The Passion of the Bureaucrats

Tim Parks

  • BuyAvarizia: Le Carte che Svelano. Ricchezza, Scandali e Segreti della Chiesa di Francesco by Emiliano Fittipaldi
    Feltrinelli, 224 pp, €14.00, December 2015, ISBN 978 88 07 17298 4
  • BuyMerchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’s Secret Battle against Corruption in the Vatican by Gianluigi Nuzzi, translated by Michael Moore
    Holt, 224 pp, £24.99, December 2015, ISBN 978 1 62779 865 5

‘Most blessed Father,’ five international auditors wrote to Pope Francis on 27 June 2013, three months into his papacy, ‘there is an almost total lack of clarity in the accounts of both the Holy See and the Governorate.’ The letter goes on:

This lack of clarity makes it impossible to establish a proper estimate of the real financial position of the Vatican, whether as a whole or with regard to the single elements of which it is made up. It also means that no one can really consider themselves responsible for its financial management. All we know is that the data we examined indicates a seriously negative trend and we deeply suspect that the Vatican as a whole has a serious structural deficit.

Six days later the letter, which continues with some scathing criticism of the Curia’s administrators, was part of the documentation for an emergency meeting addressed by Pope Francis himself. In a move some complain is typical of his style of management, he used the occasion not to solicit advice, but to announce a decision he had already taken: the formation of an ad hoc committee to study the economic and administrative structure of the Vatican. Dubbed ‘Cosea’, the committee would have eight members, one of whom, Jean-Baptiste de Franssu (52, French), is now president of IOR, the Vatican bank, while another, Monsignor Lucio Balda (55, Spanish), is in a prison cell charged with leaking the documents that form the basis for the two books under review.

Cosea lasted ten months, fighting an increasingly poisonous battle with the various elements of the Curia as it struggled to obtain the information that might afford a clearer picture of what goes on in the Vatican. Since the Curia was overwhelmingly Italian and clerical while seven of the eight-member Cosea were foreigners and five of them laypersons, misunderstandings were inevitable. To make matters worse, the one Italian on the commission was also the only woman (it’s surprising there was a woman at all), and probably the least likely to get on with the elderly cardinals and monsignors. Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, born in Calabria to an Italian mother and a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, was just thirty at the time of her appointment, a PR expert with a degree in law and a remarkable ability for making influential friends. Pope Francis said recently that he isn’t quite sure how she came to be on the commission, but believes she was recommended by Monsignor Balda. Chaouqui is now charged along with Balda of leaking information to journalists, while the Vatican magistrates accusing her of this have made public some embarrassingly compromising text messages that the two exchanged while serving on the commission. ‘You need to fuck,’ Chaouqui writes in one message. And in another: ‘You should try my cousin. She’s squishy.’ It would be hard to imagine a better set-up for a soap opera.

And harder still to work out from these two books whether the Vatican really is on the brink of bankruptcy or, on the contrary, swimming in cash. Emiliano Fittipaldi’s Avarizia opens with a description of an expensive lunch with two unnamed monsignors who have brought along a carload of documents but forgotten their wallets. Acting, they say, in support of the pope’s reforming mission, the clerics give Fittipaldi a list of all the things they feel the world and the pope should know about greed and corruption in the Vatican, a list that reads like an informal index to the book: certain cardinals’ wild spending on their lavish apartments; the hijacking of offerings to the poor for quite other ends; the tendency of priests and nuns to stash away any money that comes their way in tax havens; the difficulty getting IOR and Apsa (the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, which administers the Vatican’s properties and investments) to conform to international anti-money-laundering regulations; the never-ending habit of giving jobs to relatives and friends even when there is no work to do; the transformation of the process of canonisation into a lucrative business; the exploitation of the Vatican’s tax-free status to sell cheap cigarettes, petrol, clothes and electronic goods to Italian citizens; the Curia’s investments in Exxon, Dow chemicals and other hardly virtuous multinationals etc, etc.

