Friday, January 20, 2017

Look on the Bright Side: Francis Made Us Forget All Our Other Problems

Or: The Vatican Bank and Money Laundering

Feudalism arose in the 8th and 9th centuries in Western Europe. Wealth was obtained from the toil of the peasants working the land. When Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope in 800, he was named protector of the Church and granted the Church great power. He also gave the hierarchs ownership of large tracts of land. Another example: In 1066, William the Conqueror gave over a quarter of the land in England to the Church, binding the country to Rome as well as France.

When Western Europe divided into Protestant and Catholic states, the Church lost land. In the French Revolution and the succeeding movements for democracy and nationalism, the Church lost more land. By the mid-19th century, the pope owned only the Papal States, a wide swath of territory which transected the Italian peninsula which he ruled over as a feudal lord.

Italy was divided into various kingdoms and duchies. When Italians waged war to unite their country into a democracy, the pope mounted an army to fight along with other monarchists in holding his land. Italian’s won their political liberation in 1870 and the pope lost the last of his temporal power.

The Church had other means of income besides landholdings. In 1509, Erasmus wrote The Praise of Folly expressing the popular discontent about corruption in the Church including the widespread practices of simony, which is charging fees for the performance of religious acts such as masses and sacraments, and the purchase of ecclesial offices and positions. And as we all know, Martin Luther’s objections included many legitimate injustices, but the most onerous was the selling of indulgences. Indulgences were the Church-granted remission of time spent in purgatory as punishment for sin and could be obtained through penance, prayer and good works. When the pope decreed that indulgences could be purchased, even the usually docile and obedient laity understood that God’s justice shouldn’t be for sale.

Peter’s Pence was revived in 1859 and was linked to appeals for military support. These donations had begun in the seventh or eighth century in England and were a type of tribute collected from the laity for the pope as their monarch. The new Peter’s Pence came from “both clergy and laity, the rich and powerful, including the pretender to the French throne, Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, Austrian archdukes, and Roman princes, as well as the poor.” In addition, Catholics from all over the world volunteered to fight in the pope’s army.

Being dependent on the generosity of others did not sit well with the popes and their curia (the bureaucracy running the Vatican) during this period. So when Benito Mussolini’s offer of $1 billion (in 2006 dollars 3) and independent sovereignty for the Vatican City State in return for the Church’s support of his dictatorship was made in 1929, the deal was accepted.  (more...)


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