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The Vatican and money: A sign of contradiction?

The international media, on 6 June 2020, ran a story about a financial scandal involving an Italian businessman and the Vatican. Mike Pothier comments on the story, pointing out that the financial dealings of the Vatican are at odds with the values of Christianity that Jesus exemplified during his earthly ministry.

A long time ago a newly-ordained bishop shared this joke with me: “How do we know that the Apostolic Succession is true? Because so many bishops behave like Judas.”

Ha-ha? Not so ha-ha…

The crime

On 6 June 2020, the BBC website ran the headline, “Vatican arrest man over luxury property deal.” Reading on, we learn that “An Italian businessman who helped the Vatican to buy luxury property in London in a controversial deal has been arrested by Vatican police […]The apartment block on Sloane Avenue, in London’s exclusive Chelsea, had been bought with church money by the Secretariat of State, the body charged with the Vatican’s diplomatic and political functions.”

Apparently, the businessman in question inflated the price – well, no surprises there. The Vatican’s financial dealings have been mired in ineptitude, as well as corruption, obfuscation, and non-accountability for as far back as anyone can remember.

In my case, that’s 1982, when Roberto Calvi – known as ‘God’s banker’ – the chairperson of Italy’s Banco Ambrosiano, was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. The biggest shareholder in the Banco Ambrosiano was the Vatican Bank, which proceeded to cough up “US$224 million to 120 of Banco Ambrosiano’s creditors as a “recognition of moral involvement” in the bank’s collapse.”

Ineffective reforms

What does ‘recognition of moral involvement’ mean? I have no idea – perhaps Vatican-speak for “Oops, we’ve been naughty boys”? Since then, it has been one mess after another scandal on a fairly regular basis, until at last, Pope Francis arrived and decided to take things in hand. He appointed the no-nonsense Aussie Cardinal Pell to sort it out; but, as we know, Pell didn’t get very far before he was charged with sexual abuse crimes.

It has been one mess after another scandal on a fairly regular basis.

By the time he finally, and rightly, won his appeal, money matters at the Vatican were once again being conducted along tried and tested lines – shifty, fishy, and dodgy. Pell went so far as to suggest that his prosecution on flimsy evidence had been a set-up by Vatican money-people who feared that his new broom might sweep clean. Who knows? Nothing in that murky and self-important world is impossible.

Contradictory values

Back to the BBC story. The Vatican Secretariat of State has purchased an apartment building in a very posh part of London. The deal was worth £160 million, or roughly R3.2 billion. You might ask, why is the Vatican’s diplomatic and political body carrying out purchases of this kind? Furthermore, how was the Italian businessman able to pull the wool over the highly-qualified eyes of the Secretariat of State in this way? The answer to both these questions will be, “shut up, it’s none of your business.”

So let’s ask a different question. Why is the Vatican – an entity that is supposed to represent the Church – getting itself involved in the luxury end of the London property market? This is the epicentre of global greed, where Russian oligarchs compete with Saudi Arabian princelings and Colombian druglords in ostentatious displays of materialism, conspicuous consumption, unbridled avarice and various extremes of hedonism too distasteful to describe in refined company.

Why is the Vatican getting itself involved in the luxury end of the London property market?

Furthermore, the hyper-inflation of property values at the top end has a knock-on effect that elevates prices all the way down, to the point where it is now effectively impossible for a young couple of average income to dream of owning a home in London, not to speak of the social ills brought about gentrification).

Into this cesspool leap the clerics of the Secretariat of State, ready to shell out whole wheelbarrow-loads of other people’s money on an ‘investment’.

Here is how this investment is described by La Croix, the French Catholic news site: “The Vatican’s objective is to garner 12 million pounds (14 million euros) in rent each year. This would allow it to then sell the building for around 300 million pounds (343 million euros) and renegotiate a loan of 100 million pounds (115 million euros). Lending is currently at a rate of 5% interest, which the Vatican hopes to reduce to 2-2.5 %.”

Well, that’s all pretty clear then, isn’t it? There’s 12 million pounds here and 300 million pounds there and another 100 million pounds at 5% and… and nowhere in sight, not for all those millions and millions will you find a leper, a woman with an alabaster jar of nard, and Jesus sitting with them (Mt 26:6-10).

One more in a list of scandals

The BBC report ends by telling us, somewhat redundantly, that “the Catholic Church is still recovering from a series of scandals over the cover-up of sex abuse by its priests.” Yes indeed, and a long, slow, fragile recovery it is, with enquiries all over the place yet to conclude their investigations (like in Poland, for example). But never mind, maybe the financial scandals will take everyone’s minds off the sex stuff.

The Church is meant to be a sign of contradiction against the values of the world.

The Church is meant to be a sign of contradiction against the values of the world. Instead, those in it who cherish above all else unaccountable power – which they pretend, or even believe, is the exercise of legitimate hierarchical authority – are turning it into a sign of contradiction against the values of the Gospel.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Mike Pothier
Mike Pothier is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, and Programme Manager of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) in Cape Town.

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