In theory, the various religions across the globe are sustained by voluntary donations, combined in many cases with their own massive wealth. From the “tithe” of Judaism and Christianity where worshippers were expected to give a tenth of their produce to the church, to the Islamic “zakat”, these collections are funneled through religious leaders and are intended to be distributed to the poor and needy.
Such situations lend themselves to abuse by the corrupt, and indeed state-sponsored taxes from the church have often been the cause of friction amongst the populace. In most instances, however, the collections would benefit the common good of local populations, being clearly used for the benefit of those most needy. In this way the church acted as a wealth redistribution center.
However, one church tax stands apart, in how it operated, who benefitted, and how it was manipulated. This was the system of donations directly to the Catholic Church in Rome, most commonly known as Peter’s Pence.
From Donation to Taxation
Peter’s Pence started as a voluntary donation in Saxon England, whereby donations could be sent directly to the Holy See in Rome. Presumably the Saxons who gave in this fashion expected their reward in the afterlife, a sort of down payment on your eternal soul, and this is certainly how the Catholics marketed it.
However it soon evolved into what was effectively a Saxon poll tax, as by 1031 King Cnut of England expected each household to contribute a penny to St Peter regardless of their own income. Over the subsequent centuries to amount grew, and although attempts were made to limit the amount the Catholic Church received, population growth meant this was often exceeded, with the church keeping the proceeds.
Peter’s Pence proved to be a useful tool of statecraft however. As the Vatican became increasingly dependent on this income, kings would threaten to remove it to keep Popes in line. Eventually Elizabeth I, cementing her father’s break with Catholicism, abolished the practice entirely in 1559, the second year of her long reign.
The Vatican revived the practice in 1871, where again donations would go directly to Rome. The United States is the largest modern donor, and the proceeds are used for charity work and Vatican “administrative costs” (the split between the two is not clear).
Modern funds are intended for charitable works, but some have certainly been misallocated. As late as 2019 the Catholic church was under fire for using funds to buy luxury property in London, or fund feature films. Peter’s Pence however seems here to stay, a central source of funds to keep the Vatican in the manner to which it has become accustomed.
Top Image: The apostle Peter, for whom the tax is known. Source: Anthony van Dyke / Public Domain.
By Joe Green