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Friday, June 28, 2013

Financial Ethics in the Institute of Religious Works

In probing corruption leads in the Vatican Bank, Italian financial police stumbled on to a plot back in July 2012 to smuggle €20 million into Italy.[1] The alleged culprits include a monsignor, a financial broker, and a former member of Italy’s secret service. For his part, the cleric is said to have had people pretend to have given him donations of €560,000 so he could furtively pay the financial broker for his role. Crime, Italian politics, and the Vatican Bank—hardly a novel discordant tune. That not just any bank, but that of a Church, could stray so far from what would reasonably be expected from a bank whose formal name is the Institute of Religious Works boggles the mind. Even so, the intersection of ethics, religion and business is fraught with complexity.  A religious verdict from ethical premises is possible nevertheless.

Generally speaking, religion does not boil down to ethics. John D. Rockefeller was unethical in restraining trade when he ran Standard Oil. Yet pressing the railroads for excessive rebates and drawbacks (compensation from the railroads serving other customers) does not de-legitimate the titan’s claim to have been a Christ-figure in saving “drowning” competitors. Theological inconsistency, rather than unethical conduct, would be needed to expunge Rockefeller’s industrial-religious identity. Such inconsistency can be found in Rockefeller having forced competitors unwilling to be bought out into bankruptcy; Jesus did not inflict harm on people who refused to follow him. Human ethical systems cannot limit God, which is omnipotent.

Divine-sourced ethical principles, such as those in the Ten Commandments, are regarded as religious in nature, rather than merely soured in a human ethical system. Accordingly, were Rockefeller to have broken one of the Ten Commandments in running Standard Oil, his commercial-religious identity could be assailed. In the case of Msgr. Scarano at the Vatican Bank, his clerical, not to mention Christian, identities are vulnerable to the allegations that he bore false witness and stole money from the Vatican. That Kant concluded from his ethical system that lying can never be ethical is irrelevant. However, that Kant’s categorical imperative can be re-stated as, Treat other rational beings not just as means, but also as ends in themselves, suggests that Kant’s theory can be understood as the Golden Rule, which is binding in religious terms. Hume’s theory that determining something as unethical “just is” the psychological sentiment of disapproval finds no such corresponding theological ethic and is thus invalid in assessing the commercial-religious identities of either Rockefeller or Scarano.

As with Rockefeller, the case of Scarano begs the question, how can a person so religiously inclined so delude oneself in such matters?  If driving a car well were important to me, I would be double sure that my driving is as flawless as possible. I would ask friends to ride along or follow me from behind to assess my driving. Were one of them to tell me that my passing skills leave much to be desired, I would work on them—maybe even take a driving lesson. Of course, no one can be a perfect driver. So too, Scarano cannot be sin-free. Even so, were I to be a really bad driver and yet represent myself as highly skilled, people would naturally wonder about my state of mind. At the very least, the sustained cognitive dissidence (i.e., allowing for or ignoring hypocrisy in one’s conduct) likely in Scarano’s mind raises the question of the clerical screening process for mental health.

Moreover, that the Institute for Religious Works has been embroiled in charges of corruption time and again suggests that cognitive dissidence has come to characterize the Vatican’s culture. Considering the questionable prioritizing of avoiding a scandal over defrocking and turning in rapist priests, a pattern of cognitive dissidence can be suspected. The question is perhaps what religious works would look like. From this answer, the question would pertain to how finance could be put into service without undercutting the religious nature of the works.

In conclusion, ethical conduct, religion and finance are a tricky business not easily disentangled. A preliminary point can nevertheless be made with some certainty. Specifically, unethical conduct does not necessarily invalidate a religious identity in a person’s commercial or financial role. The ethical principle would have to be part of a divine decree, such as in the Decalogue, to contradict the assumed commercial religiousity.  A human-constructed ethical theory or principle cannot by definition limit God’s omnipotence (i.e., all-powerful), whereas God’s making of a moral divine decree cannot contradict God’s nature, or essence. Both Rockefeller and Scarano can be found culpable in religious-ethical terms bearing on Christianity even though it is possible to be both unethical and religious without contradiction.


1.  Gilles Castonguay and Liam Moloney, “Vatican Bank Probe Leads to Three Arrests,” The Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2013.