The Anchoress has a post on the perennial topic of why Catholics (well, some of us, anyway) think it's okay to keep our costly communion vessels and our big fancy churches instead of selling the money to give to the poor and all that. I know we have been over this before, but a new way of phrasing and framing the issue is never a bad thing.
Sell everything in a church, strip it down and you buy some temporary assistance; then the people who sold all that sinful, frivolous beauty go back home, feeling pretty good about themselves and all the ‘help’ they gave to ‘the poor.’ But when the money runs out — and my cousin says money running out is one of the few things you can bank on — then for the poor who remain, “it’s back to business as usual, but with nothing beautiful for them, anywhere.”
My cousin [a Capuchin priest] is a man with a great deal of common sense and compassion; living where and how he has lived, he needs both; he is by no means anyone’s idea of a “conservative” but he feels strongly that comfortable, wealthy people with generous instincts mostly have no idea what the poor “need” and that the poor have just as much right (and expectation) to enjoy the consolation and spiritual uplift of a beautiful church as anyone else. Moreover, struggling people don’t want everyday things like straw baskets to be used at communion, because they use everyday things, every day. At Mass, Jesus deserves beauty and they want to engage him in beauty.
I suppose it isn't quite right to try to speak for all struggling people. Surely they are just like everyone else in that some, viewing a costly liturgical vessel in use at their own parish, appreciate its beauty and feel that it magnifies the Lord, while others feel indignant at the luxury, thinking "This could have been sold -- what could I do with that money? What about the local soup kitchen, or my children's school?" The beautiful vessels are a shared resource, I suppose, and there will ever be disagreements about how to use them.
The Anchoress comments that criticism of this sort could be leveled at other institutions ("the Capitol building") but rarely is. I think that is because it seems like a useful accusation of hypocrisy, because we claim to love the poor. It doesn't really work, of course, if you understand the difference between capital and operating costs; our costly things are among the capital we use to help the poor and rich both, no? Remembering that the main "business" we are in is, after all, spiritual -- expressed and enacted in liturgy, which requires people, places, and things.
It's sort of like saying to a nonprofit anti poverty org, "Wow, that community clinic and food shelf downtown is sure sitting on some sweet real estate. Shouldn't you sell the building and give all the money away?" Or like saying to a cash-strapped municipality that it should sell all the books in the city library, or all the artwork in the city museum, to pay down the debt.