Opening every chapter with a stern quotation – ‘Thou shalt not store up treasures on earth,’ ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house’ – Fittipaldi explores these scandals one by one, quoting generously from the documents in his possession, a number of which he presents as facsimiles for the sake of authenticity. The anecdotes are endless: the monsignor who appropriates a room from the adjacent apartment of a poorer priest simply by knocking down the party wall while the other man is in hospital; the diplomat priest who takes advantage of the diplomatic bag to carry mafia money across the Swiss border; the organisation Propaganda Fide, instituted to evangelise the world, that spends relatively little on this mission while owning almost a thousand valuable properties in and around Rome, many of them rented way below market price to friends and favourites.

It is striking how many Catholic organisations seem to do a whole range of lucrative things they were never set up to do, while still enjoying tax exemption as religious institutions. When priests in Salerno were granted €2.3 million of public money to build an orphanage in a depressed urban area, they built a luxury hotel instead. Found guilty of appropriating funds under false pretences in 2012, the archbishop of Salerno avoided punishment when the crime lapsed under the statute of limitations before his appeal could be heard. Others went to jail.

Overall, however, it is Fittipaldi’s figures rather than his anecdotes that are most fascinating. For example, aside from its vast properties, four major hospitals and several universities, the Vatican possesses stocks and shares worth between €8 and €9 billion (Fittipaldi gives a map of its investments around the world). Real estate the Church owns in Italy is deliberately undervalued in order to lower property taxes (auditors estimated the property was worth four times the sums declared). Thanks to the fiscal law known as ‘otto per mille’, which allows Italian citizens to assign 0.8 per cent of income tax to a church of their choice, the Vatican receives about a billion euros a year in state aid (80 per cent of the total fund). Although the €40 million advertising campaign aimed at persuading taxpayers to opt for the Catholic Church focuses on its humanitarian work in the Third World, only 23 per cent of the money is spent on charity work, and the Church isn’t obliged to offer any public account of how it spends the money. Despite the success of its extraordinary museums (€58 million in profits in 2011), the Vatican earns more through the handful of ordinary shops that operate in its tiny territory: a petrol station, a pharmacy, a tobacconist’s, a supermarket (which sells electronic goods and clothes). According to treaty agreements between Italy and the Vatican, purchases at these shops are restricted to card-holding citizens of the Vatican (fewer than five hundred people), residents (another three hundred) and employees (2800). Yet the pharmacy alone turns over around €40 million a year, many times more than a regular Italian pharmacy. Sales figures from the other shops suggest that the Vatican’s citizens, mostly priests and nuns, smoke, drink and drive far more than any other population worldwide. In short, the restrictions are not respected: the shops in fact serve around 41,000 customers and the Italian state simply accepts the considerable loss in tax revenue. As the auditors commented, the income is welcome, but being responsible for unloading tax-free cigarettes on the Romans doesn’t help the Vatican’s image.

Fittipaldi’s most curious section covers the process of sanctification, his most damaging the use of the so-called Obolo di San Pietro. In 1588 Pope Sixtus introduced a strict series of hurdles that have to be got over if a dead person is to be beatified and eventually canonised: in particular, one miracle has to be verified for beatification, two for canonisation. The case for sanctification has to be presented by a lawyer, or ‘postulator’, certified by the Vatican. Miracles – overwhelmingly healings – have to be demonstrated to be ‘true’ by having experts testify to the lack of any possible scientific explanation; all documentation, running in some cases to thousands of pages, has to be presented, and indeed published in Latin.

In an attempt to keep the tradition alive, John Paul II encouraged communities to put forward candidates for sanctification. The 482 new saints announced during his long pontificate amounted to almost a quarter of all those canonised in the previous five hundred years. At present some three thousand cases are pending; each one takes many years and requires those proposing a candidate to choose a postulator and open a line of credit at the Vatican bank. The process will not reach a positive conclusion without hundreds of thousands of euros changing hands. Fittipaldi describes the case of the American TV preacher Fulton John Sheen, who died in 1979, which has been handled by the most prolific postulator, Andrea Ambrosi. Proceedings began in 2002 but Fittipaldi only has figures for 2008-13, during which time Sheen’s supporters spent more than €332,000, most of it going into Ambrosi’s pocket. ‘Perhaps it’s just coincidence,’ Fittipaldi remarks, ‘but the bills are always higher for the richer American churches.’ In one year translation expenses were €16,000 and publishing expenses €52,000 (Ambrosi owns a controlling stake in the Vatican publishing house that holds a monopoly on printing the postulators’ findings); in 2011 a two-man research trip to the US cost €13,000. Pope Francis has since warned Ambrosi to tighten his belt, while Sheen remains as yet unbeatified and his supporters frustrated.

