God’s Bankers is a meticulously well-research journey through the Vatican’s modern banking history. The book traces the history of the Vatican Bank, the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), from its proto-days in the 1800s with the fall of the Papal States, to its inception during WWII, through the banking scandals of the 70s, 80s, 90s and on to the current cleansing.
I absolutely loved this book. It was a bit of a slog, long, fact-heavy and at times depressing, but I was determined to finish it before returning it to the library to the point where I incurred $2 in fines! Scandal! Anyway, I finished it and I really think that I learned so much about the modern Catholic Church.
There are a few things I found really fascinating about this book, 1. Overall Church History, 2. The Shady Banking Practices 3. The combination of disaffected and confused church authority.
While the book focuses on the banking history of the Vatican, there needs to be an explanation of overall Church politics. The Holy See, is the Church as a legal entity/sovereign state. It is in a unique position because it has physical sovereignty and jurisdiction over Vatican City, but this physical city relies entirely on Rome and Italy at large. There is no way for them to grow food, have electricity, water etc etc. On the other hand, the Church is an entity that streaches to every corner of the globe. They have employees (priests) property (churches) on every continent and in every country. They have diplomatic immunity and they can pass documents through diplomatic envoys, once a priest reaches a high enough level, they can actually get diplomatic immunity from prosecution.
The “administrative apparatus” of the Holy See is the Roman Curia. I happen to be a fan of high drama royal courts in certain Fantasy novels, and the Church’s Curia rivals any drama or intrigue happening in Westeros. The Curia is a medieval court that has somehow survived to today. In the 1800s the big discussion in the Curia was whether or not to finally embrace capitalism. Comparatively new for an instruction that has been in existence for 2,000 years. With that in mind, the idea that the Church just doesn’t understand modernity makes more sense. The real struggle of the Church to modernize is given far better context. The only reason the Church has really embraced Capitalism today is as a rejection of socialism, which is patently anti-religion. Posner actually went into the politics and personalities behind each of the Popes as they were elected. I really felt like I have a greater understanding of the current church and of Pope Francis now that I see what the politics have been like.
The Church’s shady banking practices are spectacular. There is very little record keeping, money is shuffled through holding corporations and partially owned subsidiary banks and, because this is the Church, we have priests doing favors for their family members. Once someone has an IOR bank account any amount of money can be completely laundered. The Vatican is a sovereign entity, and if they don’t want to ban the practice, there is no other entity to enforce better banking practices. (That later changes when the Vatican gets on the Euro)
Posner even goes into some of the Church’s dubious practices during WWII. Including dealing with German or Italian insurance companies (who would deny Holocaust victims’ families their life insurance benefits when they died and then pocket the money) the fact that the Church had some Nazi gold and the Vatican’s infuriating refusal to condemn the Holocaust when they knew about the atrocities, for years.
Finally, I thought it was really interesting learning about how the people running the Church are just men. If you think about it, the kind of man who joins a seminary and becomes a priest is very different from the young man who becomes an international banker. The Church is an entity made up of priests, but with the functions of an entire country. They need a man who is comparable to our secretary of state, someone with the ability to engage in international diplomacy, deal with the press, but the Church is made of medieval priests. Some of the Church’s problems can really be explained by an inability to understand modern media. They don’t understand how to present themselves for a modern era, they can’t control the narrative, and in some instances they don’t even understand why a certain practice would even reflect poorly on them.
All in all this was a great book that I think has given me a better understanding of my Church and modern European history.
I give it 5 out of 5 pope hats.