Long Read: The Rise and Fall of the Vatican Financial Empire

What links a dead man hanging from the Blackfriars Bridge, shrewd bankers, and the Vatican Church?

The Catholic Church has a clear social doctrine based on the fight against poverty and the demonization of money’s corrupting influence. Still, it is the only religion in the world to run its very own private bank. This is the paradox between the spiritual nature of the Church and its temporal power that underpins the Vatican’s financial empire. Centuries of donations, taxes, and acquisitions have provided the Church with one of the biggest real estate patrimonies in history [1] Complete independence from European financial authorities, banking secrecy, lack of traceability, and high rates of return have made the Vatican an earthly paradise for financial investors. But this financial heaven may quickly turn into hell, as years of financial mis-management and scandals have deeply weakened the stability of the Holy See. As the Church’s reputation worsens, another storm of biblical proportion hails down on the Vatican: the risk of financial default. Leaked documents suggest that the Vatican treasury can only keep up with its creditors until 2023, after which a crash would be inevitable [2]. This scenario leaves Pope Francis with only 5 years to put forward his reforms and save his church from its downfall. With the impending risk of becoming a financial pariah, a tense game is being played behind closed doors among conservative and progressive cardinals to put forward a series of much needed reforms.

Standing behind a sheer but impenetrable veil of secrecy, many pieces of the puzzle remain missing: How did a small poor relief institution turn into a financial giant? Who has control over Vatican Banks? And what is halting Francis’ financial reforms?

God’s Bank

The creation of the Vatican Financial empire roots its origins in the beginning of the modern Vatican State. In 1929, as part of the Concordat with the Roman Church, the Italian state granted 750 million Lire in liquidity and 1 billion worth of Lire of Italian government bonds to the papacy.

Pope Pius XI entrusted banker Bernardino Nogara with the control of these funds. In the following years, this Catholic financier put forward a chain of smart investments which yielded the Church millions in profit in spite of the global crisis. At the eve of 1936, the Vatican bet on an Italian invasion of Ethiopia by acquiring stakes in the Italian arms industry [3,4]. The bet turned out successful and Nogara once more concluded a strategic investment in the name of the Pope. In 1942, with the fall of the regime around the corner, the Concordat funds turned into the IOR (Institute for Religious Works) and the first Vatican Bank was born.

The next fifty years saw the formation and consolidation of the Italian Republic, an economic boom of 60s, social unrest and widespread violence in the 70s, and illusionary prosperity in the 80s which ended in 1992 with the fall of the Italian Second Republic. In all of this time, the IOR served as a key tool for the Papacy and the “White finance”[5] through campaign funding, political investments, and money laundering. The strong guarantees of the Concordat, the absolute banking secrecy, and the lack of controls turned the bank into a safe haven for shady funds and “individuals who had been in trouble with the law”[6], to quote former IOR President Angelo Caloia.

The next steps in the dark history of the IOR lead to three men. Their destiny was inextricably linked to a fourth character, the Archbishop of Milan, Giovanni Battista Montini, later known as Pope Paul VI. The first man is an American born priest, Paul Casimir Marcinkus. Born in Chicago, more precisely in Cicero, Marcinkus grew up in the violent suburb ruled by Al Capone. He was tall, blonde, and athletic, he preferred golf clubs and cigars to Sunday church and his rise seemed unstoppable. In the 1970s, his readiness saved Paul VI from an assassination attempt in the Philippines, making him the most trusted advisor of the Pope. The second man is Michele Sindona, a successful Sicilian businessman who built an empire between New York and Milan. Praised by the New York Times [7] and considered a finance guru, behind his success Sindona hid connections with the American Cosa Nostra. He laundered money for the Genovese family in New York through a web of offshore holdings, which then turned into legal funds through the banks he controlled. Sindona became friends with Montini when the Archbishop came to visit him in his Milan office, interested by his unique success story. The last man of this story is Roberto Calvi, a discrete banker who worked for the Credito Ambrosiano, a Catholic Bank controlled by the IOR. Calvi was very talented and one of the first to bring to Italy the practice of offshoring. Sindona introduced him to Marcinkus and Paul VI, with whom he forged strong friendships, becoming known to the press as “God’s Banker”[8].

