Editorialist for La Repubblica and one of Italy's sharpest journalists, Curzio Maltese, has been looking at the way Italian taxpayers contribute, largely without their direct consent, to the Vatican's bulging coffers. The money collected by the catholic church each year through the legalised scam known as otto per mille* amounts to an extraordinary €80 billion. Of this, just over a third comes from taxpayers who specifically choose to direct part of their money to the Vatican; the rest of it - €524,565,000,000 in 2004 - is skimmed off the taxes of those who express no preference.
It would be nice to think that all this free money is spent on good works. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case. The 2005 campaign (created by Saatchi and Saatchi, friends to the wise and good) showed images of the tsunami and its devastating effects. The price of the campaign? Nine million euros. The amount of aid provided by the Vatican to tsunami victims? Three million euros. In percentage terms, the Union of Jewish Communities gave twenty terms as much, despite the fact that there are no Jewish communities in the areas affected. The amount of otto per mille money actually spent on charitable works by the catholic church amounts to no more than 20% of the total. The rest of it goes on, well, other things. I'll leave you to decide what these might be, but they certainly aren't priests' wages: these have halved since 1999; the amount of tax money the church has received in these years has quintupled.
Livia Turco, ex-minister for solidarity, once suggested that the otto per mille money assigned by taxpayers to the state (around 8% of the total) be used directly to combat infant poverty, imagining the Holy See would be only to keen to back her. She couldn't have been more wrong. The Vatican peevishly accused the state of 'unfair competition' and the idea was dropped. Infant poverty is clearly Vatican business. Under Berlusconi, the state's portion was used to finance the war in Iraq and, get this, the restoration of churches. Catholic churches, naturally.
The response to Maltese's articles was immediate. Vatican house organ Avvenire called them 'one of the most colossal operations of disinformation of recent times' - unlike, presumably, the Vatican's tsunami campaign - and, for good measure, 'indecent': a common ploy when anyone dares to criticise the church, as though decency were a spiritual rather than social value. Unlike his papal predecessors, who let their underlings do the dirty work, Eggs Benedict threw one of his usual hissy fits, insisting that the catholic church doesn't ask for or expect financial favours. I'm sorry? Say that again? Even the EU begs to differ.
*Otto per mille. Italian tax payers can devolve 0.8% of the tax they pay to a religious body of their choice, or to the state. Most of the people who bother (40.86% of taxpayers) devolve it to the Vatican. The percentage of tax that isn’t assigned to anyone is divided up in the same proportions as that which is, although some churches - such as the Waldensians - refuse it. The Vatican, in other words, gets a substantial slice of revenue from people who don’t want to give it to the catholic church.