God's Bankers

A History of Money and Power at the Vatican

There is nothing like a murder-mystery to grab a reader’s attention. Gerald Posner begins his book with one of the best. On the morning of June 18, 1982, the body of Roberto Calvi was found hanging beneath London’s Blackfriars Bridge, weighed down by stones stuffed into the pockets of his suit. He had come to London as a fugitive from Italian justice, jumping bail after conviction for fraud. He took a circuitous route, travelling within Europe on a false passport that was “good enough to fool customs agents,” Posner claims. Obviously he does not realize that immigration officers in Europe were not then (and are not now) as punctilious as their counterparts at JFK. Back then it was easy to move across European borders provided one’s documents had the right heraldic symbol stamped on the outside.

The question Posner cannot answer is did Calvi jump or was he pushed? The first coroner’s inquest held in London ruled Calvi’s death a suicide. An Italian court later disagreed, and a second English inquest arrived at an open verdict. But if it was murder rather than suicide, who was the assassin? And why did Calvi come to London in the first place? Posner does not answer either question, but, as far as I know, neither does anyone else (a few years after Calvi’s death I made a tentative suggestion about the location of his demise in a book published in the mid-1980s).

Calvi was chairman and managing director of Milan’s Banco Ambrosiano. He had close ties with the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (IOR) or the Institute for the Works of Religion—generally, if inaccurately, known as the Vatican Bank. He was also a close collaborator with Archbishop Paul Marcinckus, originally a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago before becoming a Vatican functionary. Despite his complete ignorance of the world of finance, Marcinckus served as president of the IOR from 1971 to 1989.

Posner makes readers wade through a vast number of pages before returning to the story of Calvi. He fills the space in between with a disquisition on more general papal money matters. He sets out to intertwine Vatican finance with a history of the papacy. That was a mistake. More by accident than by design, I saw Posner on YouTube giving an interview about this book. He exuded self-confidence. I can only say it was misplaced.

Take, for example, that stream of papal revenue known to most Catholics as Peter’s Pence. As Posner correctly says, this tax originated in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly with King Offa of Mercia (757–96), who built the dyke that still bears his name in order to keep the Welsh out of his kingdom in the English midlands. Though it was a tax that was sent to Rome, it may have been intended at first as financial support for the English hostel rather than for the papacy itself. Nevertheless, support for the papacy it became, and has remained so, though it fell into abeyance until the nineteenth century. Its geographical spread widened in the twelfth century, thanks in good part to the efforts of that quintessential bureaucrat Cardinal Nicholas Breakspeare, the future Hadrian IV—the only Englishman to become pope. But it was a specific payment, separate from, say, annates, the first year’s revenue of benefices, or other taxes on clerical income imposed when the papacy had cash-flow problems or needed to finance a crusade. Posner uses Peter’s Pence as a catch-all term, even including stipends paid to clergy for services received. But he’s gotten it wrong. His account gives a wholly mistaken impression.

This is not a small thing. Posner claims to have used Philippe Levillain’s The Papacy: An Encyclopedia, which includes an excellent article on papal finances. He says John Pollard generously assisted his research and quotes Pollard’s Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy. Had Posner paid close attention to those works he would not have written so cavalierly about Peter’s Pence.

There is much more of the same. Early on Posner writes: “Pope-Kings unvaryingly were scions of powerful Italian families. When one of their sons became pope, the by-products of a papacy often included rampant corruption, pervasive nepotism, and unbridled debauchery. The cash from indulgences mostly became a bottomless pit.” In historian’s jargon, papal monarchy, the years in which one might (just about) talk of pope-kings, covers a fairly short period, which lies mostly outside the years indulgences flourished. That is, admittedly, a rather pedantic point. I was more intrigued by Posner’s delineation of the papacy as one of “rampant corruption, pervasive nepotism, and unbridled debauchery.” The endnote for that particular comment cites Joseph McCabe, a former Franciscan priest who turned against religion in general and Catholicism in particular: in less politically correct times he would have been called an apostate. Posner may not have known about McCabe’s dubious history, but the title of the book he was citing, A Rationalist Encyclopaedia, should have given him a clue that McCabe’s perspective was not exactly neutral. Nor, one begins to suspect, is Posner’s.

