In light of Pope Francis’ recent criticism of the hypocrisy of arms manufacturers and investors who call themselves Christians, I’ve seen a number of people on Twitter and Facebook point to a story about the Vatican Bank (i.e., the Institute for the Works of Religion, or “IOR”) being the primary (or second primary) shareholder in Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta, an Italian-based arms manufacturer. The article I’ve seen linked to as the source for this accusation is this (rather poorly written) one: “Vatican Bank is the main shareholder in ‘Pietro Beretta’ arms.” (It’s also available here and here as well).
The claim surprised me, as I’ve read before that the IOR deliberately opposed investing in arms manufacturing. Indeed, back in 2012 the Catholic News Service reported the IOR director's saying that the bank eschews investments in “activities deemed unethical by the Catholic Church,” including “arms manufacturing.”
So is it true that the IOR is a major shareholder in Beretta? It doesn’t seem likely. It appears that the story was first spread online by Italian blogs back in early 2012. At least one media site (perhaps more—I don’t read Italian) picked up the story. Coranache Laiche wrote of the rumor circulating online, suggesting the idea of Cardinals with gun in hand would not be a surprise given other recent scandals at the IOR. But the publication eventually updated their story to include a release from Beretta which denied the IOR had any investment in the company at all.
The Google Translation of Beretta's statement is as follows: “In relation to widespread reports in recent days about the ownership structure of Beretta Holding, the company denies in the strongest that IOR [i.e., the Vatican Bank] or companies related to it are part of the shareholders of the company or companies it controls. Beretta Holding, which controls a group of companies mainly active in the field of sport, hunting and leisure, is a company owned by the family for 15 generations.”
I assume that release settled the matter in Italy, but it seems like the news hasn’t trickled through into English yet (except on the occasional message board). Skeptic Ink reposted the accusation in late 2012, months after Beretta's denial of the story. (Skeptic Ink also included the caveat that it would remove the story if it turned out to be “bullocks.” Almost three years later, it’s still up.) It’s also surfaced multiple times on Reddit, including as recently as March 2015 (though there was much more discussion and buy-in on the story back in November 2014). And when I type “Beretta Arms” into Google, the conspiracy also pops its head: the auto-complete suggests “Beretta Arms Company Vatican” as the third option.
Given the Pope’s most recent comments, it’s not surprising to see the rumor emerging again on social media. It feeds into an all too common anti-Catholic (and more general anti-Christian) impulse to paint the church as hypocritical. But lacking any real evidence that the IOR is (or ever was) a shareholder in Beretta, it’s time to put the story to rest.
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada. He also serves as editor for the International Lutheran Council. He tweets @captainthin.