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The Holy See

Capital Vatican City

Time Zone CET (GMT+1)

Country Code 39

ccTLD .va

Currency Euro

Land Area 0.44 sq km

Population 836

Language Latin, Italian

Major Religion Roman Catholicism

Key Data

Notable Public Figures

Francis I - Jorge Mario Bergoglio,
Pope

Pietro Parolin,
Cardinal Secretary of State

Giovanni Angelo Becciu,
Substitute for General Affairs

Paul Richard Gallagher,
Secretary for the Relations with States

Antoine Camiller,
Undersecretary for the Relations with States

Luciano Suriani,
Delegate for Pontificial Representations

Peter Brian Wells,
Assessor for General Affairs

José Avelino Bettencourt,
Head of Protocol

Domenico Giani,
Chief of Vatican Gendarmerie

Vatican Bookshelf

Welcome! Here we will make available our reviews of Vatican-related books that complement our own publication, The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans: Bolstering the Catholic Church in 2015 and Beyond.

Book Review of Catholic Kosovo: A Visitor’s Guide to Her People, Churches, Historical Sites, and Her 1,900 Year Journey

Available in paperback format or in e-book format).
By Marilyn Kott

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God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican

By Gerald Posner

(Simon & Schuster, 2015)

Reviewed by Chris Deliso

Balkanalysis Vatican Bookshelf Review gods-bankers-Gerald Posner Chris DelisoGod’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican tells in vivid detail the story of how the Holy See transformed itself, within a few short decades, from a declining institution almost distrustful of money into a financial powerhouse. Posner’s detailed investigation – some nine years in the making – tells a remarkable tale of how a small group of men at the highest levels of the Holy See created an unprecedented financial empire for the church, with portentous consequences for key events in modern history such as the World Wars, the Solidarity movement in Poland, and the various scandals within the church over the past two decades. In each case, it appears that greater world conflicts and political events have had a transformative effect on the Vatican’s institutions and indeed its very orientation to money and the ways and means of using it.

It must be said that, while the Vatican as an institution has long been steeped in myth and legend, the actual facts as presented by Posner do not lead to the assumed conclusion that many might expect. Far from having control over a tightly centralized, ever-wealthier treasure chest for centuries, the Vatican has actually gone from boom to bust numerous times and did not even have a proper bank of its own until World War II. And, as the recent auditing efforts authorized by Pope Francis show, still cannot be completely sure exactly what it has, and where, as each successive investigation over the years has always found accounts that have been concealed, or simply forgotten within the vast global network or organizations with which the Vatican must relate.

Indeed, what is perhaps most fascinating about the book is its depiction of an entertainingly chaotic world of Vatican bureaucracy in which funds could come, go, disappear or reappear, and in which some of the most marvelously inventive schemes for accomplishing this were pioneered by some very clever men. Posner provides a great service in introducing us to the various financial advisors who have kept the Catholic Church running for over a century. Indeed, by following the general lineage of not only popes but their financial czars and bureaucrats as well, God’s Bankers makes a useful addition to the historical record, introducing a whole host of colorful characters who are rarely mentioned today, and who are even unknown (to non-Italians, at least), but who have nevertheless had a huge impact on the church’s finances, influence and other countries, groups and individuals. Thus, at heart this is really a story of a relationship: that of an immovable institution and the men tasked with protecting it through financial means.

Indeed, the concept of the church as institution, in which self-protection becomes an instinctive reflex, is driven home often. While they had their differences and even heated rivalries, all of the popes’ financial officials felt a primary and ultimate allegiance to preserving the Church as an institution. Whether or not all of their financial decisions turned out to be wise or ethical, these men felt strongly that they were doing the right thing, and the various popes tended to protect them, even long after their mistakes had compromised them.

Although the book begins with a broad view of the church’s money-making activities in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods (with the well-known but amusing concept of indulgences) the real context from which the narrative springs is the loss of the Papal States in the middle of the 19th century, and the need to find revenues to replace what these landholdings had brought in. This loss, the author notes in detail, had a long-term ideological effect as well, since it forced church leaders to rethink their traditional aversion to participation in finance, and especially their disdain for ‘sinful’ usury.

Posner generates dramatic effect by repeatedly contrasting Vatican financial decisions with the Church’s activities (or alleged activities) in relation to the Nazis and the Holocaust, as well as corrupt businessmen, politicians and organized crime, and finally, with the more recent priestly child abuses scandals. This tactic provides narrative tension and the requisite grounds for stating moralistic views of the Church; this cumulative process provides a sort of momentum leading up to the final plea for Pope Francis to fully modernize the Vatican Bank and desist from any shady dealings. (The author does acknowledge that the last few years have however seen unprecedented efforts by the Holy See, under international supervision, to do exactly this).

However, while many of the cases brought up are quite serious, the truth probably lies somewhere in between, as all past and present sources tend to have different views and to stress different facts and opinions to bolster these views: and this is by all means not a simple question of pro- and anti-Catholic orientations but, as Posner illustrates clearly, of specific personal rivalries and deep enmity within the Curia itself, which often led, and will continue to lead to character assassinations of various popes and other clerical figures by their internal rivals.

Readers of this website will be curious to know what degree of Balkan coverage God’s Bankers goes into. While the answer is not very much, this does not mean that it lacks for good context or interesting jumping-off points for future research. The most interesting of these involve the coverage of events in the first half of the 20th century. The aspect of the Vatican’s finances and its general fortunes (and misfortunes) of the time cast a new light on events happening in the Balkans. And there are great details such as the Vatican man who served as Italy’s delegate to the Ottoman Public Debt Council, which followed the Italian-Turkish war over Libya in 1911.

Various mentions are made of Vatican investments or intended investments in Balkan states, including Montenegro, Bulgaria and Romania. The big mention, of course, concerns the Vatican’s support for fascist Croatia and later funding of the ‘rat lines’ for Nazi war criminals to South America. This coverage is a bit ambivalent, however, for while the author is highly critical of wartime Pope Pius XII, and the Ustase leader Ante Pavelic, he repeats the Croatian church’s traditional positive image of Archbishop Stepanic which is of course debated hotly by Serbian historians and others as well. And, though he notes the horrors of Jasenovac, Posner rather underestimates the number of Serbs, Jews and others killed there by the Ustase. The only other mention of Stepanic is much later in the book, where he is not given any particular endorsement or context in terms of the Vatican’s support for Croatian neo-Ustase forces in the 1990s. There is no mention of Vatican finance in regards to the wars of the period in the Balkans, nor to the vast financial fortunes that the Medjugorje pilgrimage site has amassed since 1982. It would have been interesting to know more about all this. However, these are somewhat tangential to the book’s main thrust and as such are forgivable omissions.

All in all, God’s Bankers is both a highly educational and entertaining book well worth reading. Although the text portion of the book logs in at well over 500 pages (and is followed by useful historical photos of the major players mentioned in the work), it reads quickly and runs at a good pace. Containing unique first-hand interviews with some truly memorable characters, including American government investigators and former Italian secret agents, God’s Bankers is a valuable and necessary contribution to our understanding of a little-known but crucial aspect of the church’s very institutional existence.

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