Selling Off the Church’s Patrimony in Philadelphia

The universal Church does not foresee the dispossession of its cultural heritage even under the most burdensome of situations. Its competent teaching authority, including both the Holy See and various national episcopal conferences, have set forth guidelines to these ends. In fact, numerous teaching documents, and various ecclesial initiatives at the international, national and local levels, have sought to express and explain the Church’s promotion and care of its cultural goods. These document support their protection not only as an aspect of the cultural patrimony of humanity, but also as evidence of the Spirit’s vivifying, sanctifying life active in the Church throughout the centuries. The beauty of this witness, a common heritage of all the People of God, is to be safeguarded and employed in the Church’s evangelization.

Currently, a process is in its final stages to sell-off a portion of the most significant works of art held by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, including works by American painter Thomas Eakins and others. Five portraits by Eakins have been handed over to Christie’s New York, and other unspecified pieces to unnamed brokers who were, at the time, trying to buy XRP UK offers. Although the intention of the plan is to aid the consolidation and renovation of the Archdiocesan seminary, such a motive is at odds with the Church’s instruction regarding the care of patrimony. This unfortunately tends to be indicative of the American context in which cultural sensibilities fall on the side of the pragmatic and economic at times, tending to see the Church’s patrimony as a dispensable reality. This action, however well intended, is woefully contrary to the vision and use of religious artistic patrimony.

Concern for the artistic heritage of the church can be traced back directly to Sacrosanctum Concillium. Although a brief exchange during the preparatory commission pondered the question, a number of interventions by bishops during the Council addressed the topic directly. These bishops feared the destruction or selling of genuine works of art in the name of the liturgical reform. Reflecting this wisdom, the final version of SC included the instruction at no. 126:

Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or dispersed.

The American bishops expressed this view as well in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1978), stating at no. 33 that art forms of the past

are part of our common memory, our communion (which extends over time as well as over geographical boundaries).

Although beginning in a liturgical context, there was a wide recognition of the need to form clerics in art and patrimony to protect the heritage of the Church in all its forms (cf. SC 129). Following the Council numerous circular letters to this effect were sent to national episcopal conferences. None of these were identifiably followed in the United States. Such concerns gave rise to the establishment of the Pontifical Commission for the Conservation of the Artistic Patrimony of the Church within the Congregation for the Clergy. In 1993 the moto proprio of John Paul II, Inde a pontificatus, established the body as the independent Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church. The competencies of the commission were then merged with the Pontifical Council for Culture in 2012 by Benedict XVI in his moto proprio Pulchritudinis fidei. The goal of these bodies has been the same:

[P]residing over the guardianship of the historical and artistic patrimony of the entire Church (works of art, historical documents, books and everything kept in museums, libraries and archives); collaborating in the conservation of this patrimony with the individual Churches and their respective episcopal organizations; and promoting an ever greater awareness in the Church about these riches, in accordance with the Congregations for Catholic Education and for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

During these years an extensive array of directives and scholarship has been produced that directly relates to the current situation in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia:

The cultural patrimony of the church includes more than liturgical art and architecture. The Circular letter regarding the cultural and pastoral training of future priests in their upcoming responsibilities concerning the artistic and historic heritage of the Church (1992) states:

[Heritage] not only includes sacred art (architecture, painting, sculpture, mosaics, music, internal decorating, and every other art form connected with the making of the liturgy and the cult), but also libraries, archives, and museums (12).

Moreover, fundamental aspects of the stewardship of the Church’s patrimony have been laid out, including:

adequate conservation”, “protection against dispersion and instrumentalization (which results from their use according to economic standards alone)

and their proposal to the larger community

“as vehicles of the meaning and value of human life” (3).

Notably, the documents also propose a pastoral path in the utilization of Church’s patrimony. This is to say, patrimony is in danger, and too easily dispensed with, when opportunities for purposeful and fruitful interaction are not organized. Failure to do so results in the devaluation of patrimony in its proper sense and the deterioration of the human capacity to see beauty. The Pontifical Council for Culture, in its document Where is your God? (1996), has indicated the urgent

need for an adequate pastoral approach to artists and the arts, and also the appropriate use of cultural heritage.

In a culture marked by globalization where doing, creating and working occupy a fundamental place, the Church enriches the person by promoting being, praise and contemplation to reveal the dimension of the Beautiful One.”

