06 January, 2013

The Eighth Deadly Sin

Alongside  wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony - the seven deadly sins - should surely be added "money". For it is now proving to be a deadly sin even in the Vatican.

News came out on Wednesday that all forms of plastic money - ATM cards, credit cards, debit cards, etc have stopped functioning in the Vatican. So if you want to visit the Sistine Chapel, you have to fork out cash for admission - cannot wave your plastic.

This has happened because the Bank of Italy (Italy's Central Bank) has suspended all electronic operations by banks inside the Vatican in exasperation at the Vatican's continued inability to follow anti money laundering and anti terrorist financing regulations. This has been going on for a long time - the Vatican does not meet the anti money laundering requirements that all countries have to meet and has not been able to set this right for years.

Part of the problem is "Ramamrithamisque". Regulations demand all sorts of KYC forms and it is quite likely that the Holy Fathers have not been rigorous enough in filling 74,432 forms - their minds being, hopefully, absorbed with higher matters. Here, my sympathies are with the Vatican.

But the other half of the problem is serious. The Vatican, as indeed many successful religious organisations are, is a huge business enterprise. In this, they must follow laws that seek to curb international crime. But they usually turn a blind eye to where their money comes from , and this is an unpardonable eighth deadly sin.

This problem is not unique to the Vatican alone. Every religious organisation, I dare speculate, would fail the test of anti money laundering. Much of their finances are murky, shady, and accounting rigour, transparency and tightness of control is conspicuous by their absence.  If you stretch the argument, is it right for the Tirupathi temple,to accept donations from every scoundrel who goes and makes an offering of a fraction of his ill gotten wealth as appeasement ?

Religious organisations have to be whiter than white. These days, they are as much business organisations as religious ones, commanding large capital and cash flows. Excuses that they are solely concerned with matters temporal, won't fly. They must meet every test of international law, as all of us are expected to. Failing which they must be blacklisted, as the Bank of Italy has tried to in a small way.

"In God we trust" cannot be an empty slogan.

21 comments:

sriram khe said...

Hmmmm .... the atheist here is delighted with your phrasing: "Religious organisations have to be whiter than white. These days, they are as much business organisations as religious ones, commanding large capital and cash flows."

Years ago, Mother Teresa was asked about the big-time donations she was accepting from well-known scoundrels. She countered that it didn't matter to her where the money came from.

Recently, when I was in India, a friend's husband loudly commented that the ashrams of various gurujis were some of the best places to engage in illegal transactions and deals. It is considered acceptable for the crooks from various tiers of the political economy to be seen together at these places, he argued, as opposed to if they were having dinner, say, at a restaurant. He went one step more: that many of these gurujis are in on these deals and essentially become the facilitators working on commissions.

My point is that a wealthy religious unit is a contradiction within even those very religious values of simplicity and material poverty. Material affluence of these establishments then, as you write, have to be audited and accounted for ....

I tell ya, this topic is a difficult tight wire for a "differently thinking" minority like me to walk on ;)

Appu said...

I think the religious/charity orgs should not be concerned about where the money comes from. At the same time they should not be the ones to engage in the above mentioned illegal activities or facilitate them!
It is all about what these so called religious or charity orgs do with the money they get as donations!

Ramesh said...

@sriram -I was waiting for your comment with some eagerness, knowing your bent of mind. There is no doubt at all that money corrupts - even the religious who profess to have a stronger moral compass can't resist. I am speculating that it has risen to the top of the sin list - even more than lust or gluttony which are biological impulses.

@Zeno - that's a dangerous argument zeno. Should an ashram accepts a donation from a man who has kidnapped a child and extracted ransom ?? End does not justify the means, does it ?

Vincy said...

As a staunch catholic, I was taught in my early childhood, the seven deadly sins. Many catholics would have difficulty recognising them let alone list them out. and yet there you are, listing them out with ease. Is there anything that you do not know Ramesh? Impressed as usual with your all round knowledge. :-)

Agree with you when you say that religious organisations should be whiter than white. but sadly most of them are various shades of grey and they will continue to operate the same as long as we beleivers conitnue our support and faith in these organisations.

Blacklisting Bank of Italy is a welcome move - Laws defnitely should be a social leveler.

Ramesh said...

@Vincy - Oh - the seven deadly sins are universal !! Yes many religious organisations are in shades of grey - perhaps understandable because we are all human and prone to error - that's why Christianity recognises confessions. But I would push for religious organisations seeking to comply with the law of the land and more - they musts set moral examples and not seek to be outside lawful jurisdiction.

gils said...

In god we trust - itha ipdi kooda explain pannalama!!! After reading the post, the quote almost looked to have miniature *conditions apply line underneath it!!! Thou shall not do online bank transaction!! Thalaiyoda puthu testament :D

Ramesh said...

@Gils - Ha Ha. You can do online transactions, but not with God !!

The Million Miler said...

All organized religions are a form of business racket. What is the need for a middleman between oneself and divinity (assuming you accept divinity as a matter of fact and not as object of faith - I don't) Can you think of a more potent combination than the concoction of religion-media-business-politics? Sadly this is the reality of today. The countless religion channels on TV, the organised racketeering in the name of god,the number of 'religious' leader influencing politics confirms my hypothesis that the most noxious concoction is the R-M-B-P mix.