Factual mistakes abound. He asserts that “it was a pope, Paul IV, who had…created ghettoes”; the establishment of the ghetto in Venice preceded the pontificate of Paul IV by two decades. He presents the dissolution of the Partito Popolare as a consequence of the Lateran Pacts; it was practically a precondition. He claims G. B. Montini’s father was “a politically active lawyer”; he was a journalist. Hans Küng, despite the withdrawal of his missio canonica, has never been condemned as a heretic. Posner thinks that when Karol Wojtyła was elected pope he was one of the Catholic Church’s “most prolific theological authors” and that Joseph Ratzinger was a “scholar” of canon law; both men would have been startled by such compliments. He says that in the 1950s, Montini, the future Paul VI, was a monsignor directing the Vatican’s refugee programs; Posner is not specific about dates, but from November 1952 Montini was Pro-Secretary of State for Ordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, hardly a modest monsignor. Posner apparently thinks Juan Perón was the Argentinian “strong man” during the Second World War; not true. There are a good many more similarly egregious errors, but the assertion that the knife attack on Tacchi Venturi was in 1956 (it was in 1928), made me despair not just of the competence of the author but equally of the professionalism of his editors.

Posner’s problems are of his own making. He might have skipped the history, to which he is an unreliable witness, and kept more closely to the Vatican’s distinctly shady financial affairs. When he does so he is rather better, but then he is following a good many who have gone before. He cites John Pollard’s academic study mentioned above, James Gollin’s Worldly Goods, Jason Berry’s Render Unto Rome and Charles Raw’s well-researched The Moneychangers. Had Posner taken those books as a given and moved on to the story of more recent financial shenanigans he might have avoided many pitfalls and written a more manageable tome.

***

Of course, writing about recent events has its own difficulties. As Posner repeatedly complains, he was refused access to Vatican papers he wished to consult. Even though he appears to take it as a personal slight rather than the application of a general rule, I have some sympathy. Every sovereign territory has its own regulations about access to official documents. The Vatican’s are more arcane than most. Access moves by pontificate. John Paul II allowed access up to Benedict XV, Benedict to Pius XI. With the election of Pope Francis, scholars should now be able to consult the papers of Pius XII, but it still hasn’t happened. The excuse given is that there are a great many documents waiting to be put in order. But they have already been examined for the publication in the 1960s and ’70s of the eleven volumes of the Actes et documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale. The failure to open the archives stokes suspicion. What use Posner might have made of the material had he seen it, however, is anyone’s guess. Someone who translates Sacra Congregazione dei Religiosi as the "Sacred Congregation for Religion," and goes on to describe it as “a little-known Curia division responsible for setting guidelines so bishops kept separate their religious and secular duties” is, I would imagine, going to have problems understanding what he finds.

Readers will be particularly attracted to the more exotic tales of the IOR’s misdeeds—of which there are plenty. One of the most exotic is that of the gold stolen by Ustaša (Croatian fascist) fugitives at the end of the war, and allegedly deposited in the IOR. In 1946, Emerson Bigelow, a U.S. Treasury Department agent, sent the State Department a memo alleging that the value of that gold was enormous: $225 million in today’s money. Pollard does not believe that story—certainly not the sums mentioned—and gives his reasons. Posner has read Pollard’s book, and one might expect him to engage with Pollard’s arguments. He does not. Instead, he takes Bigelow’s memo at face value.

Likewise, though it is likely the Vatican helped fund Solidarity in Poland, the story Posner tells about how this was done arouses doubts similar to those aroused by his discussion of the Ustaša gold. He was told in an interview with the “Italian intelligence agent Francesco Pazienza” that $3.5 million of the Vatican’s money had been converted into gold ingots that were smuggled into Poland hidden in a car driven by a priest from Gdansk. I experienced Polish “customs agents” while crossing the border during the Communist regime. Carrying $3.5 million in gold ingots across the frontier, no matter how expertly hidden, sounds implausible. Even if they arrived safely in Gdansk, it is difficult to imagine how they were converted into złoty without anyone noticing. The only evidence Posner cites is his conversation with Pazienza, elsewhere described as an adventurer. That Posner believes the story without further corroboration is almost more surprising than the story itself.

Quoting the Guardian of London, Posner wonders whether the Vatican needs a bank at all. Pope Francis had apparently been asking the same question, though he has decided to keep it. When the IOR was created (out of an existing institution), the Holy See needed a means of moving money across borders in a world divided by war. And the IOR was not a bank. How it came to act like one, and fell into disrepute, is a story that, despite Posner’s five hundred pages of text (and two hundred of endnotes), still needs to be told.

Published in the May 1, 2015 issue: 

Michael Walsh

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