Thursday, December 06, 2007

How much land does the Church own?

Have you ever been standing around the water cooler at work and, regardless of the conversation, somehow had the Catholic Church brought into the discussion? You think to yourself, "Oh boy. Let's see where this goes." Then some know-it-all says something like, "Of course, the Catholic Church is so rich and owns more land than anybody else on earth," or something like that. Everybody else nods in ignorant agreement and you try to resist the urge to throw your coffee on him. Well, I don't know about you, but I frequently hear people complain about "all the land" the Church supposedly owns and the supposed great masses of wealth that it contains. We all know it is not the case; anybody who has been involved in a parish for even one week knows that most parishes are either broke, operate at a break-even level, or (many cases) simply operate on a deficit. But, I decided to do some research and put some numbers behind the truth that we all already understand.

So, how much land does the Church actually own? Well, what do we mean by "the Church"? The first thing we have to understand is that there is no such concept as "the Church" owning land. The Vatican does not have centralized land holdings all over the world like, say, the Church of Scientology does. The dozens of parishes in any given county all over the country are not in any way owned by the Vatican, and the Vatican has no claim or title to them.

Parish land is owned by the diocese in which a local church is situated. Usually, the parish itself will own the buildings on the land. Catholic schools are private organizations whose land is either owned by the parish they are affiliated with or by a holding group or corporation set up in that school's name. So, instead of asking how much land "the Church" owns, you have to ask how much land does any given diocese own, and even then it is confusing since the diocese may own only the land, but not the buildings upon which the land is situated. Monastery lands are owned by those religious communities, and seminaries are owned by the diocese. Oh, and keep in mind that probably in any given parish, a sizable chunk of its land holdings (sometimes up to 50%) are cemeteries.

In order to figure out how much land these many organizations own collectively would be a very burdensome task. You'd have to figure out how much land and buildings are owned by every parish in the world - there is usually only one Catholic Church in every city of average size, and many more in larger ones. Then you'd have to figure out how much land each individual diocese owns - and there are 2,797 dioceses and archdioceses in the world, and each of them is completely independent. That's a lot of dioceses, and potentially a lot of land, although any given diocese rarely owns more land besides the land immediately adjacent to the land that the parish sits upon. Then you'd have to figure out how much land each religious order owns, how much land held by private Catholic schools not affiliated with a parish, etc. These are all independent; they are not agents of the papal government or in any way under the legal authority of the Vatican as regards property ownership. The only benefit the Vatican gets from the dioceses of the world is an annual collection called Peter's Pence that is voluntary.

But even if you could do this math and add up the land owned by every Catholic diocese and parish, it would be a meaningless number, because it would not tell you how much land "the Church" owns, but rather, how much land is owned by an artificial hodgepodge of thousands of organizations. To ask the question of how much land "the Church" owns is like asking how much land blond haired people own - there simply is no collective organization that centrally owns land on behalf of blond haired people, and even if you could add up all the land owned by individual blond haired people, you'd have just a number that didn't reflect anything in the real world.

This answer no doubt does not satisfy you. You are convinced that "the Church" owns more land than anyone else and want to prove it. If we were to take 'the Church' as being just the Vatican, what would the answer be?

The Vatican itself owns only the 108 acres it happens to be on and some other small sites outside of Rome. So, if we insist on interpreting "the Church" to mean the Vatican, then there is your answer: the Vatican owns 108 acres plus some smaller sites outside Rome.

Okay, you say, so maybe the Vatican as a central authority doesn't own all the land mentioned above, but the Catholics collectively do, and this is "the Church" in some degree, even if it is extremely decentralized. When you add up all of the parishes, monasteries, seminaries and diocesan owned buildings, surely the Church must be the single largest landowner on the earth? Not so. Not even close. Who are the biggest landowners?

By category, the largest public landowners in the world are the governments of various nations who own things like roads, airports, public parks, etc. The largest private landowner in the world is CNN”s Ted Turner, who own 1,800,000 acres. The other top ten landowners are all ranching families (sources: Forbes magazine, Oct. 6, 2003). The largest single landowner on the whole planet: LAND VALUES-GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS: “As of June 30, 1966, the world's largest land owner was the United States Government, with a holding of 765,291,000 acres (1,185,787 square miles) including 529,000 acres outside of the United States. The total value at cost was $69,357,000,000.” I’d imagine this is still true, though I'm sure the dollar value has gone up.

