Latter-day Saint Book Review: Merchants in the Temple; Inside Pope Francis’s Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican

The story of the Vatican Bank and Vatican finances in general is a bit of a wild ride, the kind of thing can get you lost down Wikipedia rabbit holes for hours. I suspect the fact that the Vatican is its own state, combined with the fact that it’s managed by a coterie of clergy that don’t have much in the way of financial training, makes the Vatican Bank a place ripe for waste, mismanagement, and sometimes outright corruption.

Sometimes people (including me) gripe about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s leadership is disproportionately drawn from the managerial class, as if that’s the only skillset the Kingdom needs in its leadership. The managerial class come with their own problems (I doubt any cardinal would seriously float the idea of gutting St. Peter’s and destroying its art to make the celebration of Mass more efficient). However, it does have its own benefits, and the Vatican’s finances is perhaps a peek at what might happen if we put lifetime CES employees (or Maxwell Institute employees, if you prefer) in charge of running a multi-billion dollar operation. 

In this book Nuzzi (the journalist who published the material from Pope Benedict’s butler’s papers) shows in detail how bad the situation is. It’s not even that they are running chronic deficits; it’s that they don’t even know how large the deficits are because the accounting is so bad. Various accounts (including personal accounts of some former Popes) are sitting around collecting dust, and nobody seems to know who’s in charge of them. Any attempt by Pope Francis (he’s the hero in this drama, but I’m a little skeptical because he seems to keep the problematic cast of characters in his inner circle) to impose fiscal order and rein in the waste and corruption is met with disingenuous claims to be on his side followed by intentional stonewalling and and foot-dragging on the part of people who have their own agendas at variance with those of the Holy See. The mid-level bureaucrats usually win out; Pope Francis simply can’t minister to a worldwide flock and organize receipts at the same time, and nobody wants to cooperate with the people he has appointed to organize receipts. They know that all they have to do is pay enough lip service for him to not put down the hammer on them while actively working to undermine any substantive attempts at reform. 

We sometimes see this mid-level pushback in the Church, the most recent case being the case of a BYU professor who leveraged her position in the Eternal Family class to push back against the Church on the issue of transgender transitioning (note: I’m not making a case for everything stated in the link). Of course, sometimes the intentional mid-level friction works out. The Deseret Alphabet was clearly a pet project of Brigham Young’s that died with him after his successors didn’t exactly get their own testimony of it; same with the Adam/God doctrine that might have become the theology of the land if it hadn’t received some pushback from Orson Pratt and other mid-level types, so whether the mid-level figures are being disloyal and intransigent or putting guardrails on some of the excesses of the leader is a matter of opinion. On a more minor level we sometimes see initiatives that, while not actively fought against by the bureaucracies, aren’t exactly wholeheartedly embraced and are kind of allowed to wither (President Monson’s signature “rescue” initiative comes to mind here). 

Nuzzi’s book reminded me of the quote (perhaps apocryphal, I can’t find its reference) of Tsar Nicholas: “I don’t rule Russia, the thousands of clerks under me do.” A leader can demand this or that, but he or she has to rely on underlings to carry out the orders, and if they are smiling and nodding along but are actually working in undermine the this or that there is often little that a leader can do until they have more authentically on-mission underlings. 

Of course, most BYU and Church employees are probably fine, but the fact that Church initiatives occasionally get leaked from the COB does not inspire confidence. More and more I think that the spatial divide between the COB and the Administration Building where the Quorum of the 12 and First Presidency work is more substantive and meaningful than just a security arrangement. Those in the Administration Building receive the direction, and those in the COB are supposed to be limited to carrying out the marching orders they receive from across the square, but that’s probably not always what happens.  

4 comments for “Latter-day Saint Book Review: Merchants in the Temple; Inside Pope Francis’s Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican

  1. Nice article; thx for posting. One question: “President Monson’s signature ‘rescue’ initiative comes to mind here”. Would you mind explaining/refreshing us on this – I don’t recognize the reference. TIA – Ray

  2. A few years before he passed there was a program where, if I recall it correctly, every ward made a list of lapsed members that they were going to reach out to as a sort of spiritual rescue. I got the sense it was an initiative close to his heart (matter of fact, his biography is titled “To the Rescue”), but it didn’t really take off as a permanent thing. Those with better memories or insight can correct any inaccuracies in my account.

  3. (I doubt any cardinal would seriously float the idea of gutting St. Peter’s and destroying its art to make the celebration of Mass more efficient).

    Stephen, I enjoy your posts and usually agree with you, but I have to say this is a nasty and unfair way to describe the Salt Lake Temple renovation. The current St. Peters stands on the site of the previous old st. peters, an over 1000 year old structure modeled on Solomons temple that no doubt had priceless art and history. Nevertheless, Pope Julius II demolished it to build the current structure, which of course enraged many people at the time, but now everyone applauds as they admire the current cathedral. Lets not judge the decisions made to remodel the temple until we have seen it and let time pass. The new art and interior design could very well be much better along with the entire temple experience than before. Again not attacking you, but temples aren’t art museums or cathedrals.

  4. Recently reading Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. The idea that real power in large organizations lies not with formal leadership but with mid-level bureaucrats fits the resource-dependence theory to a tee.

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