The document notes that many universities fail to teach religion, the arts, and humanities together. The result is that students, and then generations of citizens, are incapable of understanding their own artistic, historical and cultural heritage. Such a perspective hardly foresees an institution of Catholic learning, let alone of clergy formation, ridding itself of art that is essential in its American, local, and Catholic characteristics. If the collection of art is seen as a “storehouse for ‘dead objects’” that can be sold, it so because of an inadequate pastoral vision and plan (Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, 36-37. 1999). In fact, contrary to the plans unfolding in Philadelphia, one of the specific recommendations for the management of ecclesiastical patrimony is the setting up of

activities, events, diocesan museums, cultural itineraries where local art, preserved for future generations, can become instruments of catechesis and education. (Where is Your God?, 2.7)

Unfortunately, those charged with the preservation and protection of the works in Philadelphia, lay and ordained, evidence the lack of formation warned against by the Church for now five decades. The rector of the seminary described the works as “low hanging fruit,” dispensable because of its non-sacred character. The VP for Information services, who directly oversaw the works, stated she lacked the adequate skills necessary to oversee the works of art. The obvious correction needed is the adequate formation in the Church’s vision of its heritage and related skill-sets, not the commodification and dispersal of its patrimony and collective memory – what the RNS article described as “baggage.” In fact, the Eakins paintings were seemingly selected among the holdings of the Archdiocese precisely because they were the works which would command the most attention on the art-market. This is why the collection was placed with Christie’s private sales rather than an auction house.

While the American church is young by European standards, it too has unique roots and indispensable patrimony. Precisely because of this situation it is imperative that local churches in the Unites States preserve their unique witness to the faith of generations of Catholics in the American context. No one doubts the economic burdens felt by religious institutions. But the liquidation of uniquely American Catholic patrimony of the highest caliber is both shortsighted and contrary to the Church’s understanding of its historical treasures and evangelical mission. The patrimony of the Church exists as the authentic faith expression of the entire People of God – not as a tangential commodity. Patrimony has a unique characteristic – once gone, it is irretrievable. Sadly, in Philadelphia the Church’s particular and unique heritage is being exchanged for drywall board and carpet squares.

James Thomas Hadley, Obl.SB, STL, PhD is a post-doctoral student in the Faculty of Beni Culturali at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome.


  1. This is an eye-opening and fascinating post. I had no idea that there was such a well-thought out defense of keeping and maintaining art within the church. Like most American Catholics, I daresay, I have not been exposed to this teaching. I hope this post is widely read.

    “Low hanging fruit”? How cynical. Sadly, I am not surprised by such a comment.

  2. On the other hand, portraits of clergy don’t strike me as having great liturgical value. Or even cultural value, outside of a seminary.

    If, however, Mr Eakins had painted parishes celebrating Corpus Christi processions, or First Communions, or even a Friday fish fry, and such, I could see the value in loaning such works to the faith communities depicted. Or if he had painted scenes from the Bible or the lives of saints. If art isn’t being used in liturgy, or is being stored in a seminary closet, or is hung in halls where only men are deigned worthy to trod, then seriously: this isn’t a big issue with me.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #2:
      It would be useful to read the corpus of works and think of culture and patrimony in a more expansive vision of the life of the Church. I think focusing on ‘clericalism’ misses the larger vision being pointed to. And dare I say, as the documents: the life of the church has its source and summit in a liturgical context – but does not exhaust its activities…

      1. @James Hadley – comment #3:
        Points taken. I think you’ve made the best case I’ve seen for retention. As a married man, I don’t know that I feel particularly connected to former rectors or bishops. But the seminary wasn’t “doing” anything with some of these works. That they will be or might be placed in art museums: they are still part of the Church’s treasury. The only difference: we don’t own them anymore. If SNAP (for example) were to get their hands on old paintings of Krol, Bevilacqua, and Rigali and burn them–well, that might be problematic no matter how viscerally satisfying to victims.

        In the eyes of some, your points might be more convincingly applied to church architecture. Again, if only resources were available to save some of the more artistic older churches.

      2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #4:
        The article says they hope for a museum but alternatively they may be bought by a private collector. Thus, they would be at the disposal of that private individual, and not available to the public.

        Also, anyone who knows about museums is aware that they only show a small portion of their actual holdings at any given time. Selling art to a museum is no guarantee it will be seen regularly or often. I know that sounds strange, but it is true.

    2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #2:
      The art for sale was in a hallway where everybody and anybody routinely visited. Mothers took their children regularly to see the artwork. It sounds like you think they were worthless pictures of old dead guys? In reality, when I struggled with whether or not to commit to Catholicism I stared into their painted faces and prayed to God, asking what kind of men were these? What ancient, historic people gave so much of their time, their labour, their love to serve others, to such an extent that the painter sat for weeks trying to capture their images in oil and canvas for all the world to see forever? Who DOES that? … then I heard God say, “You do … if only you would.” Will I? I’m not sure. But I know those paintings deserve respect and should be housed where poor people can see them. Not in some billionaire’s mansion, and not in some big museum in Manhattan with a $20 admission fee.

      1. @Mark Pennington – comment #28:
        Mark, thank you for that amazing witness.

        In one brief paragraph, you have put flesh on something that is too easily treated as an abstraction: the spiritual value of these very works of art.

