Book on Vatican finance is uneven, but worth a read

A church built on cash

By Jason Berry
Published by Crown Publishers, $25

It may be, as the New Testament says, that the love of money is the root of all evil, but money, nevertheless, is something impossible to manage without. In the Middle Ages the Franciscan Spirituals tried to live without money, and came to a sticky end, finding themselves in schism within a hundred years of St. Francis' death. The church needs cash to operate, and to help bankroll the papacy. King Offa of Mercia (that's the English Midlands) established the Rome scott, or tax, in 787, better known these days as Peter's Pence. Henry VIII abolished it along with so much else, but it was revived around the world in the middle of the 19th century as the beleaguered Papal States ran out of funds.

From 1870 Peter's Pence became a major source of income to the papacy. American Catholics were and are the major contributors, closely followed by the Germans. The U.S. contribution remains important to the financial security of the Holy See. The question is, given the combination of the scandal of sexual abuse with its closure of parishes and the selling off of church assets to pay compensation to the victims of abuse: Will that money continue to roll in?

Not that Catholics are as generous as Protestants, claims Jason Berry in his new book, Render Unto Rome. It may of course simply be that Catholics are poorer than Protestants, but perhaps, he suggests, it is because the Catholic church lacks financial transparency. The faithful therefore do not trust the system. Berry has a point about lack of trust. While at the Rome end there appears to be yet another developing scandal at the Vatican Bank, at the parish level in America, thousands of dollars are embezzled from the weekly collections that, were a fraud-proof system in place, would go some way to meeting the various dioceses' obligations to victims of clergy abuse.

Further, Berry claims, sums of money are -- or have been -- regularly creamed off by parochial clergy as pocket money or even (one would like to think) as donations to the poor. But such moneys never went through the parish books. From parish funds, according to Berry's scenario, bishops have been able to build up considerable reserves, then use them to buy favor in Rome through large donations to papal coffers -- labeled as Peter's Pence to disguise the fact they were originally creamed off the top of church collections. Berry proposes with good reason that some of these offerings are little better than bribes.

Berry is excellent on bribes, and especially on the money paid to people in the Vatican by the Legionaries of Christ, who hoped thereby to keep under wraps the appalling misdeeds of the Legionaries' founder, Marcial Maciel Degollado. With Gerald Renner, Berry wrote a devastating book, Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, on the cover-up of the Maciel scandal during the pontificate of the (now Blessed) John Paul II. When the book appeared in 2004, Maciel was still protected by friends in high places, though his depraved behavior was an open secret. Mary Ann Glendon, George W. Bush's ambassador to the Holy See and a Harvard professor of law, described him as a man of radiant holiness, which just goes to show how wrong you can be about sanctity. (As Pope Innocent IV sagely remarked back in the 13th century, people whom the public deem holy might in private be living less than edifying lives. Hence, of course, one ought not to be too quick to canonize even the more obvious candidates.)

Maciel had been exonerated of the charges, claimed Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state to Pope John Paul II and a prime recipient of the Legionaries' largesse. A year later Sodano's new boss, Benedict XVI, banished Maciel. The Legion founder, the Vatican now says, led a double life, devoid of any scruples.

Render Unto Rome gives Berry the opportunity to update the story of Maciel, which he does with obvious gusto. One problem with the book, however, is that he is trying to cover too much. There are three separate, though admittedly interlinked, narratives of which, alas, that of the Vatican and its handling of money is the least successful.

The Vatican may provide the title, but it receives less coverage than the closure of parishes in Boston, Cleveland and Los Angeles, or the continuing efforts to bring child-abusing U.S. clergy to justice.

This, too, already requires an update, now that the attorney Jeff Anderson, he of the silver-blond hair and a perpetual tan as we are needlessly informed, one of Berry's chief protagonists, seems to have succeeded in bringing the Vatican itself to court.

If one wanted more evidence of episcopal incompetence, deviousness and downright skullduggery, it is to be found within these pages. Unfortunately, though, Render Unto Rome, with its dust jacket displaying a miter and -- incongruously -- a pile of British pound coins, is not an easy read. It is far too long. A good editor would have cut it by a third. He or she might have dealt with such egregious grammar as, "As Charles Feliciano's influence receded on the handling of abusive priests, so did his distance from Pilla," which I think means the opposite of what it says. Or there is the delightful non sequitur: "Cardinal [Bernard] Law had left financial craters, and although Sean O'Malley was himself a cardinal, Boston's debt hole had grown steadily deeper."

