“God’s Bankers”: a new book exposing the corruption of the Vatican bank

March 22, 2015 • 9:50 am

I’ve criticized Damon Linker’s atheist-bashing before (see here), but in today’s New York Times he shows that he’s an equal-opportunity basher. In the Sunday Book Review, Linker evaluates, favorably, a new book by investigative reporter Gerald PosnerGod’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican. Posner’s book, which came out Feb. 3, is doing well: it was a New York Times bestseller, is now #54 on Amazon, and today ranks #1 in the categories of “Catholicism” and “Christian denominations and sects.” Bill Donohue will be furious!

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Posner’s book is about the shady banking practices of the Vatican, some of them apparently involving offshore stashing of dough, deep corruption, association with the Mafia, and perhaps even murder. We know about the religious evils of Catholicism, but this book shines a light on a whole new realm of Vatican malfeasance. Here are a few excerpts from Linker’s review:

That the Vatican has a bank at all is surprising when taking in the long view of church history. During the Middle Ages, the papacy developed into an aristocratic and feudal institution dependent for much of its income on rents and taxes collected in the Papal States of central Italy. This came to an abrupt end with the final unification of Italy in 1870, which deprived the church of its lands and feudal income, leading to several decades of acute financial insecurity.

Popes of this period — Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI — publicly denounced lending money at interest (usury) while at the same time accepting massive loans from the Rothschilds and making their own interest-bearing loans to Italian Catholics. Beginning with ­Bernardino Nogara, appointed by Pius XI in 1929, the church also empowered a series of often shady financial advisers to engage in financial wheeling and dealing around the globe. “So long as the balance sheets showed surpluses,” Posner writes, “Pius and his chief advisers were pleased.” That pattern would continue through the rest of the 20th century.

. . . Posner weaves an extraordinarily intricate tale of intrigue, ­corruption and organized criminality — much of it familiar to journalists who cover the ­Vatican, though not widely known among more casual church watchers — from Pius XII down to Benedict XVI. These were years when the Vatican moved beyond the last vestiges of feudal restraint to become “a savvy international holding company with its own central bank” and a “maze of offshore holding companies” that were used as sprawling money-laundering ­operations for the Mafia and lucrative slush funds for Italian politicians.

Posner’s gifts as a reporter and story­teller are most vividly displayed in a series of lurid chapters on the ­American ­archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the arch-Machiavellian who ran the Vatican Bank from 1971 to 1989. Notorious for ­declaring that “you can’t run the church on Hail Marys,” ­Marcinkus ended up ­implicated in several sensational scandals. The biggest by far was the collapse of Italy’s largest private bank, Banco ­Ambrosiano, in 1982 — an event ­preceded by mob hits on a string of investigators looking into corruption in the Italian banking industry and followed by the spectacular (and still unsolved) murder of Ambrosiano’s ­chairman ­Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging from scaffolding beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London shortly after news of the bank’s implosion began to break. (Although the Vatican Bank was eventually absolved of legal culpability in Ambrosiano’s collapse, it did concede “moral involvement” and agreed to pay its creditors the enormous sum of $244 million.)

In one of his biggest scoops, ­Posner ­reveals that while Marcinkus was ­running his shell game at the Vatican Bank, he also served as a spy for the State Department, providing the American ­government with “personal details” about John Paul II, and even encouraging the pope “at the behest of embassy officials . . . to publicly endorse American positions on a broad range of political issues, ­including: the war on drugs; the ­guerrilla fighting in El Salvador; bigger defense budgets; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and even Reagan’s ambitious ­missile defense shield.”

The cumulative effect of Posner’s detective work is an acute sensation of disgust — along with a mix of admiration for and skepticism about Pope Francis’ efforts to reform the Vatican Bank and its curial enablers.

