Bashing the Vatican -- much heat, very little light

February 23, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

The Vatican Exposed: Money, Murder, and the Mafia, by Paul L. Williams. Prometheus Books. 350 pages. $27.

Paul L. Williams is the author of such works as Everything You Wanted to Know About the Catholic Church But Were Afraid to Ask for Fear of Excommunication and Complete Idiot's guides to the lives of the saints and the crusades.

In his latest work, he uses basically the same approach in drawing a damning portrait of the Roman Catholic Church, its finances and the popes who greedily raked in vast fortunes in what could have been titled The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vatican Conspiracy Theories.

This is a book that is as superficial as it is breathtakingly irresponsible. This is not to suggest that the Vatican's finances don't merit scrutiny. They do, and a thorough, objective examination will likely turn up evidence that the Catholic Church has sullied its divine mission with unethical business dealings.

But all Williams does here is summarize the investigative work of a handful of other authors who have accused the Vatican of profiting from ties to the Nazis, fascists and the Mafia. The intriguing theories in these previous books raised eyebrows when they were published, but their evidence was questioned and their conclusions were disputed. Williams, however, simply footnotes them as if they were fact.

The theme running through the book is that the church sold its soul for mammon, a point reinforced by beginning each chapter by citing a Gospel verse on the evil of riches. Williams claims an impoverished Vatican reversed its fortunes by striking a deal with Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini resulting in the Lateran Treaty of 1929, in which Mussolini received the church's blessing in return for a $90 million payment, Vatican sovereignty and other benefits.

Williams also attributes a financial motive to the Vatican's concordat with Nazi Germany, signed in 1933, for which the church reportedly received 25,000 lire. Here, Williams relies heavily on John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope, the controversial and damning account of Pius XII's actions published in 1999.

Williams has some harsh, and incredible, judgments on the last century's popes. Pius XI, who could hear rats scurrying up the walls of the crumbling Lateran Palace, started the process of corruption by making the deal with Mussolini. Pius XII, the wartime pope, allegedly gave his blessing to a murderous Catholic regime in Croatia. Williams calls John XXIII "the pink pope" for his apparent socialist tendencies, and he labels Paul VI "an advocate of Communism," a conclusion that will baffle liberal Catholics.

He views John Paul I as a reformer who was murdered when he threatened to pursue an investigation into Vatican finances. It returned to business as usual under John Paul II, whom Williams implicates in the Banco Ambrosiano scandal, in which millions of dollars were diverted from an Italian bank to eight shell corporations that were linked to the Vatican. More than $100 million, Williams claims, was diverted to fund Solidarity, the labor union movement in John Paul II's native Poland.

Interestingly, when Williams deals with the Banco Ambrosiano scandal and the death of Pope John Paul I, he totally ignores Cornwell's 1989 book, A Thief in the Night. Perhaps that is because Cornwell inconveniently discounted the widely rumored murder of the pope, concluding instead that he died of a heart attack after he stopped taking his medication.

Instead, Williams relies heavily on David Yallop's 1984 book, In God's Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I (which he cites more than 60 times), a completely unsourced work that was widely dismissed -- even by its editor, who tried to prevent its publication -- as unreliable.

This book deserves the same verdict.

John Rivera has been the religion reporter for The Sun since April 1997. He covered Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore in 1995 and on his trip to Cuba. He earned a master's degree in theology at Washington Theological Union.

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