Is the new Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, from Argentina, serious about helping the poor? He appears to be a humble man, and seems keen to appear a humble man.

In his native country he became famed for his Spartan lifestyle, living not in the bishop’s residence but in his own small flat where he prepared his own meals; when he was made cardinal he had his robes made up by his sister, rather than waste money on an expensive Roman tailor; he travelled around by bus and metro, not by official car. Since election, he has said that he wants ‘a poor church, for the poor.’

Given the unprecedented scandals that have engulfed the Catholic Church in recent years – to the point where priests in Ireland are spat at in the street – there is a crying need for reform but not, I would suggest, just administrative reform, however badly that is called for. The new Pope’s church has need of a bold, eye-catching, breathtaking and above all redemptive gesture that will point it firmly in the direction of the poor, and carry conviction that its ways are changing.

There is one way above all others that such a redemptive reform will claim our attention and our respect. I propose that Pope Francis, as the champion of the poor, sells off the Vatican’s magnificent art collection and devotes the proceeds to the benefit of those who most need help.

Yes, of course, it is a breathtaking, audacious, mind-numbing move, at least to begin with. Part of the point of the Vatican is the art it contains, those glorious achievements of the age of faith – Michelangelo’s Pietà (c. 1500), Raphael’s Coronation of the Virgin (1502-1503), and his Transfiguration (1518-20), Leonardo’s St. Jerome (1481), Bellini’s Burial of Christ (after 1430), Titian’s Madonna de San Niccolo dei Frari (1523). And works by Veronese, Poussin, Bernini and Van Dyck.

But ask yourself this: what help are these works of art for the poor citizens of Rio de Janeiro, the Philippines or the Congo – all areas where Catholicism is increasing, and who are never going to be able to afford a visit to Rome? What sustenance – spiritual or material – can the works offer while they are locked away in the Vatican where, first and foremost, they augment the lives of well educated and well fed papal curia on reasonable stipends. If you visit the supermarket in the Vatican, as I have done, you will see that a very healthy proportion of shelf space is given over to alcohol.

I first proposed this solution in a novel I published in 1987, when I envisaged the election of a new pope from the Americas (the US, in my case not Argentina), a man not unlike Bergoglio, much troubled by the state of the poor in the world, and who had the courage of his convictions and mounted a massive ‘Vatican Auction’ of 22 major free-standing works (not the Sistine chapel, obviously).

Amusingly, the art market was jumping so much in those days that, in order to be credible, we had to change the values on the art works between publication of the hardback and the paperback a year later. Then, the valuation of the works – produced by experts – totaled $1,025,000,000 but of course that figure is way off now. It would surely be closer to twenty times that, maybe more.

Yes, at one level this sound like a crass exercise, introducing hard figures into a ‘spiritual’ area. But, being practical, how else are poor people to be helped? All the evidence shows that, when asked, what the people of the Congo, Rio and the Philippines most want is more and cleaner drinking water, better and more reliable supplies of food, more security, rather than, say, pastoral care. That takes money.

What would the Vatican be like without its art? Good copies could be substituted, or there could simply be gaps, to emphasise the sacrifices that have been made. Or the poor people who have been helped by the monies released by the auction, could themselves send their artworks to the Vatican for display instead. This could be just as moving an experience as the art that is there now – maybe more so, since for many it would have more resonance.

Who would buy the art? The works are of course Christian, with the best Christian provenance they could have, so there would be no shortage of wealthy Christians who would pay top dollar, not just to own something with such an impeccable provenance but also to know what their funds were going to achieve.

The works would no doubt be proudly displayed around the world – this could be a condition of sale, that they must be publicly available, but few would object, in general wanting it known what they had done.

A diaspora of Vatican art works could become a major feature of our increasingly global cultural life, entirely in keeping with the way the world is going. It should even be possible to take these works on world tours, including some of the poorest areas, so that the Catholic poor in Rio or the Congo would at last have a chance to actually see the works that, by then, should have helped their material conditions, thus doing good twice over, materially and spiritually.

Both Leonardo and Michelangelo had their gay side. Who knows how they would have responded to the recent paedophile scandals in the Church. But they had their revolutionary side, too, and it’s a fair bet that they would have enthusiastically approved a redemptive move such as the one being suggested here.

The Times, first published March 2013