Here’s a five-minute book trailer (!) from Posner’s site:

h/t: Diane G

63 thoughts on ““God’s Bankers”: a new book exposing the corruption of the Vatican bank

  1. Can there be the slightest shred of any kind of moralalty, let alone moral authority, from such a dishonest, hypocritical institution left?

    1. Indeed. You simply can’t indict Catholicism on the basis of actions taken by the Vatican, a small, fringe group of extreme extremists. Why, I’ll bet the Vatican even planned some of these events step-by-step!

    2. You joke, but this is actually how at least some of the faithful see it. The hierarchy is not the church for them, the parishioners are. This is how they justify remaining a part of such a terrible organisation. This explains how they can all ignore what the church says about birth control and divorce.

        1. Yes definitely, Father Bob is a well known Melbourne priest who loathes the hierarchy of the Catholic church. Fascinating.

  2. I have this book but have only managed to read the first 100 pages so far. It is a big book. My problem is that I have a deal with the library, who lets me see new American history books that come in, so I have to drop what I’m reading and then go back.

    I would say this so far — The first 100 pages gets you up through WWII and Pope Pius XII. If you read Wikipedia on him after reading this, you would think they are two different people. I get the idea that Wiki is soft pedaling this Pope….not surprising. This book does not.

    I am not familiar with the author, Gerald Posner, but his background is investigative reporting, with books like Mengele, Warlords of Crime, Hitler’s Children, Case Closed, Citizen Perot, Why America Slept and others. He seems just the type of person to get into the secrete world of the Catholic Church.

      1. You must remember first – this is small town Iowa. I know the Librarian and that helps. I also buy books for the place and my wife donates money so, as usual things are not always as clean as they might be. It’s a small public library and I also give him reports on the stuff I read.

        Adopt-a-book program at most libraries is a good deal as well. I have purchased the new, soon to come out book by Prof. Coyne for this library as well.

  3. Based on the third The Godfather film, I’d assumed Vatican Bank evilness was on the order of what’s described in this book.

    No, it’s seems you cannot run a church on Hail Marys. Nor on Acts of Contrition, which is for the best since we’ll be seeing none of those anyway.

  4. Readers of this “weblog” (ooops) may be interested in the following quote:

    “As an example of the discrepancy between the financial resources acknowledged by the Vatican and their actual amounts, it is instructive to consider briefly the case of the Pope’s personal secret bank account.
    It will come as no surprise that speculation about both the balance of the Pontiff’s personal account and the activities funded through it has always been rife, as no official accounts have ever been published by the Holy See.
    However, in 2008 something truly remarkable happened, which shed a rare ray of light into some of the Vatican’s most guarded secrets. An Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi, is contacted by the heirs of Monsignor Dardozzi, a very high ranking Vatican insider, whose will stipulated that his massive archive of original Vatican documents should be brought into the public domain. As a result, in 2009 Vaticano S.p.A. [Vatican Inc.] was published and so far has sold more than 250,000 copies in Italy alone. At pp. 196-7 we can see the photocopy of a handwritten letter, dated 16th March 1994, by the Vatican bank’s chairman (Mr Angelo Caloia) to Pope John Paul II triumphantly declaring that, following a successful restructuring of the bank’s activities, 72.5bn Italian liras (52.7m Euros) have been transferred to the Pope’s personal account.
    This is the first time in Vatican’s history that a specific amount of cash can be traced directly to the Pope’s personal account, an amount that, of course, was kept secret at the time. In fact in that very same year 1994 the Vatican announced with a grand fanfare that its “accounts” were no longer in deficit but showed a surplus of 2.4bn Italian Liras (1.7m Euros). Strangely, the “accounts” failed to mention the 52.7m Euros that had flowed into the Pope’s own pocket.”

    As far as I know “good” Pope Francis I is keeping quiet about his personal secret bank account, or have I missed something?

    1. There is no end to the corruption and money laundry facility known as the Vatican Bank. It is very likely the resignation of the last pope was due to his inability to take on the bank and it finished him. It has been an institution without an audit and no accountability.