In 1968, the Italian government lifted the Vatican tax exemption from dividends. The Vatican tried to save its capital by moving it abroad, to Switzerland. Pope Paul VI relied on Marcinkus and Sindona to secretly transfer such funds and the Sicilian banker took over the Vatican-control-led Swiss Finabank to transfer the IOR’s money abroad [9]. Some of these funds were redirected towards the Christian Democracy’s campaign against abortion. Meanwhile, Marcinkus’ role was strengthened as he became President of the IOR in 1971 and strengthened its ties with Sindona by acquiring stakes in the American Franklin Bank and the Italian Banca Privata [10]. Then something happened, and Sindona empires started to crumble, his banks failing one after another; the IOR retreated but was estimated to have lost anywhere between 50 and 250 million dollars in the process. Marcinkus then turned to his other man: Roberto Calvi. The Catholic bankers created a holding from Banco Ambrosiano in Luxembourg with two branches in Nassau and Lima, from which millions disappeared both from the IOR and his other clients [11]. To solidify its position in the Ambrosiano, the Vatican sold another bank under its control to Calvi: the Banca Cattolica del Veneto (BCV) [12]. In 1978, this conspiracy took a dark turn: Pope Paul VI died, the Ambrosiano came under the lens of Bankitalia, and Marcinkus’ position became highly unstable. The new pope elected was former Archbishop of Venice, Albino Luciani, who promised sweeping reforms and intransigence towards the IOR. From then on, Death is the main character in the story. Pope Luciani died under mysterious circumstances only 33 days after his election. Giorgio Ambrosoli, the liquidator of Banca Privata Italiana (owned by Sindona) was killed in the fire of American Cosa Nostra, and Judge Emilio Alessandrini, in charge of the investigations on the Ambrosiano, was shot to the death by the terrorist group Prima Linea.

Sindona was compromised but Calvi kept his place and ties with the Vatican. To ensure cooperation with the new Papacy, the Ambrosiano turned into a gateway for the IOR’s funding of anti-communist organizations in Latin America (notably the Argentina Junta) and the Polish trade union Solidarnosc which received 1bln Lire under direct order of Pope John Paul II [13]. But it was too late, in 1982, the Ambrosiano filed for bankruptcy and Calvi was found dead hanging from the Blackfriars Bridge in London with his hands tied and brick in his pockets – investigations later concluded that he was murdered. Italian judges prosecute Marcinkus but the Vatican sheltered him, he remained president of the IOR until 1989. Two years later, the Vatican secretly agreed to pay 450 mln euros to the creditors to subdue the scandal around the bankruptcy [14].


After Marcinkus, the IOR changed, at least in appearance. Layman Angelo Caloia was put in charge of the bank and changes were once again promised. In reality, the old cardinal circle around Marcinkus continued to run its operations as shown by the continuous scandals that afflict the IOR up until the new millennium [15]. During Caloia’s presidency, an increasing amount of secret accounts were opened, through which the biggest bribe in Italian history, “The Maxitangente Enimont”, was transferred in 1993. In the late 1980s, the merger between the energy giant ENI and the chemical firm Montecatini was in the air, yet, the entire system needed to be oiled in order to seal such an deal. To do so, a bribe of the equivalent of 90 billion euros was put together, transferred to the IOR, and distributed in parts to all of the major political parties [16]. The discovery of the Maxitangente marked the beginning of the Tangentopoli scandal which brought an end to the Italian Second Republic. Once again, the Vatican hid behind the guarantees of the Concordat and the Italian magistrature waved the white flag.

New Century, Old Sins

The new millennium started with multiple evangelization campaigns. Among them, a “Mission Sui Iuris” was established in the Cayman Islands, detaching them from their previous dioceses of Kingston and putting them under the direct authority of the Holy See. Cardinal Maida, a member of the Board of the IOR 17, was chosen to supervise this mission. The Vatican denied any link with offshore financial operations but the long shadow of Marcinkus seemed to have remained.

Despite the common belief, the IOR is not the Vatican Central Bank nor its only financial institute, there are at least two other entities that coexist with God’s Bank: the APSA and the Administrative Section of the Secretariat of State. The APSA handles the Vatican’s real estate empire and works as the Holy See Central bank, it is responsible for foreign exchange reserves, it reports to the ECB, and prints the Vatican Euros. The APSA controls a real estate patrimony of 5 billion euros, owns ten Swiss financial firms and two Italian ones, and controls the treasury of the congregation of Propaganda Fide, estimated to be worth 7 billin euros [18], an immense patrimony which might as well just be the tip of the iceberg, given that the APSA doesn’t provide any financial statements. Murmurs claiming that APSA has become the new centre for shady financial operations, after the IOR has been exposed, have been circulating for years.

