Recently, the Pope made statements in which he denounced that the coronavirus pandemic aggravated the “social inequalities” characteristic of the current economy. What is the objective of this denunciation?
By: Alejandro Iturbe Sept/05/2020
Translation: Corriente Obrera Lit-ci U.S.
In a speech broadcast from the Vatican, which had worldwide exposure, Jorge Bergoglio said: “The pandemic has highlighted and aggravated social problems, especially the gap between social classes … of a sick economy” in which a very rich few possess more than all the rest of humanity” .
We have, then, statements with progressive content that take up the demands usually made by the left against the capitalist system. This statements don’t explain the causes of that “sick economy” nor do they propose a way to “cure” it.
However, that is not our main objection. Does the Catholic Church have the right to present itself as “the voice of the poor” in the face of so many injustices? The answer is an absolutely no.
The world’s largest enterprise
In 2015, Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi published the book Avarizzia on the basis of information provided by the Spanish Catholic priest Luis Angel Vallejo, former papal steward .
In that book, the author concludes that, considered as a whole, the Catholic Church is the “largest company in the world” in terms of the amount of property, the income it receives, the reserves it possesses, and the privileges it receives from many countries. In the latter case, one must begin with the fact that it is the only “company” that formally possesses its own State (the Vatican), with all the advantages that this implies.
Besides an incalculable capital in real estate, the Catholic Church has various sources of income. Among them, the donations of its faithful, what the Vatican collects as a religious and tourist center, the tax exemptions and direct contributions that the national episcopates receive from their States and, finally, the return on countless investments (some of which are “secret”).
How many properties does the Catholic Church own?
This real estate capital is practically impossible to calculate in its entirety, since besides those properties directly in the name of the Vatican, it has properties in each of the thousands of dioceses distributed throughout the world, those of the ecclesiastical orders and those of decentralized structures such as Opus Dei, which functions as a personal prelacy of the Pope.
For example, in Spain alone the Church registered 18,555 temples and 15,171 urban and rural properties in the corresponding bodies. It did so through the system of “immatriculation,” which allows for the registration of that domain without having to report its origin or how those goods were acquired.
These properties include the houses attached to parishes, school buildings, seminaries and universities, farms dedicated to agricultural activities, houses and apartments. The list includes luxurious five-star hotels built in former monasteries, whose suites have an exclusive butler, private terraces with panoramic views, Jacuzzi, etc.
Spain is not the only country “graced” with this level of hotels. In Peru, there is the Hotel Monasterio, located one block from the Plaza de Armas, in the heart of Cusco city. The property where it is located was the Seminary of San Antonio Abad, founded in 1598. It is administered by the Orient Express hotel company. Next to it is La Casa de las Sierpes, built on top of an Inca construction that was converted into the Beaterio de las Nazarenas in the 18th century, administered by the same company .
Contributions by the faithful
We have pointed out that a first source of income for the Catholic Church is the monthly contributions made by believers. It is a system inherited from the tithe of the Middle Ages which now has no legally binding character and only a part of the faithful contribute.
The total amount that the Church receives in the world from these contributions is very difficult to estimate since, as we have pointed out, the national episcopal conferences and the dioceses themselves have financial autonomy and budget for income and expenses. Let us see then, some national data.
In Spain, according to the Catholic Church’s Annual Report of Activities data, it received 335 million Euros by this means, which covered 36% of its budget (400 million and 1.1 billion dollars, respectively). In Germany, this figure of contributions from the faithful amounted, in 2012, to 5.2 billion Euros (almost 6 billion dollars). In this country, most of these contributions were collected by the state through the so-called “church tax” .
However, the record for collection from this source is held by the U.S. Church, a country in which almost 21% of the population claims to be Catholic (some seventy million people). The annual average per contributor is $709, although there are those who reached 4,000. In total, it is estimated that it collects around 20 billion dollars annually. To give you an idea, the annual budget of St. Philip’s Church in Atlanta, Georgia, alone was three million dollars, and at the national level the U.S. Catholic Church manages its own financial fund for the retirement and pensions of priests who retire .
Privileges and benefits
Considered as an international company, the Catholic Church receives a series of privileges and benefits that no multinational (at least, so extensively) has.
In the first place, it is the only one that has its own State (the Vatican), which means that it relates to other States and governments on an equal level, without the need to hide or camouflage this relationship. This is complemented by the fact that in many countries, the national episcopal conferences are part of the “power factors” permanently consulted by the governments to elaborate their policies.
In addition, it gets many privileges. In Argentina for example, the Catholic Church does not pay any tax on the movable and immovable assets it owns, whatever the destination of these assets. In some provinces, like Mendoza, this is guaranteed by the provincial Constitution itself . While in others, such as Córdoba, it is stipulated in the Tax Code .
The benefits it obtains in this country do not end there. In accordance with what the National Constitution itself establishes about “sustaining Catholic worship,” various laws establish that the Argentine State must cover bishops’ salaries; subsidize the priests who are in border or “very disadvantaged” areas; subsidize the seminarians; and subsidize (private) Catholic schools.
