Last week I was in New York, and was, among other things, interviewed for a Discovery Channel documentary on the Vatican. It shapes up as a “greatest hits” collection of Vatican conspiracy theories, from alleged Nazi ratlines after World War II to whether Pope John Paul I was assassinated and the 1998 Swiss Guard murders.
They’re revisiting this well-worn ground in part because of fresh Vatican scandals that have broken out lately, featuring leaks of secret financial information that appear to expose all sorts of alleged shenanigans, from shadowy VIPs using Vatican accounts to hide money to cronyism in the management of Vatican real estate.
I tried to peel back the onion for them, arguing that reality is usually more prosaic than sensational hints of plots and occult forces. The problem with conspiracy theories, I suggested, is that they act as smokescreens obscuring the real breakdowns that need to be fixed.
By the end the producer was puzzled, and asked: “If there isn’t much to it, why is the Vatican such a magnet for stuff like this?”
That’s the obvious question, one to which Vatican officials often have a knee-jerk reply: We’re forever under attack by people who just don’t like us.
Under Pope Francis, there’s a new version of that argument, which holds that enemies of the Church are desperate to dredge up scandal because they’re threatened by a popular pontiff who’s making a difference.
Monsignor Nunzio Galantino, secretary of the Italian bishops’ conference and a figure close to Francis, said as much Wednesday amid the latest avalanche of bad press.
“It’s not a mindset of victimhood,” Galantino claimed, “to say that a credible Church makes people afraid so they try to discredit it.”
For sure, conspiracy theories can stem from those with an axe to grind. Yet there are at least three other factors, one over which the Vatican may not have much control, and two where it certainly does.
1. The Vatican is in Italy.
The Holy See is a hostage of fortune because it’s located in a country where conspiracy theories are the favorite indoor sport, one built right into the language. Two commonly used words illustrate the culture.
There’s giallo, which literally means “yellow,” used to denote a mystery story. (Beginning in 1929, the publisher Mondadori brought out a popular series of detective novels printed on yellow paper, hence the term.)
In Italy, calling something a giallo usually means not only that it’s a mystery, but one in which the full truth will never be established – allowing anyone to put together the facts however they like.
The other term is dietrologia, which means “the study of what lies behind.” It refers to the popular assumption that there always has to be a vast Machiavellian plot beneath whatever one sees on the surface.
While the Vatican may not be able to do much about Italian psychology, it could do a better job of not feeding it raw material.
2. The Vatican actually has had scandals.
The Vatican has a history that lends plausibility to the conspiracy lens, and we don’t have to go back to the Middle Ages and the handful of pontiffs believed to have been murdered by rivals to make the point.
One can start in the 1970s, when the Institute for the Works of Religion, better known as the Vatican bank, got involved with a couple of mobbed-up bankers and ended up with its president, the late US Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, dodging an arrest warrant and the Vatican paying $224 million to compensate creditors.
Closer in time, there’s Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a former Vatican accountant arrested in 2013 in a cash-smuggling scheme worthy of a John le Carré novel. There’s also the Vatican’s slow, and often less than candid, response to the Church’s sexual abuse crisis.
Stop generating actual scandals, and people may be less inclined to see imagined ones everywhere.
3. The Vatican is full of secrets.
The Vatican’s emphasis on secrecy also can feed impressions of cover-up even where none exists.
For the record, the Vatican’s capacity to keep secrets is, and always has been, mixed. Two new books based on leaked financial information offer proof of the point, and the official reaction in such cases often compounds the problem.
A spokesman announced last week that the Vatican is investigating the Italian journalists who published the books for possible criminal charges. That has led some to suggest that something nefarious must be going on if the Vatican is so eager to shoot the messenger.
In reality, those leaked documents make the place look fairly good. They show an institution, and a pope, committed to cleaning out the stables. That core point, however, may get lost if the Vatican tries to prosecute reporters for telling the story.
Vatican-watchers likely will see the threat as a classic example of a time-honored insight: The Vatican may struggle with bad news, but often it’s even more inept at handling good news.
As I told Discovery, the bottom line is that for reasons both external and internal, the “Vatican conspiracy theory” is among the enduring narratives of the modern world. It’s an industry that never goes into a slump, whose product never goes out of style.
The Vatican can chip away at it with greater transparency, but fundamentally it’s here to stay.
As a result, people interested in what’s really going on will always have to drill down beneath the giallo and the dietrologia to hit a foundation of fact – sometimes with the Vatican’s help, and sometimes despite its best efforts to get in the way.
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A big week for Vatican denials on financial scandals
Last week was a big one for blistering Vatican denials, with three different Vatican departments, all with fairly deep financial pockets, struggling to put out fires related to perceived scandals and breakdowns.
First up was the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, known by its acronym APSA.
Historically, APSA has been responsible for managing the Vatican’s own resources, both its stock and bond portfolio and its real estate holdings. (As opposed to the Vatican bank, which largely manages assets belonging to others.) Before a reorganization in 2014, APSA also oversaw Vatican purchasing and human resources, but those functions were transferred to a new Secretariat for the Economy led by Australian Cardinal George Pell.
Today, the idea is for APSA to act as the Vatican’s treasury and central bank.