An on-the-ball editor might also have picked up some of the stranger errors. In a journalistic search for verisimilitude, Berry avers that Peter Borré, another of Berry's heroes, was accustomed when in London to attending Mass at St. Martin's in the Fields in Knightsbridge. He could not have asked Borré. Not only is St. Martin's not in Knightsbridge, it is a Church of England establishment. To call Cardinal Roberto Tucci " a Vatican priest" is a bit of an understatement, "apostolic succession" is not what Berry thinks it is, and the idea that the Anglo Irish Bank [see note below], whose incompetence helped to bring crashing down the Irish economy, is a "financial arm of the Vatican" is plain laughable.

Nonetheless I am glad to have read this book. I would like to think it will help undermine the self-righteous smugness that afflicts so many bishops and Vatican officialdom. But that, I suspect, is too much to hope for.

[Michael Walsh revised the Oxford Dictionary of Popes and recently published The Cardinals: Thirteen Centuries of the Men Behind the Papal Throne (Eerdmans).]

The Author Responds

Editor's Note: This book review first appeared in the July 8, 2011, print issue of National Catholic Reporter. After the review was published, the book's author sent a letter to rebut two criticisms abou the book. Following is the letter Jason Berry sent us. After Berry's letter, reviewer Michael Walsh responses.

I do not typically protest what a reviewer says of a given book, particularly after a generally favorable review. But Michael Walsh's take on Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church (NCR, July 8) bears a reply.

Walsh cites as "plain laughable" my alleged claim that "the Anglo Irish Bank, whose incompetence helped to bring crashing down the Irish economy, is a 'financial arm of the Vatican.' "

He states further that I have "no idea what apostolic succession is."

What's laughable is that Walsh named the wrong bank. Anglo Irish Bank does not appear in the index of my book. I do report that the Allied Irish Bank (italics mine) has a long lending history in 95 of 184 U.S. dioceses. More specifically: AIB lent $175 million to the Los Angeles archdiocese for the $774 million clergy abuse settlement. The "financial arm of the Vatican" comes from a longer statement by San Diego plaintiff attorney Irwin Zalkin: "I don't know if AIB is directly involved with the Vatican Bank, but the grapevine talk among the lawyers is that AIB was a financial arm of the Vatican." The Los Angeles settlement hinged on the AIB loan. Ray Boucher, the lead lawyer for Los Angeles plaintiffs, said more than Zalkin on the timing of the transaction, why he "suspected that the Vatican provided a loan or pass-through support via AIB to the archdiocese." None of the lawyers wanted to divulge their views at the time; they wanted the payments made, cases resolved. Another lawyer cited his conversation with a judge who said the settlement awaited Cardinal Roger Mahony's return from Rome. Mahony made a number of trips to the Vatican, one of which involved arranging for religious orders (specifically, the Salesians) to pay their share of the settlement. He made passing reference to this in an NCR interview with John Allen I cited. The cardinal denied my interview requests for the book; the archdiocese declined comment on the banking details. I never asserted Allied Irish Bank was a catalyst in Ireland's economic crash. Walsh got that wrong.

In stating that I misunderstand apostolic succession, Walsh does not say what it is or how I got it wrong. I relied on the glossary definition in Catholicism by Richard McBrien: "The legitimation of the bishops' office and authority by their valid derivation from the Apostles." After detailing many cases of hierarchs who mismanaged money and concealed abusers, I argued that apostolic succession carries a warped de facto immunity, that the meaning of Judas is erased from historical memory: "A cardinal or a bishop can be removed from his position under canon law, but in reality, only the pope as supreme authority can render such justice." Cardinal Law draws a $12,000 a month salary in Rome. Sodano, whose hands are dirty from the Maciel and Follieri scandals, is dean of the College of Cardinals. Many more examples of decadent hubris abound. Would Walsh explain how I misunderstand apostolic succession?

Jason Berry,
New Orleans

The reviewer responds:

I hold up my hands. Like Jason Berry, I am not above making the occasional slip. I of course meant the Allied, not the Anglo, Irish Bank. But it is Berry who is wrong, not I. Should he read my review with care, I never claimed that he said the AIB was a major catalyst in the collapse of the Irish economy, though it was. I said that it had to be bailed out by Irish (and, incidentally, British, me included) taxpayers. There was no evidence of the Vatican Bank giving a helping hand. Nothing he says in his letter leads me to think otherwise.

As for the apostolic succession, it has to do, in the unfortunately mechanistic ecclesiology currently in vogue, with the transmission of episcopal authority, and nothing at all to do with a bishop's exercise of such authority.

Michael Walsh

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