respective dioceses, and there is not a "National Administration of Catholic Universities" or some entity which owns and controls all.

these facts have very strong theological foundations in catholic ecclesiology and the relevant role of dioceses and bishops.

Other important factor is that patrimony and income are different from profit, there are large costs involved in running schools or hospitals, etc., even in keeping the church running: personal, buildings, etc.

Another good example is when the english king expropriated the Templar Order. Yes, they had a lot of land, and a lot of income. But proportionally very little stored money, because most of the income were spent to support both the military and the charitable activities of the order. In some instances the king representatives were amazed that inside a large castle there were only very old furniture, usable, in good state, but not of great value if sold [Daniel Rops book, I think]. So the king was very disappointed. Many examples like this exist, where the expropriating king expected to hit the jackpot just to be disappointed.

Some parishes publish financial statements. this is what I remember from the year 2001, from a church in Campinas, SP, Brazil. I used to go to mass there. the building: neo-gothic church, fits hundreds of people inside, 2 tower façade. I do not remember the numbers exactly, but approximately, as they were more or less the same every month.

Total monthly budget: R$ 15K (may be around US$ 4k at that time) half of the income were donations, but they also had rent from parish property. I think they were the landlords of a bakery and something else.

  • support for the diocese: RS 1k
  • support for nuns convent: RS 3K
  • priest salary: RS 1.5 (the same as my master degree scholarship, so you can see how little it is. But he could live at the church)
  • saving to pay for scheduled building renovation: RS 3k
  • light, water, internet: R$ 3K
  • liturgical expenses: R$ 2k
  • paying other bills, random expenses: RS 500
  • charity to the poor: R$ 1k
  • and this month we could not save nothing and still have charity to do! please help!

the priest would really write a line like the last one at the end of the financial statement published inside the church

as you can see, more than 90% of the income is spent locally (the convent is exactly across street from the church, and the nuns did much work for the parish). The diocese gets only a small part. The Holy See gets a even smaller contribution from the dioceses: last time I checked the Holy See budget was a few hundreds of million dollars - with 2000 employees this is not much.

In short, what happened with the local wealth of the church is a question that can only be answered locally.

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Throughout the ages, most of the income of Roman Catholic Church has been spent, of course. Expenses tend to equal income.

The total wealth owned by the Roman Catholic Church must be immense, but who owns how much of it?

What persons and institutions have their names on the deeds to thousands and thousands of pieces of Roman Catholic Church real estate, financial investments, etc. around the world?

Is a parish church owned by the parishioners, by the parish priests while they are stationed there, by the diocese, by the archdiochese, or by the Vatican itself?

Where does the income to maintain a parish church facility come from, and where does any profit from that income go?

Is the Roman Catholic Church a single institution with countless thousands of sources of income and expense, or is it a group institution that includes many thousands of smaller institutions each with a few sources of income and expense?

I suspect that the OP imagines that the Pope and Vatican officials own or control all the wealth, property, income (and expenses) of all Roman Catholic Church institutions, and I suspect that in reality ownership and control tend to be somewhat more decentralized. And I suspect he forgets that income and expenses are usually approximately equal.

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