The Obolo di San Pietro, or Peter’s Pence, is a specific offering made to the pope by Catholics worldwide to support the Church’s mission in the world, specifically to assist the poor and needy. ‘The purpose of the Peter’s Pence Collection,’ the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops claims, ‘is to provide the Holy Father with the financial means to respond to those who are suffering as a result of war, oppression, natural disaster and disease.’ In 2013 the offering amounted to €78 million, of which, according to Fittipaldi’s documents, very little went to the poor, while a Peter’s Pence account in the Vatican bank holds €378 million (not cited on the Vatican’s balance sheet). Examining the situation, Moneyval, the Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures, concluded that most of the money that left the account ‘went on ordinary and extraordinary expenses of the Roman Curia’s various departments and institutions’. In fact, in 2013 running costs left the Vatican with a deficit of €77 million, which had to be covered from somewhere.

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While Fittipaldi’s book deals in a rather fragmented way with these embarrassments, always acknowledging that Pope Francis appears determined to put the house in order, Gianluigi Nuzzi seeks to offer a narrative of the present papacy as a Via Crucis, the title of his book as it originally appeared in Italian. As well as documents, he has audio recordings of Cosea’s many meetings and even of the July 2013 meeting in which the pope announced its formation. Clearly someone had a recording device in his pocket. ‘There have been too many new jobs,’ Francis insists. ‘Something’s not right.’ He refers to the fact that many suppliers’ invoices are far higher than the original quote, and insists that in these cases ‘You don’t pay! … Even if it means putting the person asking in an embarrassing position, you don’t pay. Lord have mercy, you don’t pay.’ The emphatic, repetitive style, as if speaking to children, is recognisably the one we hear more or less daily on Italian radio and TV. In fact, the pope has made no attempt to deny that the contents of Nuzzi’s book are true, simply announcing to the faithful that they need not worry because he was already aware of these problems and well on the way to resolving them. However, the compelling logic of Merchants in the Temple is that the leaks occurred precisely because someone no longer believes that resistance to the pope’s reforms can be overcome, or not without the aid of a huge public scandal.

The shenanigans Nuzzi recounts are many and complicated, but Pope Francis’s strategy is simple enough. Instead of replacing key personnel in the Vatican’s governing institutions, he has attempted to drain those institutions of power by calling in outside auditors and setting up new bodies to monitor them. In 2014 he created a new super-ministry for the economy as well as a new organisation, Vatican Asset Management, to handle all investments. On the evidence of the leaked documents, this approach has generated more heat than light and cost a great deal of money; the old institutions have successfully hung on to most of their power, the new bodies have not been as virtuous as hoped, and mud has been flung in all directions. Francis seems particularly poor at choosing his collaborators. The Australian cardinal George Pell, given the task of running the new ministry, had been in trouble on numerous occasions as archbishop of Melbourne for allegedly protecting paedophile priests, and has himself faced charges of paedophilia. How wise was it to appoint a man who was such an easy target for those he was supposed to discipline? And how wise was it of Pell to bring in a friend and adviser from Sydney on a salary of €15,000 a month tax free, spending €47,000 on furniture for his apartment, whose €2900 a month rent the Vatican was to pay?

Nuzzi quotes from his documents even more liberally than Fittipaldi. Readers eager to know how to combine sycophancy with stonewalling will enjoy the letters in which Apsa interminably fobs off Cosea. Those who like to cultivate feelings of indignation will be pleasantly aghast to read the agreement between the Governorate (responsible for the day-to-day running of the Vatican) and Philip Morris in which the former contracts to do some merchandising for the latter. Connoisseurs of the grotesque will warm to the letter written by the secretary of the Governorate to Pell, soon after he was appointed to head the new super-ministry with a brief to cut spending and make the whole Vatican outfit more serious:

