Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Financial Scandal in the Vatican: A Historical Perspective on Christian Economic Ethics

In the history of Christian economic thought, theologians, with the exception of Clement of Alexandria, interpreted the biblical story of the rich man who refuses to part with his wealth in order to follow Jesus as meaning that having wealth is itself indicative of the presence of the underlying sin of greed. The dominance of this anti-wealth paradigm only began to give way during the Commercial Revolution in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when the expansion of trading made it possible for ordinary people to save, and thus hold wealth without any sense of an underlying sin. Hence, Aquinas differed from Aristotle in allowing for moderate profit without the assumption of any underlying greed. In the Renaissance, theologians generally agreed that the Christian virtues of liberality and munificence could justify even being rich. Even Cosimo de Medici, who made his fortune from the sin of usury (i.e., interest on loans), gained the approval of the Pope in Rome by donating a fraction of the fortune to the Church. Under the dominance of the pro-wealth paradigm, Christians could be wealthy without being assumed to be greedy.[1] As for the Church itself being able to hold wealth, the collective wealth, gained from donations and selling goods, of monasteries in the Middle Ages was the door-opener. It was not as if a greedy individual could be said to exist if a religious organization owned the wealth. Aquinas approved of such wealth, a stance that, with his approval of moderate profit earned (and held as wealth) by individual Christians, began the shift that would result in the hegemony of the pro-wealth paradigm.[2] Unlike individual Christians holding coin without being presumed greedy, monasteries owning substantial wealth could be subject to a critique based on Jesus’ objection to money-changers in the Temple. When I visited a convent in Tucson, Arizona once, a sister rebuffed my request to pick a couple of oranges from the trees behind the building. “We make juice that we sell,” she replied. I had the impression that I had witnessed greed over charity in a religious vocation. Such hypocrisy, enabled by the allowance for collective monastic wealth, rivals Pope Eugene IV’s absolution of Cosimo de Medici, in spite of his fortune having been gained entirely from usury, because he renovated a monastery in Florence. This historical background can help us situate the Vatican’s financial scandal that culminated in five Vatican officials being suspended in 2019.
The scandal centered “on a large building in Chelsea [an upscale area of London] that was co-owned by the Vatican and an Italian business partner, London-based financier Raffaele Mincione,” who said “that the Chelsea investment had been highly profitable for the Vatican, which he said bought out his share [in 2018]. Mr. Mincione said the Vatican had invested a total of €320 million ($353 million), including the assumption of a €130 million mortgage, but that the building, at 60 Sloane Avenue, [was] worth €390 million” in 2019.[3] Complaints from the Vatican Bank itself and the office of the Vatican’s auditor general led Vatican investigators to raid and seize documents and electronic devices “from the offices of the Vatican’s powerful executive, the Secretariat of State, as well as the Vatican financial watchdog that monitors the long scandal-plagued Vatican Bank.”[4] The scandal was thus hardly the first for the Church’s bank. Even the Vatican’s financial watchdog had become culpable. The suspended employees “include Tommaso Di Ruzza, the number-two official of the financial watchdog,” as well as “Msgr. Mauro Carlino, a former aide to then-Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, one of the highest officials at the Secretariat of State [the Vatican’s executive office] until 2018, when Pope Francis made him a cardinal and put him in charge of the office for the canonization of saints.”[5]
Besides a possible unethical collusion between the Vatican’s executive’s office and the financial watchdog, the connection between Carlino and Becciu may mean that Becciu was ethically compromised even when he served as head of the office of the saints. That office may have been ethically compromised before Becciu, when Pope John Paul II, who had kept Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston in office there and then promoted him all while knowing that Law had knowingly moved rapist priests around rather than defrocking them and handing them over to the local police, was made a saint regardless. The corruption in the Vatican was thus not limited to financial scandals. Greed and ideological favoritism are arguably both species of self-aggrandizement, or self-idolatry in religious terms.
From an institutional perspective, the suspension of Di Ruzza, the number-two official of the financial watchdog founded by Pope Benedict in 2010, implicates the functioning of the department itself as a check on financial wrongdoing. Fortunately, “Pope Francis established the office of auditor general in 2014.” However, the auditor general position was still vacant since 2017, when the occupant “resigned and accused powerful officials of obstructing him.”[6] Given Di Ruzza’s suspension, as well as that of Carlino of the Secretariat of State office, perhaps powerful officials involved in the London real-estate scandal captured the financial watchdog. In short, the Vatican’s internal firewalls had likely failed completely, meaning that the Vatican could not hold itself accountable. This was readily observable to the public in the Vatican’s cover-ups protecting clergy, whether high officials such as Cardinal Law, or the rapist priests themselves, during the sex-abuse scandal.
Finally, in historical perspective, the unbridled greed even at the highest staff levels in the Vatican can be said to have been not sufficiently constrained by Christian economic ethics. In decoupling wealth from the stain of greed, the pro-wealth paradigm is susceptible to wealth from greed. This is not to suggest that a return to the hegemony of the anti-wealth paradigm, which held sway for at least the Christianity’s first millennium (with a last stance amid Europe’s economic (and population) contraction during the plague-infested mid-fourteenth century, after the Commercial Revolution). To say that virtually any profit-seeking and wealth must invariably involve the sin of greed is to make an overgeneralization, but so too is the claim that wealth itself is devoid of greed. I submit that given the power of the Roman Catholic Church due to its membership-size and sheer wealth, even high-ranking clergy are subject to a significant temptation of greed both personally and for their institution. Wealth held collectively is not immune from the greed of members whether religious or not. With the pro-wealth paradigm as a floor, Christianity itself may not be able to proffer a sufficient constraint, especially on the money-changers in the Temple—the Vatican Bank, whose existence itself may instantiate hypocrisy. This may be why the auditor general and the financial watchdog failed as checks.

1. Skip Worden, God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-seeking and Wealth, available at Amazon. The related academic treatise, Godliness and Greed, is also available at Amazon.
2. Ibid.
3. Francis Rocca, “A Top Vatican Official Resigns Amid London Real Estate Scandal,” The Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2019.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.