Like the Pentecostal churches, more traditional Christian churches have also relied on communities for f inancial support. None have fared better than the Roman Catholic Church, which has amassed an incalculable fortune in property, fine art and other assets through the ages.
The Catholic Church has at various stages in the past found ways of charging for just about anything from pilgrimages to the prevention of excommunication from the church. At low points in the church’s history the “slightly wicked” (those who were not condemned to hell) were even allowed to purchase “indulgences”: at a price one could have centuries or millen- nia knocked off one’s time in purgatory, where it was believed souls could languish for thousands of years.
Although the power of the Roman Catholic Church waned following the Renaissance, the Reformation and the subsequent fracturing of the church, the modern Vatican is still so secretive and has retained so much treasure the value of which can only be guessed at. Financial experts can trace somewhere between $10bn and $15bn worth of assets, including stockholdings in banks, insurance, chemicals, steel, construction and real estate. Dividends from these assets pay for Vatican expenses and charities, and all of the Vatican’s income is tax-free. Some commentators say the above figures reflect an underestimation of the Church’s true wealth, which could run into hundreds of trillions of dollars if allegations of an undeclared fortune in gold and fine art turn out to be true.
The Church of England, partly founded by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century to defy Pope Clement VII, who wouldn’t grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, has likewise amassed a fortune in a few centuries. Once the biggest landowner in Britain, most of the Church of England’s land was since sold off and ploughed into an investment portfolio worth around $6.7bn, which is said to earn over $244m in interest and dividends annually. Other sources of income include cash donations from congregations, legacies, events and services.
The a c c u mu l a t e d wealth of many t raditional Christian churches has been reinvigorated by modern purveyors of the “prosperity gospel”. In South Africa, these include churches set up