By the way, please don't tell me that the Queen of England is the world's largest landowner or that she owns 1/6 of the earth's surface or any of that nonsense. The Queen only "owns" those properties that are specifically designated as holdings of the House of Windsor, her family. Even then, some of these holdings are not in her power to disposes of. You will say that there are millions are acres of "crown lands" around the world; for example, 89% of Canada is crown land. But the Queen does not own it personally in any meaningful sense. She cannot dispose of it as she pleases. It is basically government land. It is true 1/6 of the earth's surface is certainly made up of countries that claim the Queen as the head of state, but that does not mean she "owns" that land. The queen does not "own" Canada or Australia. That is way too simplistic.

But back to the Catholic Church. Even if the Church is not the world's largest landowner, with all of the tithes and offerings that come through it, surely it must be the world's largest financial institution then? This is very untrue, and one which many non-Catholics are confused about. They seem to think that the Church is financed from the top down, as if things at the diocesan and parochial level are paid for by the Vatican or something. But we know that the Church is financed from the bottom up: the diocese is supported by the community of parishes, and Rome is supported by the dioceses, as well as from collections like Peter’s Pence, etc. The Church is actually quite poor, because statistically most parishes are in Third World countries and have very little to contribute. The problem is that people tend to confuse the artistic treasures of the Vatican (the Michelangelos, Bernini architecture, etc.) with financial wealth. This is simply not the case. The world’s largest financial institution is Japan Post, the privately owned Japanese postal system, whose assets are estimated at $3.1 trillion. The second largest is Citigroup, with only half those assets. The Vatican, by contrast, has a revenue of only $355 million, hardly even close to the largest financial institution in the world.

I hope this provides you with some food for thought, and ammunition against those who arrogantly claim that the Church is the world's biggest landowner or biggest financial institution. The Church is not the biggest land owner because there is no centralized Church to own the land. It is not the biggest financial institution because it is funded solely by donations from a people who by statistical majority are located in the Third World.

Educate yourself.


Anonymous said...

Our diocese talked about its land holdings, and do you know what the largest single holding was? Cemeteries! Pretty useless land for the most part, but if you calculate it, most diocesan holdings would follow that same pattern: over 50% of titled land is the cemeteries (usually several in a diocese).

Anonymous said...

But you never actually say what the church's land holdings are. Just that they are not the largest. It would be good to know how many acres there are. You gave that for others, which not the church's?

Chad Hedstrom said...

It's likely the church owns a significant % of urban land, or land inside city limits. At a rate of 1 acre per church and 1 church per city in Texas that's 3500 acres, not including schools cemeteries and gifted land.

Anonymous said...

The Vatican owns most of USA- except for the few remaining sovereign states.That is because king of England owed money to the Vatican and unable to pay it back signed over all the land of Britian and its colonies.
Jesus owned nothing.?

Anonymous said...

Several points are wrong here. Queen Elizabeth is the world's largest land owner with over 6 billion acres, What with being monarch of over 30 territories. Next comes King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with 550 million acres. Ted Turner is way down the list.
As far as Assets go, Citigroup aren't even close, and the Royal Bank of Scotland tops the list with 3.5 Trillion, beating out Japan Post Holdings by 400 BILLION.
When you look at the wealth of the Catholic church, you also have to look at the fact that they receive tax exempt status in most countries around the world. It is difficult to find information on their holdings, although there are 408,000 parishes and missions, 126,000 education institutions, 5,800 hospitals, 8,700 orphanages, 14,000 homes for the elderly and handicapped. Worldwide the Catholic church has around 1.4 million personnel, which puts it second behind Wal-Mart for non government institutions.
If you assume an average of 20 acres for schools and hospital sites, 2 acres for old age and disabled homes, 1 acre for each parish and orphanage, as well as 5 acres for each parish's cemetary, the figures come out at around 5 million acres of land. At an average price of $5000 per acre (based on the fact that most churches are in very good positions) you are looking at over $25 billion in land assets. That is a VERY conservative estimate, I would say that the Vatican alone would be worth that amount. You could conservatively estimate that the Catholic church as a whole has assets of more than $100 billion.

Anonymous said...

As far as tithes go, with a membership of over 1.4 billion, assuming each member gave $1 per week, you are looking at revenue of $72.8 billion a year, that would be an extremely conservative amount, and in reality would probably average out to $5 per person, making an annual revenue of $364 billion which puts it up there with Wal-Mart, Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil. On top of that how much money is generated from the 126,000 educational institutes, and 5,800 hospitals that the church owns and runs?
The big difference from these other companies, the church pays no taxes.

