Dissing the Vatican

euro_papstTwo recent reports in German (on-line) publications suggest that Pope Benedict XVI is due shortly to find life there at the Vatican to be a bit more difficult.

The first comes from Der Spiegel: Ratzinger authorized text for a right-extremist book. “Ratzinger” is of course the surname the present Pope was born with; this report concerns an article published back in 1997, when he was merely Cardinal Ratzinger. That piece appeared in an edition of the monthly magazine Aula called “1848 – Heritage and Mandate,” published by an Austrian right-extremist organization that a few years earlier had ignited controversy there by publishing a denial of the Holocaust. His secretary at the time, a Vatican official named Clemens, did provide permission in writing to Aula to publish the Cardinal’s article, even though a spokesperson for the Vienna archdiocese tried to deny this. Aula had previously been the house-organ publication for Austria’s Freedom Party, the one headed by the notorious (and late) Jörg Haider, but had been cut loose by that party at the time of the Holocaust controversy.

We’ll see if this story gains any further traction – after all, it was only this Clemens guy, rather than Cardinal Ratzinger himself, who can be shown as committing the mistake of dealing with these right-wingers. Still, this controversy comes at a bad time, considering the recent fuss over Benedict XVI revoking the excommunication of the English bishop, and Holocaust-denier, Richard Williamson.

And then there is the coming blow to the Pope’s holy pocketbook, reported by Matthias Oden in the Financial Times Deutschland (Thou shalt not run riot). Sure, the Vatican gets plenty of money from the outside, from the finances of the Catholic Church, but have you wondered what (if any) are the main economic activities that take place there on its 110 acres? Well, they print Bibles as well as small-scale religious icons (Heiligenbildchen in the article), but they also mint euro-coins. They are authorized by the European Central Bank to mint those coins, you see, up to €1 million-worth per year, and it’s a very profitable business for them because they can always sell those coins on (mainly to professional rare-coin handlers) at impressive mark-ups because they are so rare. (Remember that all euro-coins have one side that bears some insignia that is country-specific to the place where that coin was minted.) FTD-journalist Oden writes of the Vatican routinely being able to command €30 from such dealers for an eight-piece set (one of each of the euro-coin denominations, with a face-value of €3.88).

But now that game is to come to an end starting next year when, as European finance ministers recently agreed, the Vatican will be authorized to pass on the euro-coins it mints only for their face-value. Or at least it is supposed to come to and end by then: the Pope’s minions will still be allowed to sell “a small part” of their coinage output at a premium. At least those finance ministers did make it clear in their ruling that the Vatican is not to come out with a brand-new set of coins each time there is that interregnum period after one pope has died and the next one has not yet been chosen. Such a situation has in the past been a perfect excuse to issue a new set, because the Vatican coins normally display the head of the current pope; when there is temporarily no pope, they can think up a new design and issue a whole new set that ordinarily would sell for a big premium because of its rareness. This is of course precisely what they did back after John Paul II died in the spring of 2005 – and it was this sort of quick-on-the-draw abuse that alarmed enough people within the EU bureaucracy to put the whole issue of Vatican coin-profits on the agenda of the finance ministers, despite the many more-serious issues they have to deal with at present.

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