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The Pope Is Showing Everyone the Vatican’s Bank Statements

The bizarre, secretive financial history of the Catholic Church is like a Dan Brown fever dream. But that doesn't seem to worry the Pope.
Photo by John Hughes

On Monday, Pope Francis announced that Vatican bankers are no longer allowed to engage in illegal arms sales, hoard stolen Nazi gold, or finance Masonic covert-ops hit squads. Well, sort of. Technically, the Pope put out an Apostolic Letter issued Motu proprio — in other words, this came directly from him — that's titled, “Fidelis et dispensator Prudens.” The rough translation of that is, “The Vatican Needs to Get Its Financial Shit Together, Pronto.”


Part of that process will involve the establishment of a new Vatican department to keep track of the Church's finances. A whole bunch of people from both inside and, notably, outside the Church will audit and otherwise shed light on its legendary and legendarily secret assets. (There is no word on whether this new effort will involve any Bilderbergers, Illuminati, Presbyterians, or other shadowy groups.) The Church is cagey about its finances, but most estimates put its wealth well into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Yes, it's been awhile since the Roman Catholic Church was Europe’s premier power broker, commanding a vast political, military, and financial network that effectively controlled Europe. Today, the Church is a much smaller, more modest institution in almost every way — except for its bank balance. And for as long as the Sistine Chapel has had a basement full of ill-gotten gold (allegedly), the Vatican’s bankers have been involved in scandals and conspiracies so complex, secretive, and just plain weird that it’s nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction.

The modern Vatican bank, known as the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (IOR) was founded in 1942. On paper, it has a fairly straightforward role, operating independently of the Church’s main administrative body, the Curia, “to provide for the custody and administration of movable and immovable property transferred or entrusted to the Institute by the same natural or legal persons and intended for works of religion or charity.” It cannot issue securities, and does not lend deposit money. It performs no central-banking functions and its surplus is at the disposal of the Holy See.


However, it's hardly the only bank involved in Church finances. The Vatican’s financial history extends back at least 300 years and involves a number of organizations in and outside of the Church, including the now-defunct but infamous Banco Ambrosiano.

The Banco Ambrosiano was founded in 1896 in Milan as a Church-affiliated bank, meant to balance out the other Italian non-religious banks. While closely affiliated with the Church and its works, the bank itself was run by non-Church Italians (including a number of mafioso) until its collapse in 1982. That was also about the time that the then-head of the bank, Roberto "God's Banker" Calvi, was found hanging by his neck from Blackfriar’s Bridge in London. Various theories about his death involve the Vatican Bank, Banco Ambrosiano’s main shareholder (the Mafia), the regular Masons, and secret black-ops Masons.

Bolder conspiracy theories associate bank-related shenanigans with the assassination of Pope John Paul, who died a mere 33 days after becoming Pope. Some tie Vatican bankers to the theft of millions of dollars of Nazi gold. Still others assert that the Vatican’s network of banks laundered CIA money used to support anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua and the Polish Solidarity movement.

Vatican financiers are also alleged to have facilitated the Argentine purchase of Exocet missiles from France, through Peru. These missiles were subsequently used by the Argentines against British ships with great effect during the Falklands War. (Although it's not clear whether that was supposed to be in retaliation for England’s role in the Protestant Reformation.) More pedestrian charges include Vatican involvement in the establishment of tax havens and shell corporations, money laundering, various mafia dealings, and sweet deals on changing money.

Within the Church, infighting, corruption, and a host of other issues have made reforms necessary. These long-overdue banking and administrative reforms started under Pope Benedict XVI and have grown in popularity under Pope Francis. But there may be more to it.

The regulatory and compliance web governing banking transactions has gotten extraordinarily complex since “God's Banker” was running the Banco Ambrosiano. There is now an entire industry devoted to helping banks figure out whether or not they’re actually following the rules. And so it's fair to wonder whether the Pope’s announcement was motivated solely by moral desire, or if he also had an interest in avoiding scandal and future run-ins with the law.

Of course, it’s also fair to ask why Vatican City ATMs still have a Latin-language option.