Michael Day: Dwindling faith spells greatest trouble for the Church's coffers

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The Independent Online

As a global religion with a billion followers, many of whom are in the richest parts of the world, the Roman Catholic Church is naturally a multi-billion-pound enterprise.

Looking at the Church's political and administrative centre, the tiny Vatican state, figures released last month show that in 2009 it had a £3.2m deficit on a worldwide income of just under £200m. Despite this third annual consecutive loss, income from worldwide donations, principally from the Peter's Pence offering, actually increased. But such an increase seems less likely this year given the high-profile scandals. The 2009 deficit was in part attributed to a decline in the property market and the global stock market, where the Vatican has significant interests.

But looking at income in Italy alone – £800m last year from taxpayers' donations – gives a better idea of the vast sums of money that pass through the Church's hands. It is also adept at local income generation. This year a public display of the Turin Shroud earned millions for the church and the city of Turin. And in southern Italy, pilgrims came from far and wide to visit the glitzy new crypt of Padre Pio – and buy the souvenirs. His new, gold-leaf trimmed resting place, more like a bingo hall designed by Saddam Hussein than the final resting place of an ascetic Franciscan monk, provided a gaudy reminder that religion is big business.

These huge amounts of money, opaque accounting systems and past transgressions – most notoriously the collapse in 1982 of Banco Ambrosiano, in which the Vatican Bank was a major shareholder, followed by the mob-related murder of its chairman, Roberto Calvi, at Blackfriars Bridge in London – account for the intensive scrutiny the Church now finds itself under.

Such incidents and more recent allegations of money laundering – storngly denied by the Church – mean the Vatican is under pressure to join the "White List", an OECD designation for countries that apply international tax regulations and transparent accounting.

But ultimately it is faith that pays the church's bills, and the organisation's leaders know that if this dwindles too much, inquisitive magistrates and accounting regulations will be the least of their worries. Indeed, a recent poll for Focus magazine found that 26 per cent of Catholics were reconsidering their religious allegiance, following the child abuse scandals.