The Vatican Bank: In God We Trust?

Vatican City Security.jpg

When the cardinals sent billowing white smoke from their conclave and elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis I, little did the Catholic Church realize that two millennia of ecumenical liturgy might come unraveled on the heresy of offshore banking regulations. Among the many frustrations that drove Pope Benedict XVI to take early retirement was his role as guardian angel of the Institute for the Works of Religion (the formal title for the Vatican Bank), which can no longer get past compliance questions by answering that its beneficial owner is “the Almighty.”

The financial inquisition results, according to Concordat Watch, recently included “...two blows to the reputation of the Vatican Bank... The US State Department for the first time listed the Vatican as potentially vulnerable to money laundering, a notch below those states for which it has solid proof of this.” The second revelation was that banking giant JPMorgan Chase had closed its papal account.

Benedict XVI's day job presumably encompassed giving the sacrament to the bank’s audit committee (made up of cardinals), and among the many attacks against the church the most successful have been those of global regulators who have had little patience accepting Vatican credit on faith.

The bank is located in a tax haven — Vatican City, population 800, with a legal system on tablets — lets its managers come to work in robes and sandals, and has clients that deal in cash gathered on collection plates. Because of this, post-2008 regulators have looked upon the Institute as just another bolt-hole trafficking in black money, if not clearing the accounts of pharmaceutical sinners, bigamists, or Lutherans.

Founded in 1942, at a time when the Catholic Church needed some latitude when transferring money between good and evil, the Institute has operated around the world as the cardinals’ piggy bank. Along with taking the deposits of Sunday’s offerings, it has also handled pay-outs of hush money to abused altar boys and booked advances against papal indulgences.

In response to probing questions from the watchdogs — Who is the ultimate beneficiary? Do you know the source of the funds? — the cardinals who run the bank, sometimes with the help of lay bankers, have only had answers that led to further investigations.

Imagine telling some pencil pusher from the European Central Bank, the Bank of Italy, or the US Federal Reserve that the shareholder of record is “one God in three persons.”

Nor did Benedict XVI find much absolution in the press coverage of his bank, which treated the operation as little different from some Mafia numbers racket.

Take, for example, a recent New York Times article that, in thirty paragraphs, managed to link the bank to the failed Banco Ambrosiano — whose former chairman, Robert Calvi, found eternal salvation in 1982 while hanging from Blackfriar’s Bridge — insurance fraud, front companies, suspicions of money laundering, Cuban payments, and management incompetence. In the last case, for example, the CEO was described as a “German aristocrat,” as if his days were spent quail hunting or chasing Sabine women.

Amusingly, the Times’ reporters were unable to distinguish, on a visit to the headquarters, the bank managers from the security guards. (A correction was later published, but no picture of the dapper security personnel.)

Nor did the paper of record show much numeric literacy, summing up the Vatican Bank's accounts, in their entirety, as having in 2011 “20,772 clients, 68 percent of them members of the clergy, and $8.2 billion in assets under its management. The bank has said it has around 33,000 accounts.”

As God’s credit union issuing debit cards and checkbooks to clergymen, it is doubtful that the bank manages $8.2 billion at its discretion for its clients (including 14,124 men and women of the cloth). More likely, the $8.2 billion in “assets” are liabilities, demand deposits due to its clients and not “under management.” I doubt that the average priest has savings at the bank of $400,000 and that the bank is investing such money in stocks and bonds.

Nevertheless, the article varies little from other disparaging accounts about the bank that level charges of compliance heresy, and imply that its senior managers, including the fired president Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, are regulatory apostates.

Part of the reason that the Vatican Bank earns such poor grades from international regulators, not to mention from the US State Department, is because the Institute is believed “vulnerable” to the risk of processing terrorist funds. The belief that the Vatican Bank is funneling money to al-Qaeda says more about the bonfires of the regulators than it does about Catholicism. The Catholic Church historically has had more in common with Homeland repression than it has with fifth columnists. To use the worn phrase, “know your client.”

The degree to which international bank regulation is just an excuse for Regulatus Pax Americana can be discerned in a report by Moneyval — the monitoring committee of the Council of Europe — on the Vatican Bank’s efforts to recite its compliance rosaries. It concludes: “The Holy See has come a long way in a very short period of time and many of the building blocks of a system to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism are now formally in place.”

Perhaps the reason the cardinals went with Cardinal Bergoglio as their front man is because he looks like the last man at a conclave who would short derivatives, or know how to hedge (either in ecumenical or currency terms) the church’s overexposure to developing markets.

In his first comments on the global financial crisis, the Argentine Jesuit attacked the “cult of money” and “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.” Noble sentiments indeed, but not ones often heard from a bank chairman or a Vatican theologian, especially one wearing a triregnum.

Francis I’s words are a long way from those of a predecessor, Leo X, who in 1513 wrote to his brother, the Duke of Nemours, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” Or those of Leo’s Medici ancestor, Cosimo the Elder, who in the fifteenth century was approached by an archbishop to stop the clergy from gambling. “Maybe first,” said the Medici banker, “we should stop them from using loaded dice.”

Unfortunately for the Pope and his financial acolytes, many international regulators are out to prove that all banks are processing payments for the devil. In the meltdown's aftermath, a small unregulated bank is unusually suspect, especially when operating in a “sacerdotal-monarchical state established under the 1929 Lateran Treaty” and reporting to an abstract nominee with an ethereal address. Nor can it help that the bank is a market-maker in loaves and fishes.

The best that the new Pope can hope for is that the regulators will dispense with a fiery auto-da-fé and instead accept the bank’s penance of its heresy and apostasy. Maybe the central bankers will allow the Vatican to grant itself an indulgence for all those spiritual options marketed in Sicily? High ranking clergy could even argue that, under the company’s accounting rules (as divined from scripture), origination revenue is recognized when the sin is committed, not when the soul is saved.

After all, running a bad bank — as Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and many other heathens know — is not a mortal sin.

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.

Flickr Photo: security personnel in Vatican City, by Trishhhh