An institution with two thousand years of history like the Catholic Church is bound to have an interesting story to tell. It does
Think of medieval popes waging the Crusades — raising armies, sacking cities and conquering territory — in the name of Jesus Christ. Or prelates torturing apostates and heretics during the Inquisition. Or Pope Pius V expelling Jews from the Papal States in 1569. Or Pope Pius XI signing the Reichskonkordat with Hitler, which, in return for winning a measure of freedom for German Catholics under the Nazis, assured silence from the Holy See over the forced sterilization of 400,000 people and then only the faintest of objections to the Holocaust. Or more recently, bishops and other church officials concealing widespread and repeated child sexual abuse by priests.
The foregoing is an extract from a NYT review of Posner’s recent book. How the Vatican makes and spends money and operates its banking arrangements is central to the story. And the conclusion is that it has operated more like a mafia-type than what might be expected from a religious organization. While priests in the field undoubtedly continue to do good work, corruption has prevailed at head office. Its charitable works have come at a price. And while various popes have tried to clean things up, they have been sandbagged by the Cardinals and Vatican bureaucrats who been feathering their own nests.
Pope Francis appears to be making a valiant attempt to remedy things, but the odds are against him. Other Popes have tried and failed. Some made things worse. Partly this is due to the age at which they and the gang of Cardinals reach their positions. While undoubtedly learned in the doctrines of the church, they are often too old to have the energy to confront the entrenched bureaucracy.
Elected politicians are frequently corrupt, even in democratic societies, but regular elections provide some opportunity to clean house. In the Vatican’s case, the Pope is elected by the Cardinals, while the Cardinals are appointed for life, and once installed can carry on with little pressure for change. The bureaucrats beneath them often forestall change knowing that Popes are eventually replaced. With the majority of Catholics now in Central and South America, Africa and parts of Asia, there may be a slight possibility to clean house. But optimism is not high.