        We’re all indebted to you for making this real.

  3. On the other hand . . .

    Here in the United States, the Roman Catholic Church is hardly the only institution concerned with preserving cultural and artistic heritage. Is it somehow improper for a seminary to sell these paintings to an individual who shares that same concern? To a museum where they may get not only better care but also better visibility? Words like “unique” — used repeatedly throughout, especially in the last paragraph — only bolster the arrogant claim that somehow only the institutions of the Church can do this. That is an affront to many faithful who serve in museums and other institutions with this as their primary mission.

    One thing the church does have that other museums do not is a concern for the education and training of clergy and teachers in the church. This cannot be outsourced, and if the seminary sees an opportunity to allow these paintings to (a) get better care and more visibility and (b) better support their particular ministry of education, it may be not only appropriate but admirable to sell them and use the proceeds for support of their particular and primary mission. From the piece at NCR, it appears that this is the motivation of the seminary in Philadelphia.

    Finally, I can’t help but think of the recent uproar over Bishop Bling in Germany and various US bishops and their elaborate new/expanded living quarters, and the condemnation and concern about this expressed by Pope Francis. Is it somehow too much to ask that priests-in-training begin to get the smell of the sheep while they are still in seminary, rather than living surrounded by treasures during their formation?

    1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #5:
      I am American so I have some idea of were the American church is at and how American institutions function. ‘Unique’ is used because the works are part of the particular American catholic faith story and because the valorization that religious works of art receive in a ecclesial/theological context is far different than they would receive in a secular institution. The church sees the works of art as expressions of its faith-history as well as modes of evangelization and catechesis. This dimension is definitely not the goal of a secular institution – even one dedicated to art. The ecclesial context foresees actively presenting the faith content of the work. Thus, for example, one finds in the pedagogy of the Vatican Museums a far different agenda and didactic experience that one finds, for example, at the National Gallery.

      Finally, I would really urge others to read the many fine documents of the Pontifical Council for Culture and well as European bishops’ conferences to see how ‘primary mission’ is defined, enabled and engaged.

  4. I think the defense of the church owning cultural artifacts misses a point … of course art and culture and beauty and history are important, but those things will not disappear from society if the church sells what they owns … the world is full of galleries and museums and universities and other public venues for art, music, history. You’d think from these arguments that the Catholic church was the only and last repository of culture 😉

  5. Parish churches, the home of a faith community and a link joining past, present and future Catholics are, in my opinion, the Church’s greatest and most valuable patrimony. Parish churches are evidence the faith has been caught and taught by a definite group of people at definite times in a definite place. The parish church is the outward sign of God”s presence in a community. Yet parish church buildings have been sold & turned into condos, restaurants and more. I’d rather lose a dozen Pietas than one parish church. But, alas, the Pieta remains and hundred of parish churches no longer stand to give silent witness to the presence of a living faith. There’s something to the prohibition of graven images.

  6. As I read the article and the comments I kept hearing these words: “Go sell what you have and give it to the poor, and come, follow me.”

  7. Admittedly, Thomas Eakins is not my favorite artist. His paintings are quite cold, restrained, intellectual. His best, most acclaimed works are really worth viewing, but they speak in a particular register that is not the most popular one — today. However, popularity waxes and wanes.

    I’m drawn to the question of preserving this, however, not from the point of view of “art as investment” but from the point of view of the history of American art, and art as cultural patrimony. You look at art in order to see the world differently. Here is a regional American artist, of world renown. How did he come to be commissioned for this work? What was his relationship to the seminary or the Philadelphia church? Did someone see his art as particularly apt for the seminary and why?

    But underneath these questions is a deeper one: What value does American art hold for us, as Americans? I think these questions come at a time when we hold our own patrimony cheaply, as if it counts for nothing. A throw away culture, which America has become, is one that ignores its own past, and is always seeking something new and shiny to replace it. What sort of portraits will they put on the walls when these are gone? New ones, I’d venture to guess, that are fairly anodyne and poorer art.

    When I studied American art as an undergraduate, with Irma Jaffee, she proposed the unifying thread of pre-1914 American art was the moral sense, underlying a persistent realism and severity. Interesting, eh?

    Well, we must get rid of that! It simply doesn’t fit with American culture today!

  8. But this isn’t really about art history or about American interest in art, it’s about the church owning art as part of its patrimony. Am I the only one who finds the words ‘church’ and ‘patrimony’ a strange combination? It’s this patrimony that George Pell has been hired to oversee … … and it includes a ton of real estate around the world as well as artwork.

  9. ISTM that the issue at hand is the possible bankruptcy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Given the archbishop’s responsibility to stave that off, which should he sell — some Eakins paintings or some old, unused churches which themselves might have artistic an cultural value?

    By the way, a fine Eakins went recently for $68,000,000.