      Kind of reminds me of Wall Street since Clinton and Bush got finished deregulating everything.

  5. Can we please start identifying the Vatican as one of the wealthiest and most powerful international criminal organizations, and start issuing subpoenas and warrants appropriately?

    I mean, between running a child prostitution ring for their leadership and being the Mafia’s bank…what more, really, does it take?

    b&

  6. So Francis is possibly a financially responsible knuckle-dragging thug who is still oppressing, conning and bilking billions of his followers. What a relief..

  7. My guess is that Catholics will take this in stride for 2 main reasons:

    1.) “The people in the Church are human beings, subject to flaws like anyone else.”

    This ability to compartmentalize the viciousness of Catholic leaders while still blithely idealizing the idea of an authoritarian Church hierarchy empowered by God has allowed them to rationalize all the cruel, vicious, murderous popes in history. These easy compartmentalization skills can and will whitewash even recent popes whom they actually remember.

    2.) It looks like the book is going to give major kudos to the current Pope Francis.

    What better evidence that God has sent His Own representative? “Our doubts are now assuaged and faith is strengthened.” Along with compartmentalization, religious forms of thought also encourage focusing on God’s concern for the individual Believer of today. The narrative unfolds to a climax — and the Catholic tends to assume this climax includes them. Pope Francis fixed the problem: case closed.

      1. An insightful observation. Based on my experience, this is sometimes the case.

        (Also, at least in Canada, Catholicism often tends to be more of a cultural identity than a religious one, with the actual doctrines set at a distance. It seems to fulfill a different function in people’s lives).

  8. Meanwhile, in the US, Catholic dioceses are hiding funds and declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying reparations for those hurt by their pedophile priests. How very Christian of them.

    1. “Pedophile priest” is a euphemism we should retire. These men are child rapists, and those who defend them need to hear what they are defending without the soft language.

  9. None of this is even remotely surprising. When the Vatican was publicly castigated for employing “accounting practices … ‘from the Middle Ages’” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vatican-closes-the-book-on-financial-practices-from-middle-ages-9907226.html; cf. Aarons & Loftus; Williams), it wasn’t just a metaphor; their fiscal corruption dates back to at least the high medieval era (Ekelund et al.; Olson “Italian”). As Yong observes,

    “Banks had an exceptionally close relationship with the Holy See during the Middle Ages and performed a full range of services for the Vatican. Of these, the most basic services included the four functions of tax collection, tax transfer, currency exchange, and the provision of loans. As the financial system of the Holy See was international, it could do nothing without [them]… The bankers’ willingness to provide these services was certainly based on the desire for profit; yet the fact that the bankers made use of the authority of the Holy See to ensure and promote their business should also be considered. The close relationship between banks and the Holy See would affect the banks’ own development and lead to the internationalization of banking in the Middle Ages as well as the development of a triangular trade pattern” (60).

    Poliakov, a historian who usually focused upon anti-semitism, showed that the Jewish community in Rome is unique in that it has been in continuous existence for nearly 2000 years — longer than any other such community in Europe. Their survival was not due to chance: the ‘protection’ (such as it was) that Jews enjoyed from the Vatican was firmly rooted in the latter’s economic interests. (Why risk being labelled a hypocrite for loansharking when you can exploit an entire community to do it for you?)

    It may be worth noting that the Templars are widely credited with the invention of international banking & personal cheques (Kinsella; Buckley & Nixon). At its peak, the Order may have had up to 15000 members; only 10% were knights; the rest worked in various support rôles, including within the Order’s vast financial & business infrastructure. Their downfall was largely engineered by Philip IV of France who was grotesquely in debt to them (Barber; Burgtof; Mourre; de la Torre).

    Now, if only someone would do the same for the Church …

    ***

    Aarons & Loftus. Unholy Trinity: The Vatican, the Nazis, & Swiss Banks. Macmillan, 1998.