In the new book Via Crucis (released in English as “Merchants in the Temple“), published by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi on the basis of leaked documents from a former papal study commission on Vatican finances, the value of APSA’s assets are estimated at around $3 billion. Nuzzi claims that the roughly 2,685 properties owned by APSA are often badly mismanaged, rented at below-market rates to “friends and friends of friends.”
At around the same time, Reuters broke the story that an Italian banker named Giampietro Nattino is under Vatican investigation for allegedly using private accounts at APSA for money laundering, insider trading, and market manipulation between 2000 and 2011. (The Vatican confirmed that report.)
On Wednesday, the Vatican press office released a statement on behalf of APSA complaining of “biased and inaccurate” media coverage and insisting that “APSA has always collaborated with the competent bodies, is not under investigation, and continues to conduct its activities in accordance with current regulations.”
Also in the spotlight last week was the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican’s missionary department better known by its old Latin name “Propaganda Fidei.”
Its financial dealings too have been a source of controversy over the years, with a former head at one stage facing an Italian criminal probe for allegedly cutting sweetheart deals on Roman apartments for politicians in exchange for favors.
On Monday, a piece in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most influential daily newspaper, suggested that Propaganda Fidei owns a network of properties in Rome that have been either sold or rented to commercial outfits at favorable rates, in some cases used for high-end hotels or saunas and massage centers.
That brought a strong denial from Propaganda Fidei on Wednesday.
“All the real estate property of the congregation, donated for the missions, are rented at market prices,” a statement said, “although there are exceptions for situations of poverty.” The congregation insisted that it pays taxes on its rental income like anyone else – in 2014 in Rome alone, it said, the tax bill came to more than $2.2 million.
“The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples adheres fully to the line of thought, the direction and the heart of Pope Francis with regard to the life and reform of the Roman Curia,” the statement said. It went on to say that the office submits its balance sheets to Pell’s secretariat and welcomes his reforms.
Both APSA and Propaganda Fidei dangled the threat of legal action against people circulating false and defamatory information, presumably including the journalists involved.
On Friday, it was the turn of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office that oversees St. Peter’s Basilica.
In another new book, Avarizia (“Avarice”) by Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, the Fabbrica is reported to control assets worth $56 million, spread among investments, bank accounts, and stock holdings. Fittipaldi paints a picture of chronic waste and overspending, both in labor costs and also contracts awarded on the basis of patronage and friendship rather than competitive bidding.
In a statement on Friday, Italian Cardinal Angelo Comastri, who heads the Fabbrica, said that “I desire to deny categorically what [Fittipaldi] writes,” insisting he’d already done so once before when Fittipaldi rolled out similar allegations in the news magazine L’Espresso in 2012.
“All activity of the Fabbrica di San Pietro has always been honest and scrupulously overseen by superiors,” Comastri said, adding that he felt compelled to speak out “in service to the truth of the facts and the dignity of the people unjustly involved.”
Three observations on this thrust-and-parry suggest themselves.
It’s not the Vatican bank. When you say “Vatican financial scandal,” most people assume you’re talking about the Vatican bank, in part because it’s the only financial operation in the Vatican with which outsiders are familiar.
In truth, it’s been clear for a while that the real action in terms of reform is no longer at the bank. A clean-up operation that began under Pope Benedict XVI largely succeeded in closing the books on the bad old days. Today, the game has shifted to other departments where the same push for transparency and accountability is still a work in progress.
Try transparency. If these other departments truly wish to discourage “biased and inaccurate” perceptions, then seeking legal action against journalists and issuing denials long on rhetoric but short on hard information probably isn’t the best way to go.
Instead, the most effective antidote is transparency. If you don’t want people to speculate on how much you own and what you do with the money, then make that information public. That’s the strategy that’s worked for the Vatican bank, which in 2014 released an independently certified annual report that ran to almost 100 pages.
As part of the picture, it’s important to come clean about what went wrong in the past and what steps have been take to prevent such breakdowns in the future.
In a Crux interview last week, the senior lay member of the Vatican’s new Council for the Economy, Maltese economist and businessman Joseph F.X. Zahra, said that today it would be “absolutely impossible” for somebody like Nattino to open an account at APSA.
You can only get credit for such a reform, however, by acknowledging candidly why it was necessary.
Pell could help. The reference in the Propaganda Fidei statement to submitting its balance sheets to the Secretariat for the Economy hints at a possible political consequence of the new wave of scandal and controversy, which is that it may strengthen the hand of Pell and his team.
Up to this point, Vatican insiders have reacted to Pell largely on the basis of internal calculations – how much power his department appears to be gaining, how consultative he is or isn’t, whether his aggressive personality rubs people the wrong way, and so on.
Now, however, outfits such as APSA, Propaganda Fidei, and the Fabbrica find themselves under an awkward external microscope, and may feel the need for a strong personality to give them a clean bill of health.
In other words, as long as Pell’s bruising style was perceived as a threat, his Vatican counterparts might be inclined to grumble. Today, they may find themselves imagining how useful it would be to have Pell on their side – assuming, of course, those outfits can persuade him they’ve taken the need for reform to heart.