While Pope Francis rages over inequality, a cardinal builds a Vatican penthouse


Pope Francis in Rome on June 15. (Riccardo Antimiani/European Pressphoto Agency)

Of the many things Pope Francis dislikes — his Popemobile, Vatican politicking, seagulls that attack his peace doves — the one that perhaps rankles him most is the world economy.

Francis is no friend of the Austrian School of economics, and he again returned to that message on Monday. It’s not only that he thinks a capitalist model that concentrates wealth at the very top and endows its financier class with fortunes is a bad idea. It’s that he thinks its downright abhorrent.

“It is increasingly intolerable that financial markets are shaping the destiny of peoples rather than serving their needs, or that the few derive immense wealth from financial speculation while the many are deeply burdened by the consequences,” he said Monday in comments that were among his sharpest on the subject. “It is important that ethics once again play its due part in the world of finance” and that markets “serve the interests of people and the common good of humanity.”

Francis especially disdains speculation in agricultural commodities. It is “a scandal which seriously compromises access to food on the part of the poorest members of our human family,” he said.

Francis has earned a reputation for iconoclasm on a number of fronts. He broached an unprecedented prayer session this month between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He dumped his bullet-proof Popemobile: “I cannot greet people and tell them I love them from inside a sardine can even if it is crystal.” He called a random Argentine woman to mull matters of divorce and Communion. On homosexuality, he has asked, “Who am I to judge?”

But despite his penchant for making news on other issues, Francis’s take on profligacy and inequality may define his reign. His activism is writ large and small.

While condemning rapacious global businessmen who have done the world’s economy wrong, he is doing the same thing among the clergy. First, he accepted the resignation of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst — the Bishop of Bling — who plowed an astonishing $43 million into his posh pad in Limburg, Germany. Then he replaced the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank’s supervisory body with fresh faces. And now, the clash between what Francis describes as “a poor church for the poor” and church extravagance has shifted to a controversial cardinal named Tarcisio Bertone.

The drama, like that which consumed the Bishop of Bling, involves accommodations.

This is where the pope lives: inside a one-bedroom suite in the Casa Santa Marta. This is where Bertone will live: inside an “opulent” apartment between five and 10 times the size of Francis’s home. (Early reports alleged Bertone would move into a 2,300 square-foot flat, but he later denied those claims, saying it was a modest 1,150-square foot flat.)

Bertone’s bastion will overlook the center of Rome, surrounded by a broad terrace that will allow him to survey the Eternal City and the mountains beyond. The cardinal conceded that his perspective digs, which will combine two apartments, are indeed spacious — but necessary. Three nuns, who will do housework, will reside with him. According to the Guardian, he said it was “duly converted (at my own expense) and was made available for my temporary use and, after me, someone else will use it.”

The pope wasn’t biting. The Vatican did not dispute reports that Francis was “furious” when he saw pics of Bertone’s bastion in the European news media, which described it as a “penthouse.”

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Bertone, once the Vatican secretary of state and considered the highest Vatican official. Some even speculated he, not Francis, would be pope. Now allegations have emerged that he mishandled $20 million in Vatican bank accounts.

“We are talking here about suspicious behavior,” Rene Bruelhart of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority said in a news conference. “We are not talking about penal investigations.”

This “is something being studied,” the pope said in response before dismissing some of the Vatican Bank staff. “Maybe it’s the truth, but at this moment it’s not definitive.”

Bertone has denied the allegations. His house, however, is still on as far as anyone knows, despite another big hint from the pope this week:

“You cannot understand the gospel without poverty,” Francis said in an interview with a Spanish paper. “I believe that Jesus wants bishops to be servants and not princes.”


Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone attends an Episcopal Ordination ceremony in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on May 30, 2014. (Tiziana Fabitiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)
Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.
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