    Barber, M. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple. Cambridge UP, 1994.

    Buckley RP, & J Nixon. “The Role of Reputation in Banking”. J Banking & Fin L & Prac 20 (2009).

    Burgtof, J. The Central Convent of Hospitallers & Templars: History, Organization, & Personnel. Brill, 2008.

    Ekelund, R.B., et al. Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm. Oxford UP, 1996.

    Kinsella, S. “Banking, Centrally”. 2009. http://www.academia.edu/2827487/Banking_Centrally ; or: http://stephenkinsella.net/WordPress/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/bankingcentrally.pdf

    Olson G. “Italian Merchants & the Performance of Papal Banking Functions in the Early 13th Century” Explorations Econ Hist 7.1 (1969).

    Poliakov, L. Jewish Bankers & the Holy See from the 13th to the 17th Century. 1977. Routledge, 2012.

    William, Paul. The Vatican Exposed: Money, Murder, & the Mafia. Prometheus, 2009.

    Yong, Chen. “The Economic Relationship between Medieval Banks & the Holy See”. World History 6 (2009): 60–68.

      1. No problem! I wish more people knew about this. Catholic (indeed, Christian) corruption & hypocrisy runs very deep.

    1. Yeah, it’s definitely one of the interesting themes of the whole Knights Templar saga.

      That their wealth (and the that they only answered to the Pope not to temporal powers) pissed off enough powerful people to engineer them being taken down is a hell of a lot less romantic than the whole holy grail nonsense!

  10. Q: What is the difference between the Vatican and the Mafia?
    A: The Mafia will acknowledge that it is a criminal organization.

  11. I’m probably being naïve here, but I’ve always wondered how wealthy Christians deal with Matt 19:24, which effectively says a rich person can’t get into heaven?

    Or is that one of the metaphorical bits?

    1. In this instance, I suspect the argument would be that they, as individuals, are not wealthy; rather, the riches belong to the Church.

  12. Here is another quote people may find interesting (if anyone has better estimates of the Catholic Church’s total assets, I would be most grateful for the reference(s)):

    “Although the Vatican has been singularly successful in hiding the value of its assets, a conservative estimate can be obtained indirectly by comparing it with data released by less secretive religious institutions. For example, the Church of England’s disposable assets in 2012 amounted to £5.5 billion. This is, of course, only a fraction of the CoE wealth, but it is a certified and reliable figure which I can use to estimate the Vatican’s equivalent amount. Considering that Anglicans account for 4% of Christians worldwide whereas Catholics account for approximately 60% the corresponding Catholic Church’s disposable assets should amount to £82.5bn. This is a vast underestimate if account is taken of the millennium-and-an-half head-start enjoyed by the Catholic Church compared to the CoE (that dates back only to the mid-1550s). Moreover, the CoE was not for over a millennium a large independent state covering most of central Italy and with the wealthiest city in the world as its capital. Even a doubling of the above estimate to £185bn should be regarded as very conservative.”

  13. “Private Eye” covered the Roberto Calvi business in depth in the eighties. The Vatican was clearly in up to its neck…

  14. Money is the root of all evil
    and I think the Watergate reporters Woodward and Bernstein were told to “follow the money”
    Which appears to be the first thing the church does is make itself it’s “own country”
    with no financial oversight, and it’s own bank to do what ever it wants to do with no oversight by a Board of Directors)
    makes all donations tax-free, and doesn’t allow any outside organization to see what’s going on.
    Yep the followers of this organization/institution continue to give money no questions asked year after year after year..
    And yet they asked no questions and are just happy to throw more money in the collection plate because they believe that giving this money will get them into heaven.
    And the people that are telling them that they’re going to heaven are the people that they’re giving the money to.
    I’ve told many Catholics this Financial Rubiks cube they are financing and all they do is shrug.
    Wow a shrug…..they don’t seem to care and appear irrational about the whole thing.
    (Sidenote did anyone see that NBC story about the young kid who was having memories about him living someone else’s life and he had memories from the other guy that was not available on the Internet???? Anyone have an idea or comment about that story from a skeptics point view?(it is safe to say that there are over 30,000 skeptics on this site correct?)

