Direct donations from Catholics to the Holy See —a fund called “Peter’s Pence“—is a practice that’s been going on in one form or another since 1031, but was formalized in 1871 by Pope Pius IX. The money, which is in response to a direct appeal from the Pope, is supposed to be used for philanthropic purposes. Or so the website says. However, The Wall Street Journal, whose article on this “charity” is for some reason not paywalled (click on screenshot below), found that 90% of the donated money goes for non-charitable initiatives, with two-thirds of the total going to reduce the budget deficit of the Holy See—the administration of the Catholic Church and its diplomatic network. Click on the screenshot to read the article or, if you can’t get it, try some judicious inquiry:
The excerpt below is from the Vatican’s explanation of the Peter’s Pence fund:
Peter’s Pence Today
In the first year of his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI stressed the proper meaning of this offering:
“‘Peter’s Pence’ is the most characteristic expression of the participation of all the faithful in the Bishop of Rome’s charitable initiatives in favour of the universal Church. The gesture has not only a practical value, but also a strong symbolic one, as a sign of communion with the Pope and attention to the needs of one’s brothers; and therefore your service possesses a refined ecclesial character”. (Address to the Members of the St Peter Circle, 25 February 2006).
The ecclesial value of this gesture becomes evident when one considers how charitable initiatives are connatural to the Church, as the Pope stated in his first Encyclical Deus caritas est (25 December 2005):
“The Church can never be exempted from practising charity as an organized activity of believers and, on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love” (No. 29)
This aid is always animated by that love which comes from God:
“For this reason, it is very important that the Church’s charitable activity maintains all of its splendour and does not become just another form of social assistance” (…) “The Christian’s programme — the programme of the Good Samaritan, the programme of Jesus — is ‘a heart which sees’. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly” (ibidem, No. 31).
This clearly implies that the major purpose of the “offerings” from the faithful is to fulfill “charitable initiatives”. But, according to the WSJ, this just ain’t so:
VATICAN CITY—Every year, Catholics around the world donate tens of millions of dollars to the pope. Bishops exhort the faithful to support the weak and suffering through the pope’s main charitable appeal, called Peter’s Pence.
What the church doesn’t advertise is that most of that collection, worth more than €50 million ($55 million) annually, goes toward plugging the hole in the Vatican’s own administrative budget, while as little as 10% is spent on charitable works, according to people familiar with the funds.
The little-publicized breakdown of how the Holy See spends Peter’s Pence, known only among senior Vatican officials, is raising concern among some Catholic Church leaders that the faithful are being misled about the use of their donations, which could further hurt the credibility of the Vatican’s financial management under Pope Francis.
. . . Under church law, Peter’s Pence is available to the pope to use at his discretion in any way that serves his ministry, including the support of his administration. The collection’s website says that, to support the pope’s charitable works, “Peter’s Pence also contributes to the support of the Apostolic See and the activities of the Holy See,” emphasizing activities that help “populations, individuals and families in precarious conditions.”
The assets of Peter’s Pence now total about €600 million, down from about €700 million early in the current pontificate, largely on account of unsuccessful investments, said the people familiar with the funds’ use.
The use of Peter’s Pence donations mostly to plug the budget deficit is particularly sensitive for Pope Francis, who began his pontificate by calling for a “poor church for the poor,” and has continually emphasized the church’s mission to care for and advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable.
. . .Peter’s Pence, a special collection from Catholics around the world every June, is billed as a fundraising effort for the needy. The Vatican’s website for the collection, www.peterspence.va, describes it as a “gesture of charity, a way of supporting the activity of the Pope and the universal Church in favoring especially the poorest and Churches in difficulty. It is also an invitation to pay attention and be near to new forms of poverty and fragility.”
A section of the website dedicated to “works realized” describes individual grants, such as €100,000 in relief aid to survivors of last month’s earthquake in Albania or €150,000 for those affected by cyclone Idai in southeastern Africa in March.
But for at least the past five years, only about 10% of the money collected—more than €50 million was raised in 2018—has gone to the sort of charitable causes featured in advertising for the collection, according to people familiar with the matter.
Meanwhile, about two-thirds of the money has been used to help cover the budget deficit at the Holy See, these people said. The Holy See consists of the central administration of the Catholic Church and the papal diplomatic network around the world. In 2018, the budget deficit reached roughly €70 million on total spending of about €300 million, reflecting chronic inefficiencies, rising wage costs and hits to investment income.
This of course is due in part to declining church attendance, as well as the besmirching of the Church’s reputation by the child-rape scandal. And, as the paper reports, donations to the PP fund dropped about 20% from 2017 to 2018, with further declines expected in this year.
In its “Peter’s Pence” article, Wikipedia indicates further abuses (the last reference, #22, is to yesterday’s article in the WSJ):
In 2019, it was revealed that the charity had secretly been used by people within the Vatican to buy luxury property in London and to fund movies such as the 2019 Elton John biopic Rocketman. It has also been used to finance the budget deficit of the Holy See.
The upshot is that the Vatican is misleading its flock about where their money goes, and the Pope is complicit in this. Although none of the Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt not lie,” two are applicable here: “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Although the latter could be construed as forbidding perjury rather than lying, it’s been interpreted as lying. Regardless, if the Vatican isn’t lying here, it’s certainly being duplicitous. How many people would donate to “Peter’s Pence” if they knew that only one tenth of their donation went to help people in need?