Such rumours became reality in 2013 with the arrest of Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, chief accountant of the APSA [19]. Before his vocation, Scarano was a banker, and when the calling came he kept doing his job in the name of the church and became known as “Monsignor 500” for his peculiar habit to go around with 500 euro bills. According to prosecutors in Rome, he hired an Italian secret agent to bring 20 mln euros in liquidity back from Geneva [20]. Scarano opened up to the Italian judges, claiming that APSA was used to launder money of individuals outside the Vatican through numbered accounts and offshore holdings. Despite reform attempts, APSA remained a financial black hole. In 2015, the Vatican’s general auditor in charge of reforming Vatican finances, Libero Milone, was fired after investigating APSA numbered accounts [21]. He was later falsely accused of malpractice and left the Vatican with broken bones [22].

The least known bank of the Vatican is the Administrative Section. For years it has been under the control of former Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the éminence grise of the Vatican in the years of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This third bank is responsible for managing the inheritances granted to the church and the donations though Peter’s Pence. And just like the other two institutions, it is far from scandal-free. Peter’s Pence, the main source of revenue for the Holy See, is an 8th century term for the yearly donations to the Church sent by Catholics all over the world. Yet, only 20% of these donations go to charity work, the rest is invested and used to refinance the Church Deficit [23]. A clear example is the 2019 Chelsea property deal where the Administrative Section invested 800 mln euros in the London real estate market using hidden funds funneled through Swiss banks [24]. The last point of interest of the Administrative Section regards the Pope’s hidden funds, a series of bank accounts at the Holy Father’s disposal. Their existence is known but their account balance is protected by state secret.

Francis’ Fight To Save the Church

“The pope is tempted, he is greatly besieged […] Only the prayer of his people can free him.” [25] In the midst of corruption scandals and difficult reforms, the current papacy seems more fragile than ever. Behind the Leonine walls, whispers of a possible cardinal’s plot to overthrow the Pope have begun to spread and Francis’ words during his last trip to Mozambique seem to have strengthened such rumors. The same conservative circles that pushed Pope Benedict XVI to resign are now targeting Francis’ struggle for reforms and their ranks are growing day by day.

The much feared push for reform started way before the Jesuits took over the papacy. The ECB and Bankitalia have been trying for years to push the Church towards financial transparency without success as the Vatican retreated behind its independence and special legal status. Central banks changed strategy in 2008 and started targeting not the Vatican Itself but rather the banks that operated for the Papacy [26]. In 2012, Moneyval (Europe’s anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorist-financing watchdog) stepped in, denouncing lack of transparency in the Holy See’s financial operations [27]. The same year, JP Morgan closed off the Vatican’s banks accounts, as did Deutsche Bank, following requests made by Bankitalia which forced the Pope to modernise his banks [28].

Benedict XVI knew he had to send strong signals both to Europe and to the Roman Curia so he signed a Monetary Convention with the EU and instituted a Vatican financial watchdog, the AIF, with the blessing of Moneyval [29]. His vision was to turn the IOR into a modern transparent bank with a special focus on charity work. In the following months, the AIF hired the consulting firms Deloitteand McKinsey to finally formulate and finalise an anti-money laundering law [30]. The Roman Curia, which supposedly acts on behalf of the Pope, betrayed its leader and struck back. Cardinal Bertone and his circle added two amendments which put the AIF under control of the State Secretariat (led by Bertone himself) and restricted the procedure for information gathering regarding financial activities [31]. The Pope knew nothing of this soft coup taking shape in his own city. In March 2012, the US State Department put the Vatican in the list of countries with “high risk of money laundering” [32]. But the Curia didn’t stop and fired the IOR president Gotti Tedeschi in a last attempt to stop the reforms [33]. This was too much even for the Vicar of Christ, who, weakened by the Vatileaks scandal, [34] and disempowered by Curia, abdicated and abandoned the papacy.

It is in this dangerous scenario that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has ascended to the Papacy. He is not a theorist as his predecessor was but a man of action and, most importantly, a Jesuit. Sharp, highly trained, and provided with top notch education, the Jesuits are by far the most powerful congregation in the Church, Their leader is known as theBlack Pope (from the colors of the congregations) since he reports only to the Pope. Francis has shown since his first day as Holy Father a renewed leadership and authority within and beyond the church. However, his initial zeal and his intent to close down the Vatican’s banks was quickly mitigated by waves of internal dissent which pushed him towards a clean up approach rather than a complete liquidation [35].