BONIFACE said...


Your estimation is inaccurate because of the fact that the Church, collectively, ownes very little - perhaps a few churches in Rome. The Catholic Church does not own property collectively. Property is owned by each individual Diocese. The only way you could get these numbers is by lumping all the Diocese's in the world together, when in fact they are all separate land owners. It becomes a useless number, like asking how much land "white people" own, when in fact people own land separately.

Anonymous said...

Clearly you're an American (the complete ignorance of other countries gave it away). The poster in October is correct - Queen Elizabeth II is by far the largest landowner in the world. The USA Government does not even come close.

Steve Calovich said...

Boniface- I'd like to know what you think of the sale of the Papal States in 1929 for $92.1 million and the formal request one week later by Our Lady of the Rosary for the consecration of Russia.

Here's a link to Bernadino Nogara-

BONIFACE said...

I don't think Elizabeth II "owns" all the land she is sovereign over...even in the old days when the monarchs were much more powerful they did not "own" all the lands of their domain. They were king/queen of the realm but most of land was held by other lords. Saying Elizabeth owns all the lands she is technically Queen over is absurd. The US Government, on the other hand, does directly and immediately own all the lands it claims sovereignity over (in the name of the Federal Government, I mean) - taking into account every military installation in the world, it is quite immense.

Anonymous said...

Actually Boniface, you are being ignorant to the fact the just because she is one person she is no form of government. The Queen is part of a monarch government, meaning she rules the Empire, just like the US government rules the country. So therefore, just as the US "directly" owns all the land that is claimed, so does the Queen.

BONIFACE said...

I still doubt that the UK owns more land than the United States...unless you are counting places within the Commonwealth (Canada, Australia) that still technically call Elizabeth their sovereign but who in reality has no authority over those places. The authority of the US government over the land it owns, by contrast, is direct and immediate.

Anonymous said...

is each diocese not an instrument of the papal state, and therefore when the land ownership of the Roman Catholic Church is in question, should it not consider ALL of the lands owned by the church as a whole? I believe the answers to these questions is a resounding "yes", although the church itself, and many of its congregants, would offer "no", in order to both supplicate their own consciences and to lend to the illusion that they are not for profit. This is much in the same fashion that a corporation claims zero profits whilst it maneuvers its assets into positions of invisibility to the taxing state. So, let us not skirt around the issues: the Roman Catholic Church, as a whole, owns a sizable portion of the land in every country it occupies, and while that wealth may be assigned little value by the church itself, its real world value is immense. That is not to speak of the power of the church, nor the church's political positions, official or otherwise, which are quite often to tow the party line so as to maintain their assets and power.

BONIFACE said...


is each diocese not an instrument of the papal state?

No. Each diocese is independent, at least concerning property ownership. The See of Rome has no authority to dictate what each diocese does with its property. Diocesan property is completely independent and can in no way be considered "instruments" of the papal state. It is all owned by each diocese individually, with Rome holding no legal claim or title.

Anonymous said...

The queen of england owns 1/6 of the world's surface.

BONIFACE said...

The Queen does not own it personally. She cannot dispose of it as she pleases. 1/6 of the earth's surface is certainly made up of countries that claim the Queen as the head of state, but that does not mean she "owns" that land. The queen does not "own" Canada or Australia. That is way too simplistic.

Anonymous said...

Great question. The author of this article side stepped the question about nine times. Lame.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the other side of the question is to grant the fantasies of everyone who claims that the Church (Vatican and the popes) own so much. Then we must ask what are the lands used for? We already know: Parishes, schools, hospitals, and other charities, alonq with an infinitesimal minority of possible museums and historical places that contain the paternity of mankind.

No factories, conglomerates, multi-national corporations, oil fields, nuclear plants, armament manufacturers, or any commercial entities that are aimed at sole enrichment of the members of the clergy.

Basically, the Church's assets, whatever they are, are used for the salvation of souls, to educate children, to feed and care for the poor, to help the sick and elderly, and to rehabilitate those who have done great harm to themselves through their own fault. After all, the supposedly homophobic church is the by far and away largest provider of AIDS care in the world.

And I have never seen a caricature of a rich prelate chomping a cigar as he plans the exploitation of the common man...