Ramesh said...

@Kiwi - You and Sriram will love each other :)

Yeah - there is much to be said against organised religion. But they do some good too - so its not all bad.

sriram khe said...

The Million Miler and the One Kilometer Man?
Looks like I am way behind, Ramesh ;)

Asha said...

Agree, agree with your last paragraph on religious organizations.

i understand from your old posts you dislike movies, still....... i would suggest you watch the hindi movie OMG(oh my god) a satire on present day society and godmen.

For many in our society it is "In Godmen we trust"

Exkalibur 666 said...


I think any religious org can accept a donation without issues. But they need to have clear control on how these funds are used.
No one can control what some one puts into a donation box at a temple..
End of the day if there is clarity on how funds are used - for proper purposes then this should be socially beneficial..End of the day religion and religious organizations exist for social good..

Deepa said...

Agree with Asha, I was going to recommend "Oh My God" as well! I could have simply asked Gilsu and Zeno to do their kidnapping act again, but alas they are nowhere close to you. :)

J said...

I find that combining money and religion is problematic on so many levels. First when religious organizations turn a blind eye to where the money comes from, I feel they are being complicit in the crime. I understand that as a practical matter they cannot monitor the donations but they need to speak up strongly against laundering and questionable sources of money. And have a policy of not accepting tainted money if they know that it is so. Second, even when religious organizations do good things with the money they get I feel uncomfortable because I feel like there is an implicit quid pro quo. For instance, in the US there are lots of people who are happy to give to their church and let the church help the needy rather than pay higher taxes to fund similar activities by the government. I see all the arguments for keeping such activities in the private realm and not letting the govt get involved but I don't it should be handled by religious organizations with their own agendas. Finally, Tirupati's class system is truly awful. The idea that you have to buy tickets to see god and can pay more to get a longer/closer visit is just outrageous. If the concern is about crowd management, then there can be a fixed number of free passes issued every day (shudder to think about the black market for those tickets). At a minimum they should have only one low price for all the tickets. Wealthier devotes can sponsor the tickets for poorer ones if need be. For full disclosure, I must say that it has been 5 years since I went to Tirupati so things may have improved since then.

Ramesh said...

@Asha - Alas, your one liner is so true. Why do we so revere Godmen ??

@Exkalibur - Its a powerful point of view, but see J's comment immediately after yours which offers an alternate powerful point of view. Unfortunately many religious organisations have strayed from the path of the good. Witness the so much good that the Vatican does and couple that with the child sexual exploitation that seems to have been significant in the US

@Deepa - OMG, that was a serious movie recommendation by Asha ?? I am sure there is a movie on every topic under the sun.

@J - An extremely thought provoking comment and offers an exceptional alternate point of view to Exkalibur. Each opinion is valid , but I tend to fall a little on your side.

Sandhya Sriram said...

Sorry for responding to posts since New year with a Happy Pongal wish :-)

For me i am definitely inspired by KV Ramani. even though you know all of it is not above board, it is one to say, that the system is useless and not do anything, or do something alteast. even if what you do gives only 50% outcome, it is better than 0%

Ramesh said...

@Sandhya - That is true - 50% is better than 0. But really , in the religious sphere, when it comes to ethics and morals, shouldn't you be demanding more than 100% !!

sriram khe said...

An interesting note in the Economist (http://t.co/eh0jkyjS) on this issue:

"Nobody knows how long the Vatican’s retail business with the outside world will remain cash-only (the interruption also affects the Holy See’s pharmacy, which is much used by ordinary Romans). Fortunately, pilgrims need not worry, at least until November 21st. This date marks the end of the Annus Fidei, the year of faith, during which they can visit the Vatican for nothing. And no earthly power will be able to stop them: instead of cards or cash, they just have to show a document issued by a parish or other ecclesiastical authority attesting to their pilgrimage."

Who woulda thunk that! A year when one could visit the Vatican for free by merely flashing their affiliation with a parish!

Reflections said...

Good read....information carefully filed away as future reference material;-D

Sriram Khé said...

If only every "business" were investigated like this--we will find way too many scary skeletons in the financial closet!

The Guardian has this report on the Vatican's finances; quite an interesting read.

"Behind a disguised offshore company structure, the church's international portfolio has been built up over the years, using cash originally handed over by Mussolini in return for papal recognition of the Italian fascist regime in 1929.

Since then the international value of Mussolini's nest-egg has mounted until it now exceeds £500m. In 2006, at the height of the recent property bubble, the Vatican spent £15m of those funds to buy 30 St James's Square. Other UK properties are at 168 New Bond Street and in the city of Coventry. It also owns blocks of flats in Paris and Switzerland.
The surprising aspect for some will be the lengths to which the Vatican has gone to preserve secrecy about the Mussolini millions."

Ramesh said...

@sriram- Much honoured that this post prompted you to read so much. If we dwell on the history of the Vatican or the Pope, we will see much disgrace, and not just in the field of finance.

@Reflections - Thank You