Francis’ attacks on the Curia targeted the three major sources of financial operations. His first move was to establish the C8, a special council of trusted cardinals to supervise his reforms and control the Secretariat. He then moved towards the APSA where he has established the COSEA to investigate and monitor the activities of the infamous dicastery. And even the IOR, seen by many as the last bastion of Vatican secrecy, has been put under control through a newly created Pontifical Commission. All these new bodies have finally been coordinated by the new Council and Secretariat for the economy which have become the highest authorities in Vatican Finances. But Francis hasn’t stopped there – through a wave of early retirements and strategic relocations, the Pope has worked to dismantle those circles that have previously hampered Benedict’s pushes for change. With Cardinal Bertone out of the game[36] , and the support of Moneyval and EGMONT (the biggest financial intelligent network), scandals and irregularities seemed only shadows of the past, then a great plague came again. In the last two years, voices of coups against the Pope have loudened until they became formalized with an accusation of heresy and public letters against Francis [37]. This time, the attacks did not come from the Vatican, but from the American cardinals and bishops, too tied to Republican circles to follow Francis’ line on migration and climate change and too conservative to accept his reforms. This group of dissidents, led by the Vatican’s former ambassador to Washington, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, have called on the Pope to resign [38]. To top it all off, in November new leaks have come out of the Vatican which exposed a secret internal investigation on shady operations that involved the Secretariat of State and the AIF which was the very own agency supposed to guarantee financial transparency [39]. As a result of the leak, the head of the Vatican Police has resigned, the AIF has lost its President and more than half of its board members, and the Pope’s position has further weakened.

With the weight of reforming the whole church on his shoulders and constant attacks from his cardinals, many think the fate of Francis will follow the path of his predecessor. Yet, it would be a naive mistake to underestimate his power and will, because it will take much more to stop the Jesuit Pope. At the eve of the new decade, Francis announced new reforms on the Roman Curia, more transparency for the church finances, and harder crackdown on pedophilia [40]. Despite strong opposition from inside the church, here are some signs of hope: the AIF has been re-admitted by EGMONT to the financial intelligence network, the IOR has been regulated by a new statutes, and Moneyval has found improved levels of transparency in Vatican finances [41]. The Vatican’s murky finances are just one of the shadows that the Holy See has struggled to overcome in its millennial history. Yet, it is clear that if the Roman Church wants to survive, the time for change is not in a decade or in twenty years, but now. Pope Francis is truly the man of resurgence Catholicism needed, but if the church as a whole won’t stand byits leader and if the Curia fails to react to this last call, the Vatican’s financial crash may be inevitable and with it, the millennial history and influence of the Roman Catholic Church.

Image credits: Unsplash.com


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3- In detail he acquired shares of the companies Breda and Compagnia Aereonautica Nazionale which provided arms and ammunitions for the Invasion of Ethiopia 

4-Posner, Gerald L. God’s Bankers. 1st ed., CNIB, 2015, p. 69.

5-The lobby of banks and investors in the Catholic area with ties to the Vatican. Today expressed by groups such as Intesa San Paolo

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28-La Roche, Julia. “Jpmorgan Shuts Down The Account Of The Vatican Bank Due To Lack Of Transparency”. Business Insider, 2012, https://www.businessinsider.com/jpmorgan-shuts-down-the-vatican-banks-account-due-to-lack-of-transparency-2012-3.

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31-Nuzzi, Gianluigi. “Peccato Originale””Original Sin”. 1st ed., Chiarelettere, 2017, p. 134.32-Telegraph Editorial Staff. “US List Vatican As Money Laundering Risk”. Telegraph.Co.Uk, 2012, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/vaticancityandholysee/9130182/US-list-Vatican-as-money-laundering-risk.html.

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39-Pullella, Philip. “Vatican Financial Control Office Director, Four Others Suspended: Report”. Reuters U.S., 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vatican-raid/vatican-financial-control-office-director-four-others-suspended-report-idUSKBN1WH1FT.

40-Il Sole 24 Ore. “Il Papa Sulla Riforma Della Curia: «No A Rigidità» “”Pope Presents New Reform Of The Curia””. Ilsole24ore.Com, 2020, https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/il-papa-riforma-curia-no-rigidita-ACU7Ss7.

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