As Vatican faces financial review, pope condemns ‘idolatry’ of neoliberal economy

As Vatican faces financial review, pope condemns ‘idolatry’ of neoliberal economy

Pope Francis delivers his blessing in the Paul VI hall on the occasion of the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. (Credit: Gregorio Borgia/ AP.)

As the Vatican is undergoing its annual review from the Council of Europe’s financial watchdog following a year of money-related scandals, Pope Francis Thursday condemned the prioritizing of money over people, and touted several steps the Holy See has taken to ensure financial transparency.

ROME – Pope Francis Thursday condemned the prioritizing of money over people and touted several steps the Holy See has taken to ensure financial transparency.

The pope was speaking to representatives of Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering watchdog, who are in Rome conducting its annual review of the Vatican, following a year of money-related scandals.

The pope thanked them for the visit, saying their work is “dear to my heart” because it is closely tied to “the protection of life, the peaceful coexistence of the human race on earth, and a financial system that does not oppress those who are weakest and in greatest need.”

“It is all linked together,” he said, and pointed to his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, in which he condemned neoliberal economic structures as having failed in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus, calling for resources to be invested in development in impoverished countries to end hunger and assure citizens of a dignified life, rather than in “fear or nuclear, chemical and biological threats.”

Catholic social teaching, he said, “has underscored the error of the neoliberal dogma which holds that the economic and moral orders are so completely distinct from one another that the former is in no way dependent on the latter.”

“In light of the present circumstances, it would seem that the worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose,” he said, insisting that “financial speculation fundamentally aimed at quick profit continues to wreak havoc.”

Francis’s remarks echo sentiments expressed in Fratelli Tutti, published Oct. 4, and in which he argued that in many countries, “a concept of popular and national unity influenced by various ideologies is creating new forms of selfishness and a loss of the social sense under the guise of defending national interests.”

Lack of concern for the poor and vulnerable “can hide behind a populism that exploits them demagogically for its own purposes, or a liberalism that serves the economic interests of the powerful,” he said, noting that in both cases, “it becomes difficult to envisage an open world that makes room for everyone, including the most vulnerable, and shows respect for different cultures.”

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“It seems that in many places the supremacy of money over human beings is taken for granted,” he said in Thursday’s remarks, noting that at times, “in the effort to amass wealth, there is little concern for where it comes from, the more or less legitimate activities that may have produced it, and the mechanisms of exploitation that may be behind it.”

“Thus, situations can occur where, in touching money, we get blood on our hands, the blood of our brothers and sisters,” he said.

The Moneyval representatives are in Rome to review the Holy See’s efforts to fight money laundering and financial terrorism. The review comes after a year of financial scandal that has left many wondering whether the Vatican might be blacklisted, meaning it would be frozen out of international markets and could face higher financial transaction costs.

In 2009 the Vatican signed onto the EU Monatery Convention, thus submitting to the body’s evaluation process, in an effort to clean up its financial image, which for a longtime had been seen as an offshore tax haven laden with scandal.

In the past, Moneyval has criticized the Vatican for failing to follow-up on dozens of suspicious transaction reports from the Financial Information Authority (AIF), the Vatican’s financial watchdog. However, last year Vatican prosecutors opened an investigation into a shady London property deal in which the Vatican’s Secretariat of State sunk some 350 million euros (nearly $400 million) into the property using funds donated to papal charities.

An investigation was launched after the Secretariat of State requested a loan from the Vatican bank to buy the property, reportedly without following reporting requirements under new financial transparency laws decreed by Francis earlier this year. Several officials have been fired or suspended amid the investigation; however, so far non one has been indicted.

As part of that initial inquest, the Vatican police seized documents from the AIF’s offices, leading the Vatican being to be temporarily suspended from The Egmont Group, the world’s main international anti-money laundering federation, over security concerns.

The Egmont Group readmitted the Vatican in late January, despite the fact that in the meantime the head of AIF, Swiss lawyer Rene Brülhart and a former vice-chair of the Egmont Group, was forced out of his Vatican position the previous November.

On Sept. 24, Pope Francis fired Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu from his post as head of the Vatican’s saint-making office.

– who in his previous role as sostituto, or “substitute,” in the Secretariat of State, a position traditionally likened to the Chief of Staff for a U.S. president – from his post as head of the Vatican’s saint-making office.

Becciu served as sostituto in the Secretariat of State from 2011-2018 – the sostituto, or “substitute,” is a position traditionally likened to the Chief of Staff for a U.S. president – meaning the London deal happened under his watch. Becciu has denied any fault in the matter and has insisted that his ousting was related to allegations that he gave Holy See contracts to companies run by his brothers – accusations which he denies.

Speaking to Moneyval representatives, Pope Francis stressed that policies meant to counter money laundering and terrorism “are a means of monitoring movements of money and of intervening in cases where irregular or even criminal activities are detected.”

Referring to the Gospel passage in which Jesus drove merchants from the temple, he said that “once the economy loses its human face, then we are no longer served by money, but ourselves become servants of money.”

“This is a form of idolatry against which we are called to react by reestablishing the rational order of things, which appeals to the common good whereby money must serve, not rule,” he said.

To this end, Francis highlighted several new laws the Vatican has introduced this year aimed at “ensuring transparency” in its financial affairs preventing financial crimes, including a June 1 procurement law meant to combat nepotism and feudalism by centralizing control over the awarding of contracts for goods and services in the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the body managing the Vatican’s assets.

He also pointed to an Aug. 18 Ordinance of the President of the Governorate requiring volunteer organizations and juridical persons of the Vatican City State to report suspicious activities to AIF.

Though he did not mention it in his speech, Francis on Oct. 5 established a new commission charged with determining which of the Vatican’s economic activities should remain confidential, judging on a case-by-case basis.

Pope Francis closed Thursday’s remarks by thanking Moneyval reps for “the service you provide,” saying the measures and structures they are evaluating are designed to promote “a clean finance, in which the merchants are prevented from speculating in that sacred temple which, in accordance with the Creator’s plan of love, is humanity.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen 

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