Money may be the root of all evil, and it is certainly causing scandal in one of the most venerable institutions on Earth.  The Roman Catholic Church, which has faced down wars, schisms, the collapse of empires and a changing world, remaining the world’s largest Christian Church, is once again mired in scandal; it just can’t seem to keep up in the world of finance.  Two recent events bring the Church, the recently elected Pope Francis’ recent reform drive, and the message of “a poor church” into sharp relief.

Image courtesy of David Iliff, © 2007, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of David Iliff, © 2007, some rights reserved.

On 14th October, Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, dubbed the “luxury bishop” for reasons that will become apparent, flew to Rome on a budget airline from his southern German Limburg Diocese, to account for both lying under oath about his class of travel on mercy trips to India, and the alleged spend of €31 million on his residence in Limburg, a town close to Frankfurt am Main.[1]  This blatant spend has enraged many Germans, whose Catholic population are still required to pay a tithe-tax to the church, and, while not recalling the rage of the Germans for the spend on St Peters that gave impetus to Martin Luther’s dogmatic Reformation, it still raises many questions about the place of the church, and the church’s budget, in the modern world.

Further to this embarrassment, the recent money laundering scandal of the Vatican Bank, or more properly the IOR (Istituto per le Opere di Religione, Institute for the Works of Religion), has set in motion reforms on a fairly large scale, especially for a behemoth like the Church, where bureaucratic inertia is legendary.  This scandal, precipitated by an investigation by an Italian newspaper in 2010, involved the bank using its “offshore” – i.e. not under Italian jurisdiction – status, normally used to channel Catholic charitable monies, to launder money.  Although as of 2012, the civil case against the manager responsible, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was dropped, he was removed from his post, and the scandal had far reaching implications for Vatican reform.  This year, the director and deputy director, Paolo Cipriani and Massimo Tulli, resigned after the arrest of cleric Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, who was trying to smuggle €20m in cash through Switzerland.

The internal implications of this scandal are manifold, as the Vatican exists as a precarious entity.  The Vatican is a city-state, and as such the functioning of its government works under this nomenclature.  The Holy See is the legal incorporation of the Vatican, and as such all foreign relations happen with the Holy See.  The papacy sits at the apex and the Pope is both holy leader of the Holy See (which is also the spiritual see of St. Peter, the Pope’s predecessor), the sovereign of the Vatican, and the Bishop of Rome, therefore head of the Catholic Church, which permeates the existence of the first two entities.  All governors and governed are members of the Catholic Church; the Curia is both the administrative body of the Vatican and the governing body of the church.  This fractious and factional system led to intrigue and infighting that was brought to light by the so-called ‘Vatileaks’ scandal; manoeuvring within the Vatican for positions on the Financial Intelligence Authority, a compliance body for the functioning within the Vatican of international money laundering regimes.

One of the men implicated is Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict XVI’s Secretary of State and number two; believed by some to be the architect of IOR Manager Tedeschi’s downfall.[2]  Bertone has stepped down this month in favour of Francis-appointed reformer Pietro Parolin.[3]  How far this appointment will go towards easing the reform process is moot.  Parolin has been lauded for his efforts in improving relations with China and Israel; he is also a Vatican outsider, as he is neither a Cardinal, nor has his work taken him close to Italy in recent times: prior to appointment as Secretary he was head of the Church in Caracas.  This conciliatory move is another calculated move by the Argentine Francis to rehabilitate the estranged masses that form the Catholic Church’s main flock: those in South America.

Forty percent of the world’s baptised Catholics live in Latin America, as opposed to only 24% in Europe.[4]  Coupled with the election of an Argentine pope, the Church’s focus has out of necessity shifted to this region.  The history of Latin America’s relationship with the Church, especially in liberation theology – a strain of Catholic theology specifically formed to address the many military dictatorships in Latin America – has been one of homing in on the dispossessed.  This was a strain of thought abandoned by the doctrinally conservative John Paul II and, especially, Benedict XVI, but has been taken up with a renewed vigour by Francis.  If, however, Francis wants to be taken seriously as both a reformer, and somebody fighting the corner of Latin America in the Roman Curia, he must address the excesses of Rome in order to avoid criticism and, in a worst-case scenario for the Church, fracture.

The fact that an Italian cardinal recently denounced the Mexican cult of Santa Muerte as “blasphemous”[5] has done no favour to the Church’s standing.  The gap between the Italian way of doing things (Monsignior Scarano claimed to “help out his friends”[6]) and the corruption, perceived or otherwise, that this engenders, and the Catholic dispossessed of Latin America, must be addressed by Francis head-on. Appointing Mr. Parolin has been a step in the right direction; breaking down the financial walls between the IOR and the Italian financial oversight system is another.  Further, coming out from under the legislative shelter of the 1926 Lateran Treaty, which guarantees Vatican autonomy and diplomatic immunity, by submitting to further scrutiny by outside (Italian) justice authorities would hopefully lessen the frequency of scandal, and show a willingness to play by the rules.  It must be a “poor church”, but also a law-abiding one.  Latin Americans, unlike the Germans before them, must be placated with rapid reform at the heart of Rome, if they are to remain true.