I’ve often wondered about the origin of the phrase “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” but never bothered to look it up. Since today is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles, I thought I would take the time to do some research and get to the origin of this phrase.
The meaning of the phrase is “taking something from one person/source, and using it to pay another.” As a child, I had hoped there was a more specific Biblical origin for this saying, perhaps something I had overlooked that told a story that would be related to these two apostles. I’ve read the Bible a few times, and nothing even remotely applicable is captured in its pages. My next thought was that it had something to do with their personalities or styles. Peter and Paul are both known to have been great evangelizers, with very different styles particularly suited for their very different audiences. But the “robbing” part of the phrase didn’t seem to work. Robbing is an act of taking. If anything, the talents of each man added to the overall evangelization of the world. Quite the opposite of taking, or robbing.
So, on this Feast day, I gave up trying to figure it out for myself, and decided to do some research. What I found is that the phrase itself has nothing to do with the actual apostles – Peter and Paul – but is, in fact, of an origin that has its roots in Catholicism. If the story is to be believed (there is conflicting evidence), the real meaning behind the phrase definitely satisfies my desire that it be rooted in Catholic tradition. And at any rate, the timeline works with historical fact.
Prior to the Reformation, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was a Catholic Church. (Actually, the present-day St. Paul’s Cathedral is a re-do of a church that previous sat on the site – known today as Old St. Paul’s – which was gutted in the Great Fire of London in 1666.) Over the centuries, St. Paul’s had to be renovated and refortified. Having originally been built by the Normans in the 12th century, St. Paul’s had to be renovated and refortified, all of which was frequent and expensive. In order to help pay for the renovations and repairs, in the early 17th century, a tax was imposed that was referred to as the Paul tax. The funds from this tax went toward the shoring up of St. Paul’s Church.
Meanwhile, in Rome, can you guess what was under construction? Yes! St. Peter’s Basilica. Groundbreaking for the construction of St. Peter’s began in 1506, but it, too, was expensive to build. Before being completed in 1626, the clergy of the Church requested that Catholics make donations to help pay for its completion. This became known as the Peter tax.
So in the period of time, what was a Catholic Londoner with limited funds expected to do? Pay both, of course. Except that in practice this was quite a hardship, and many found themselves “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” In other words, the frugal faithful would forgo paying the Peter tax in order to contribute toward the Paul tax. So, who, in essence was being robbed? The pope, of course.
So today, and every year on this Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, when the collection basket goes around for the second time to collect for Peter’s Pence, and you pass the basket because you just gave to your local parish, pause for at least a moment and consider how you’ve just robbed Peter to pay for St. Paul’s. And if you decide to pass it on anyway, you can at least smile and know that you’re in good historic company.