We have taken the Argentine case but similar situations are found in many other countries. For example, in Brazil (considered the country with the largest Catholic population in the world), the 1988 Constitution (currently in force) establishes “religious tax immunity” not only for the properties of the Catholic Church but also for other religions. We have already seen the case of Germany (also of Austria) where it is the State itself which collects the contributions of the faithful, through the “church tax”.
In addition to everything we have seen (theoretically dedicated to the support of worship, education, charity, etc.) the Catholic Church clearly shows us its business operation.
A first aspect of this is the functioning of the Vatican itself as a State, which for example, does not calculate a GDP but a budget of income, expenses and results, like a company.
The second aspect is that the Vatican functions as a true tourist-religious pole: it is visited daily by 40,000 people (about 15 million a year). According to data from the World Factbook, in 2011 they received about 460 million dollars in sales of tourist products and books, tickets to Vatican Museums, etc.; with a total operational expenditure of less than 300 million .
In addition, if you have enough money and connections, it is possible to rent the Sistine Chapel for private events. This is what the automobile company Porsche did, which in 2014 rented it for an exclusive music concert attended by 40 people who paid five thousand euros each. However, the entrance fee included a dinner at the Vatican Museums .
The Vatican Bank
Another openly businesslike facet of the Catholic Church is the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), also known as the Vatican Bank, created in 1942 to centralize funds for “religious or charitable activities.
The IOR administers assets worth 7 billion euros (more than $8 billion) . It also has “official” gold reserves of 3.5 billion euros, as well as an estimated equal amount of unofficial reserves . This makes it the second largest reserve of this precious mineral in the world, only surpassed by the one in Fort Knox, U.S.
Like any other bank, the IOR has been linked to financial scandals and fraud. Among the best known were its relationship with and investments in Banca Privata Finanziaria, owned by the Sicilian banker Michele Sindona, linked to the mafia in that region, in the 1960s .
Also, its association with Banco Ambrosiano, owned by banker Roberto Calvi, since the early 1970s. In 1982, this bank collapsed amidst a major financial fraud that included the disappearance of $1.3 billion in loans to fictitious companies based in Latin America. Calvi fled Italy on a false passport and was soon found hanging from a bridge in London. The director of the IOR, U.S. Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, who should have been prosecuted for providing the letters of credit that supported those loans, got away by means of diplomatic immunity provided by Vatican citizenship, and continued as president of the Vatican Bank until 1989.
The “holy” investments
But if there is one thing that is starkly apparent about this aspect of the Catholic Church’s multinational conglomerate, it is the vastness and variety of its investments in shares and other assets of private companies.
While there is no written Decalogue, any Catholic in good faith would assume that investments are directed to companies that “do good”. One of their advisors in this type of acquisition is a specialized private company called Altum Faithful Investing, which privileges those companies whose activity is “consistent with the Catholic faith,” such as “defense of human life, nature, promotion of peace”.
However, it seems that this criterion limits somewhat the possibility of obtaining good profits from these investments, and the spectrum opens up to a much wider range (some of them are “secret”).
A complete list includes numerous Italian and foreign banks, such as Chase, Rotschild, Morgan, and Credit Suisse; automobile companies such as Fiat and General Motors; hotels and casinos; construction, steel, and oil companies, such as Shell, Exxon, and Gulf Oil, etc. 
Some of the investments are clearly non sanctas. For example, the IOR is one of the main owners (20% of its shares) of the company Pietro Beretta Ltda, the world’ s leading manufacturer of non-warlike firearms .
But the prize in the area of non-holy investments is probably won by a Slovenian archdiocese (Maribor) that had acquired a TV channel that broadcast pornography. The archdiocese had been bankrupt since 2011, and “to avoid bankruptcy, the Vatican bank transferred 40 million euros to the diocese in 2014, at the express wish of Pope Francis,” according to the book Avarizzia, already cited.
Again, the statements by Pope Francis
We begun this article by stating that the Catholic Church does not have the right to present itself as “the voice of the poor” simply because it is part (one of the major ones) of the powerful of this world; of the “very rich few who possess more than all the rest of humanity”.
As much as they want to sell us the image of sacrifice of characters like Sister Teresa of Calcutta (without entering into the debate of ideology and the message that their actions transmit), the truth is that the majority of their dignitaries (cardinals, archbishops, bishops, high hierarchies) live a luxurious life worthy of any great bourgeois.
In his book, Fittipaldi recounts the case of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who when he was Secretary of State of the Vatican (a sort of Prime Minister), in 2012, spent 24,000 euros on a tourist helicopter trip and, in those years, financed remodeling work on his apartment in Rome (which cost 200,000 euros) with money that should have been destined to the health care of the children of the Bambin Gesú Hospital. The cardinal defended himself saying that: “The apartments assigned to the cardinals of the Roman curia… are restored by the administration of the Holy See”.