    1. “Which appears to be the first thing the church does is make itself it’s “own country”…”

      Yeah, what’s up with that, anyway?

  15. Thanks to all who provided specific quotes and references. Corruption has been part and parcel of Catholicism, not just the Vatican, from the beginning of Christianity. When looking at such behavior, it is useful to remember that the Vatican represents only Roman Catholicm, not Greek Orthodox, Roman Orthodox, etc. It might be interesting to review corruption in the other Catholicisms also. Protestants broke away from Catholicism centuries ago, ostensibly due to its’ corrupt practices, but Protestantism has not maintained its'”holier than thou” status and has corrupt elements also. Perhaps, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Pope, could redistribute a portion of their secret wealth to the poor people whom they conned it from. Although, it is a little late to make reparations to all the Indios, heretics and
    scientists who were killed by the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries.

  16. Good grief. I was just reading George Monbiot’s latest article about corruption in the UK (and a fair few other countries), including financial and economic malfeasance. And then I read this.

    And there was me, thinking the church couldn’t sink any lower.

    Why aren’t hundreds of millions of people crying out in anger, demanding an end to this? For instance, the thought of millions of Catholics simply shrugging off these revelations like water off a duck’s back, instead of leaving the church in disgusted droves, completely frustrates me. What the hell is going on with them?

  17. In my view Posner is a damn fine author. I read _Case Closed_, the story of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.

  18. You made reference to ‘the spectacular (and still unsolved) murder of Ambrosiano’s ­chairman ­Roberto Calvi’.

    Sorry to throw cold water on this one (and only) aspect of Vatican complicity but I quarrel with the term murder here.

    As you say, Chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, Roberto Calvi, was found hanging on scaffolding under London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982. He had fled Rome a few days before on a false passport, while on bail.

    Most journalists and every conspiracy-minded blogger draws a line from corruption (true) through mafia link (truish) to murder-by-mafia (silly).

    The mafia killed him and faked his suicide? This is an organisation which has never had any need to pretend its murders are suicides.

    The killers would have had to get Calvi to clamber down the side of the bridge. From there he had to balance his way along the scaffolding poles underneath so they could fake a hanging. (Try to imagine the mafia hitman who suggested this method rather than a bullet to the head.)

    An even sillier version, heard by the Italian courts, posited the killers using a boat to bring him there, but waiting till high tide to do it.

    The Italian courts and his relatives rejected the idea of suicide. This is standard. Relatives hate the idea their loved one killed himself. In this case his relatives had a $10m insurance policy that would have been invalid if they had not proved murder in the courts (although the evidence for murder was laughably minor.)

    This man was being blamed for stealing billions from his own church. The day before his death he was publicly stripped of his position. He was facing widespread opprobrium, many years in jail with his only possible get-out ratting on his friends. He had fled on a false passport and could not have remained free for long.

    He had also attempted suicide while in prison (was that the mafia too?)

    Why is it so difficult to believe that a man on the run, without money, who had already attempted suicide, clambered on to scaffolding beneath a bridge – a chance find in a strange city – to kill himself?

    Sorry for the long post but this particular example of conspiracy guff has too gone unchallenged for too long.

    Believe the Italian courts? Remember Amanda Knox!

    1. You realize that that passage came from Damon Linker’s book review, right?

      Otherwise–you make a most convincing case. Perhaps you should send it to Gerald Posner!

      (Or the NYT book review section.)

  19. I might have to pick this up (I see that it’s 11.99GBP on the Kobo store). The whole Calvi story got a certain amount of cover here in the UK, and it always struck me as deeply weird.

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