  10. But Ann, that’s not what the article said at all. They are not staving off bankruptcy. They are making improvements to their seminary.

    The article also made it clear that these portraits will not fetch that price.

  11. The link below is to an article about these paintings, with accompanying gallery where they can be seen:

    When I read the history, I am saddened by their sale. They are mostly of faculty at the seminary whom Eakins met while attending vespers there. It seems they are being sold in part because they are not being maintained properly, which is no solution as Hadley has stated.

    The story of seminary faculty befriending a young artist certainly should be a part of the formation of priests at St Charles. Having it embodied in these paintings would certainly enhance that message.

  12. The archdiocese is experiencing grave financial difficulties requiring them to close and consolidate schools and parishes. Selling a few paintings will apparently offset one expense regarded as important. Eakins is not Michelangelo and these portraits of seminary profs are not to be compared with the Pieta or Moses.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #17:
      It is far too easy to say one piece of patrimony does not equal another, and precarious. Can an archive equal the Last Judgement of the Sistine Chapel? In fact, this is the wrong question as culture heritage are all those things that reflect the faith history of the Church, its tradition and believing. One must be very careful with false equivalencies (or lack thereof). Michelangelo’s works were once considered sacrilegious and also passé soon after his lifetime. The ambone of Donatello at San Lorenzo in Florence were once declared his ugliest works. I would again urge all to begin to read the writings of the Congregation for Culture and begin to think about the church’s identity and life of evangelization in a much broader manner.

      1. @James Hadley – comment #18:

        For what it’s worth, Eakins is scarcely a major figure internationally, and his American national significance seems to be based more on the period when he lived than the quality of his work. I wonder if this conversation would be taking the same direction if the works being sold off were prime examples of his homoerotic work.

      2. @Paul Inwood – comment #19:
        During his lifetime, Eakins scandalized any number of his contemporaries by realistic depictions of nudes, and by posing nude with students, both male and female. Most outstandingly, he scandalized art critics and the public by realistic depiction of surgery in his most famous painting, The Gross Clinic. I think it was a fad a number of years ago to “analyse” his art as homoerotic. But what if some of it is aptly so-designated? How would that change this conversation?

        Eakins remains an important American painter, not only for his own work but for his influence on the Philadelphia Realists.

  13. According to this June, 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer article, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was $350,000,000. in debt, and the Archdiocese planned to sell off real estate to work off the debt. The debt include monies supposedly in retirement funds. in 2012 the Archdiocese had an operating budget deficit of over $39,000,000! Very complicated situation.

    Prudence is called for, no doubt, but prudence can be extremely painful when options are extremely limited, as seems to be the case in Philadelphia.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #20:
      Thanks for the link, Ann. Wow, that’s a lot of debt. I wonder how much of it is abuse-settlement related. The sale of these paintings certainly won’t offset it by much. They will have to sell a considerable bit of real estate. Still, no plans to declare bankruptcy.

  14. Rita –
    The Philadelphia situation looks so complicated! Apparently a big part of the financial problem is simply bad management. But what’s a new Archbishop to do? He has already closed a bunch of parishes and terminated a bunch of employees. It’s not that I’m a fan of Archbishop Chaput, but he does have some awful money problems on his hands.

    I agree that the artistic patrimony mustn’t be lightly disposed of. Why? Well, in my experience it is the *poor* people who want the old beauties to be retained as much as any middle-class person. Sometimes the only beautiful thing the poor people can call their own is their lovely old parish church. Without it their lives would be devoid of *any* physical beauty of their own.

    So I agree with you whole-heartedly that aesthetic valuables should be sold only as the very last resort. And I insist that poor people are equally if not more concerned about retaining aesthetic valuables as are their middle-class counterparts.

    (Whether or not those Eakinses fall into the keep-it-if-at-all-possibe class of valuables is a different question. Maybe they are, maybe htey aren’t.)

  15. Regarding: “Although the intention of the plan is to aid the consolidation and renovation of the Archdiocesan seminary, such a motive is at odds with the Church’s instruction regarding the care of patrimony. This unfortunately tends to be indicative of the American context in which cultural sensibilities fall on the side of the pragmatic and economic at times, tending to see the Church’s patrimony as a dispensable reality.”

    – View from the Pew: The economics of any diocese, especially one in the USA is always dependent on how and what is reported to the laity (what is on the books and what is off the books).
    -It always is a surprise to read about a diocese that ‘struggled’ to keep schools opened but will sell real estate to remodel a soon to be retired cleric’s housing.
    – In the end the People of God pay for what the People of God want. The fact that art is sold to cover the costs of changes at the seminary perhaps indicates that the People of God in the Archd. of Philadelphia are no longer prepared to pay for this seminary. In which case, then selling the art to support a seminary that does not inspire beneficiaries could be viewed as short term life support of the seminary and the training it has been supplying to the sons of the Archdiocese.

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