Such hypocrisy causes disgust. But this is still not the central problem in the statements of Pope Francis. It is necessary to analyze the political objectives for which the current head of one of the richest and most powerful institutions in the world makes statements of this kind.
Since the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church part of the State, this institution has accumulated a millennial experience in defending its interests as a great owner. Subsequently, through the Holy Roman Empire (between the beginning of the 9th century and the beginning of the 19th), and then through the Papal States.
The defeat of these states against the republican bloc that led to the unification of Italy reduced their sheer territorial base to the current Vatican. This was added to the fact that many new nations that emerged established the total or partial separation of Church and State. It was then forced to use new tactics and policies and to operate through alliances and agreements with the “earthly powers”. Thus, it spearheaded the bloody subjugation of numerous African nations, for example.
During a long period of the twentieth century it did so by allying itself with the most reactionary and counter-revolutionary sectors of the imperialist and national bourgeoisies, such as its explicit support for fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, and Francoism in Spain, where, moreover, the priests were an active part of the counter-revolutionary camp. Something that the Argentine Church repeated, starting in 1976, with the bloody military dictatorship. None of this is secret and is profusely documented.
The outcome and consequences of the Second World War (1939-1945) forced it to make a turnaround. On the one hand, a new U.S. hegemonic imperialism emerged, in a country of Protestant majority and of strict separation between the State and the churches. On the other hand, a world revolutionary ascent was developing with strong manifestations and revolutionary processes in the colonial and semi-colonial countries (such as the independence of Algeria and the Cuban Revolution).
In this context, in 1962 Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council that would end his successor (a kind of “super-congress” of the Catholic Church) Paul VI, whose final declaration raised the “sensitivity to the issues of freedom and human rights”.
Later, in 1968, Paul VI convoked the Second General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, in Medellín, Colombia, with the motto “The Church in the present transformation of Latin America in the light of the Second Vatican Council”. The scenario was not accidental, as since the Cuban Revolution the subcontinent had been one of the epicenters of the masses’ struggles. There the “social doctrine of the Church” and “the option for the poor” were established . From there the so-called Liberation Theology was born, as well as numerous social pastorals, of great weight in Brazil.
It was no longer a question of operating from above or of doing charity, but of sending militant detachments of priests and lay people to the heart of the country where the popular rebellions were being born. Beyond the honesty of many of its participants, the truth is that the Church sought to get into these processes to gain space and prestige and thus be in a position to stop them and sterilize them, preventing them from advancing toward the socialist revolution.
From then on, the Church alternated between ” doctrinaire ” and ” charismatic ” Popes, with newcomers to the masses. But this “social profile” was clearly turning to the right from the end of the 1970s. Polish pope John Paul II was charismatic but profoundly reactionary and anti-communist: he spearheaded the capitalist restoration in the former workers’ states of Eastern Europe, supported Britain in the Falklands War and liquidated Liberation Theology.
His successor, the German Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), with a past in the Nazi youth, was a man of the ecclesiastical apparatus and as much or more reactionary than his predecessor. He resigned in 2013 leaving the Catholic Church in a deep crisis, sprinkled with scandals because of the hiding of numerous pedophile priests, in a total financial disorder and with a significant decline in the influence of the faithful because of the advance of the “televised” evangelical churches or of much more aggressive militancy in the neighborhoods and popular zones. The Church ceased to be an alternative to stop and channel struggles and fighters.
The election of the Argentine Jorge Bergoglio, a “charismatic”, sought to recover that influence and militant spirit. At the same time, although in his country he was always linked to the Peronist right, he had a lot of experience in life and in the action of the Church on sectors of the masses.
For that reason, he adopted a discourse of a progressive appearance. But he does so with many more limitations than the turn that Paul VI took. Of course, he always postulates his personal management to mediate acute confrontations, as he did several times in Venezuela, or with his role in preparing Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba and his interview with Fidel Castro.
After a previous period of revolutionary processes in the world (Ecuador, Chile, Lebanon, Hong Kong, etc.), the consequences of the pandemic may be gestating new and even stronger uprisings. Some are already manifesting themselves, such as the struggle of the black population of the United States against police killings.
This last speech of the Pope is then at the service of maintaining him as a valid spokesman and mediator. In other words, as an “efficient fireman” to put out the revolutionary fires. As always, at the service of defending the interests of that great enterprise which is the Catholic Church .
21] On this subject, see the book De Pío XII a Paulo VI by Virgílio Caixeta Arraes, at: https://www12.senado.leg.br/ril/edicoes/42/165/ril_v42_n165_p77.pdf
22] To learn more about the history of the Catholic Church and the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope, we recommend reading the articles by Alicia Sagra (“The Church in History: always at the service of the powerful”) and Ricardo Perrotta (“Pope Francis I; a militant Church against the working class and the peoples”) in the magazine Correo Internacional – Tercera Época No 11, Editora Lorca S.A., São Paulo, Brazil, July 2013.