Most Reverend Eminence, first of all may I beg you to accept my warmest congratulations for your appointment as Secretary for the Economy. Meantime, I am pleased to inform your eminence that the most eminent cardinals are eligible for the following concessions: the purchase of groceries in quantities compatible with your family requirements … at a discount of 15 per cent; a discount of 20 per cent on the list price [already tax free] of up to 200 packs of cigarettes of the 500 packs allowed on a monthly basis; a discount of 20 per cent on the list price of clothing items; an allowance of 400 litres of petrol on the following terms: a) 100 litres paid by the Vatican; b) 300 litres at a discount of 15 per cent on presentation of Cardinal Vouchers (the white ones), to be used inside the Holy See … While I remain at your service for every eventual elucidation, I am pleased to take this opportunity to assure you, in line with my most devoted respect for Your Most Reverend Eminence, that I remain your most devoted Fernando Vérgez Alzaga.

If this is wonderfully Malvolio-esque, Nuzzi’s style in presenting his material is tiresomely sensationalist. Events are pronounced ‘unspeakable’ when everyone is speaking of them, ‘dramatic’ when they are played out on a daily basis, ‘unimaginable’ when it is all too easy to imagine them, indeed hard to imagine anything else. However, this has the advantage of making the auditors’ reports, quoted at length in footnotes, more attractive in their sobriety. Oddly, it is the auditors who give profundity to the book. It is they who suggest that it is inappropriate for a religious institution to be taking advantage of its tax-free status to attract Rome’s bargain hunters and hence that its shops should be closed; they who propose that the Vatican introduce a fiscal system in line with Italy’s in order to eliminate embarrassing temptations. Above all they are the ones who point to the need to make a sharp distinction between jobs for the laity and jobs for priests; it makes no sense, they observe, to encourage someone to take ordination so as to follow a career in banking.

This appeal for clarity and proper demarcation goes to the heart of the Vatican’s peculiar status as both religious institution and political state. All the scandals Nuzzi and Fittipaldi list spring from the habit of blurring the temporal and the spiritual, of assuming that the awarding of sainthood requires a costly bureaucratic procedure, that priests can determine whether, in the eyes of God, a marriage has really been a marriage, or quantify penitence for every sin in the confession box. Pope Francis seems resolutely opposed to this accountant’s version of Christianity and the complacent, calculating mindset it invites. Sometimes ‘a completely orthodox manner of speaking’, he remarks in his Evangelii Gaudium, ‘does not correspond to the real Gospel of Christ’. Or again: ‘I prefer a Church that is battered, wounded, soiled, because it has been out there in the streets, rather than one that is sick because it has withdrawn in comfortable attachment to certain certainties.’

Not everyone is happy with this line. L’Espresso’s astute and influential Vaticanist, Sandro Magister, who is very much aligned with the old guard of the Italian Church, complains that in organising the present jubilee (a year in which forgiveness of sins is more generously available), the pope has entirely ignored the doctrine of purgatory and indulgences, though it is the hope for a plenary indulgence that has always spurred the faithful to come to the jubilee and pass through Rome’s four Holy Doors, opened only on these occasions. In fact attendance at the present jubilee is well down from John Paul II’s jubilee in 2000, something that a Vatican expert in Il Fatto Quotidiano attributes to the deliberate dissociation between Pope Francis and the Italian Church, such that he is immensely popular worldwide while church attendance in Italy continues to fall. The implication is that it was precisely the formal accountancy of traditional religious practice, the conviction that strict observance would be followed by rewards, that kept many Italians in church.

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Those with a more international vision point out that for the first time Pope Francis allowed for the opening of so-called Holy Doors all over the world, thus removing the ‘need’ for a pilgrimage to Rome. Indeed, he inaugurated the jubilee in the Central African Republic, avoided any mention of indulgence and insisted instead on the nobler quality of mercy, which, we know, is ‘not strain’d’ by any calculation. And while in Europe church attendance dwindles and the number of priests has fallen 9 per cent in ten years, in Asia, Africa and South America the trend is upwards. As the writer Manlio Graziano has observed, the ‘charismatic shift’ Pope Francis is seeking to impress on the Church comes from his South American experience; his insistence on the ‘fruits of the spirit’ – joy, mercy, love, peace, benevolence, goodness, mildness – is essentially taken from the manner of the evangelical church, and was adopted in South America in a context of competition with the evangelicals for the hearts of the people.

