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St. Peter’s Basilica: How Piety and Greed Almost Destroyed the Catholic Church

St. Peter's

St. Peter's Basilica

The cost and method of funding the construction of Christianity's most sacred shrine ignited a firestorm of protests that created a new religion and gave Protestantism its name. 

An act of piety and p.r. half a millennium ago enraged and alienated the pious throughout Europe. Construction of St. Peter’s Basilica almost led to the destruction of the religion it was intended to edify.

Building began in 1506 on the site of the 4th-century St. Peter’s erected by the Emperor Constantine above the alleged burial place of the church's namesake.

Constantine’s embarrassing, crumbling ruin was demolished to make way for an expensive replacement. The attempt to restore the Church’s glory and inspire the faithful had the opposite effect. An old quip summarized the irony: The operation was a success, but the patient died.

New Testament Gospels note that Jesus, the first socialist according to some historians, condemned the accumulation of wealth. Christianity’s founding son said that man cannot serve two masters, God and Mammon (the pagan god of money). Jesus also preached that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter Heaven.

Jesus and Godless Communism

Like politics, Jesus Christ and Karl Marx make strange but compatible bedfellows. The father of Communism agreed with the son of God about His poor prognosis for the rich.

While amassing wealth, the Catholic Church condemned it, but Protestants interpreted affluence as a sign of divine favoritism that included eternal salvation.

Construction of St. Peter's was financed by selling papal indulgences that absolved sinners and liberated their loved ones from Purgatory. The benefits of indulgences were summarized in a jingle as slick as a Madison Avenue ad campaign: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings/The soul from Purgatory springs.”

Pope Leo X

Pope Leo X (1475-1521)

The pope at the time, Leo X, (1475-1521) wasn't even an ordained priest. Leo embodied the brazen venality of the Renaissance Church when he unapologetically quipped after his accession to the throne of St. Peter, “God has given us the papacy. Now let us enjoy it.”

Johann Tetzel 

Johann Tetzel (1465-1519)

The pope dispatched preachers throughout Europe to hustle God's mercy. The most infamous traveling salesman was Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest whose sales territory was Germany.

Martin Luther Called Pope Leo X the Holy Hooker

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Selling salvation outraged Martin Luther, who nicknamed the most revered figure in Christendom the “Whore of Rome” for trading forgiveness for cash. An Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in east-central Germany, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church in 1517.

The Theses listed the theologian’s grievances with the papacy and became an unofficial declaration of independence from Rome. Luther’s denunciation launched the Protestant Reformation that almost reformed Catholicism out of existence.

Two abuses in particular enraged the reformer. Besides bailing out relatives in Purgatory, indulgences could spring the dead from hell and grant absolution to the buyer for sins he had yet to commit. Without papal approval, preachers peddling afterlife insurance policies invented these fraudulent benefits to boost sales and their commissions.

Luther’s beef with the Church involved doctrinal as well as financial issues still debated today. Two of the defining beliefs that distinguish Catholicism from Protestantism concern heaven and the best way to get there.

The Catholic Church preached that good works earned access to the pearly gated community called heaven. Princes and paupers hoped to buy their way into heaven with bequests to charitable institutions, especially the papacy.

Protestants accepted the doctrine of predestination and believed that God had predestined people before birth to heaven or hell regardless of their behavior.

Religions have prospered for millennia with the comforting consolation that no matter how wretched life may be, heaven awaits patient do-gooders. Skeptics consider the promise of dying happily ever reactionary because it discourages the poor from resenting the rich — or worse, rebelling.

Karl Marx and the Heroin of Heaven

Catholic theologians promised that peasants and proletarians would get their reward in heaven. Church support for the status quo turned Marx into an atheist who called religion “the opiate of the people.” Superstition, Marx wrote, anesthetized the pain of poverty and neutralized opposition to the inequitable distribution of wealth.

Protestant predestination eliminated the comforting promise of heaven as the reward for good behavior and deeds. Half of Europe wouldn’t have converted to the new faith without Luther’s codicil to God’s will. A rider to the contract between God and man stipulated that those predestined for heaven could be identified by their wealth.

Money not charity served as salvation’s crystal ball, as God bestowed earthly riches on those who were predestined to join Him in heaven. The wretched condition of the poor provided a preview of their more wretched afterlife - in hell.

In his seminal 1904 treatise, The Protestant Ethic, German economist Max Weber examined the two contradictory beliefs that pitted doing good deeds against making good money as the more effective way to reach the good life in the afterlife. Weber concluded that the heavenly significance of earthly riches explained why Protestant Northern Europe was richer than Catholic Southern Europe.

A large bank account revealed a Protestant’s ticket to heaven. Catholics who accepted Christ’s proto-socialism, summarized by His claim that a hump-backed animal had a better shot at entering heaven than a rich man, considered wealth an express train to hell. They preferred to be Jesus' camel, not Mammon's idolaters.

A 1981 survey by Stanford economist Dr. Thomas Sowell ranked America’s wealthiest groups by ethnicity or race. Sowell’s research obliterated Weber’s claim that Protestants are richer than Catholics. Sowell’s list, published in his book, Ethnic America, also invalidated Weber’s explanation of why Protestants enjoyed greater wealth.

American Jews register No. 1 on Sowell’s money meter. Japanese come in second. Despite Weber’s claim that the belief in predestination promotes the accumulation of wealth by Protestants, Polish Catholics are the third richest ethnic group in America. Italian Catholics occupy the No. 4 spot. WASPS trail behind in fifth place, followed by Irish Catholics.

St. Peter's - Disneyland With An E-ticket to Salvation

The Basilica in Vatican City remains the world’s premier tourist attraction. The venality that paid for it has been forgotten while its official purpose, inspiring awe and faith, persists in today's Age of Disbelief and Doubt. The cost of construction was bad theology but a good investment.


Chamberlin, E.R. The Bad Popes. New York: Dorset, 1969.

Durant, Will. The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300-1564. Simon and Schuster, 1957. 

Sowell, Thomas. Ethnic America: A History. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Penguin, 2002.