Merchants in the Temple by Gianluigi Nuzzi
Speaking of real life Italian conspiracies….
This book is based on leaked information that apparently resulted in the arrest of two officials and others suspected of providing the inside information, as well as preemptive condemnation, saying that “publications of this kind do not contribute in any way to establish clarity and truth”. If these moves were intended to discredit Nuzzi, they were certainly misguided. Which makes you think the Vatican is signaling silent approval of the publication. Who knows?
Basically, this book sketches the beginning of Pope Francis’ reign, during which he took on the bureaucracy of the church, especially the chaotic and opaque financial affairs. Much of the book reveals (or claims to reveal) some of the crazy finances of the Vatican, and attempts by reformers to even document what is going on.
With rudimentary accounting and no coherent management or budgeting, the Vatican has vast holdings and large cash flows, but is perpetually short of money and appears to have a budget deficit. Francis has pushed hard to introduce reasonable business practices, to rationalize and stabilize the mess.
Naturally, the entrenched powers that be, and the Roman Curia practically invented the concept of “EPTB”, are not best pleased, and are resisting. Nuzzi attempts to tell the story of these conflicts, but I was hopelessly lost amid the obscure titles and org charts. Honestly, most of the detail was wasted on me.
If most of the first part of the book is dry accounting (the “action” centers around a big audit), the last part quickly spins out into speculation, innuendo, and conspiracy theory. Careful reading shows that Nuzzi is happy to convey unverifiable tales of corruption, conflict, and stupidity; supporting these stories with references to press reports as well as alleged secret tapes and documents.
While I’m certainly prepared to learn that there is corruption and even conspiracy in the Curia (e.g., see Posner), Nuzzi’s book didn’t really convince me. And while many of the men he talks about are not especially attractive, that isn’t an excuse for shallow and sloppy “journalism”.
Finally, I found this book nearly impossible to read. The language is awkward and filled with confusing details, names and official titles, and so on, that detract from the simple narrative. I’ll be charitable and ascribe this to difficulties translating from the original Italian.
Overall, this book was unsatisfactory and, surprised as I am to agree with the Vatican on this, “not helpful”. Personally, I learned more and understood more from, say, Posner’s God’s Bankers (2015).
- Gianluigi Nuzzi, Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’s Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2015.
Sunday Book Reviews