All this may be part of a general strategy of internationalisation, and in particular an attempt to reduce the influence of the Italian Church, held responsible for much of the corruption in the Vatican, but the fact remains that the Vatican is in Rome, and that as long as the Church hangs on to this handkerchief of temporal power, it is tied to Rome and locked into Italy and the Italian mindset, which is notoriously resistant to evangelical fervour, or indeed any spirituality cut loose from bureaucracy, which remains one of the country’s great passions. In this regard, Sandro Magister sees the pope’s revolutionary position on marriage as a test case for the success of his papacy. The pope has of course insisted on the sacredness of marriage, and continues to abhor divorce, but he has also publicly claimed that at least half the marriages celebrated in the Catholic Church are invalid and would be better annulled. In line with his belief that many are suffering in the prison of relationships that are not ‘real marriages’, he has proposed an extreme and ‘merciful’ liberalisation of the present procedure for annulment such that if both partners declare that the marriage never really was a marriage, then no further evidence is required. As Magister points out, aside from the obvious snub of publishing these proposals immediately before the General Synod of Bishops met to discuss the family in the modern world in October 2015, this begins to look very like secular divorce and risks causing huge confusion among the faithful as to what constitutes a marriage and proper behaviour. There is also the question of whether the Italian state would continue to recognise annulments if the rules governing them were to change so radically.

Francesca Chaouqui is accused of among other things having tried to use her influence with the owner of L’Espresso to have Magister taken off the pope’s case. Since part of her job on Cosea was to suggest how to reform the Vatican’s media outlets (in 2010 Vatican Radio lost €26 million, while its newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which employs 85 journalists for average daily sales below one thousand, lost €5 million), it’s understandable that the pro-Vatican media would be looking out for any chance to discredit her. Which brings us to the most intriguing aspect of these books: their very publication marks a turning point in the story they are telling. As we read of the growing tension between pope and Curia we realise that some major upset must have occurred to cause someone inside the Vatican to make so much explosive material available to the press, someone certainly opposed to the old guard, but perhaps not entirely convinced by Pope Francis either. And however much Nuzzi and Fittipaldi do or don’t know, they cannot give an account of that climactic turning point since it would involve revealing their sources and exposing them to eventual punishment.

This is a disappointment, but has the advantage of turning readers towards the press as they seek to fill in the crucial gap. Balda has apparently confessed to the leaks, or some of them, but claims he operated under the besotting influence of Chaouqui. Chaouqui denies everything and claims Balda must have made these denigratory remarks under duress; he and others acted, she believes, in a last-ditch attempt to protect the reforms Cosea was designed to introduce. The pope meanwhile is caught between being a charismatic spiritual leader and the authoritarian head of a spendthrift, backward miniature state torn apart by internal divisions. He ‘has been told’, he says with ill-concealed embarrassment, that Balda leaked the information because when Cosea was wound up he didn’t get the appointment he was expecting in the new ministry for the economy. This is an unpleasant insinuation, awkwardly delivered. The pope has spoken of the trial as necessary because the leaks were ‘a crime’. But did the Vatican really need to bring criminal charges against the two Italian journalists as well as the whistle-blowers? For what exactly? Publishing information leaked to them? ‘I have not even been told what information,’ Fittipaldi claims, ‘and so can’t even begin to defend myself.’ In any event, the Vatican will not allow the journalists or Chaouqui, all Italian citizens, to use their own lawyers. From revolutionary reformer, Francis suddenly risks being seen as the Grand Inquisitor.

On closing these books many readers will feel that the only way out of the Vatican impasse would be to wind up the territory’s anomalous statehood, hand it over to the Italian government and free the Church and above all Pope Francis to get on with their Christian mission. However, it is equally clear that this will never happen, if only because attachment to temporal power is so visceral. Many of the priests she met during her travels to the Third World, Chaouqui enthused on one of the many talk shows to have hosted her since the scandal exploded, were utterly devoted to charitable works, but those she encountered during her time at Cosea were mainly concerned with ‘defending the loot they had hidden under the sink’.