We probably all agree that corruption is wrong but do we really understand the damage it causes? Indeed, do we know what corruption is? And, should we be surprised that Catholic countries are some of the most corrupt countries in every region of the world?
Corruption can probably best be defined as making a covert payment to those who have the authority to deliver a favour. Examples include individuals bribing a judge or traffic warden and large companies making payments to government ministers to influence the outcome of a tendering process.
There was some discussion of corruption during the Make Poverty History campaign. Arguably corruption is a major cause of poverty. Corruption in many poor countries is not limited to the leaders of poor countries: it is endemic. Indeed, it can be at its most damaging at lower levels in society where it affects everyday economic life. If a contract dispute is being taken to court and is settled in favour of the person who bribes the judge, or if property titles are only granted to those who bribe the relevant government administrator then normal economic life as we know it in the West cannot develop.
But what about corruption closer to home? A recent study by Ian Senior, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, suggests that there is widespread corruption in developed countries and in their international institutions. In France, two recent presidents and two prime ministers have either been found guilty of corruption or have been implicated but not fully investigated because of a legal system that gives immunities to the top people. Italy and Japan have similarly had their highest ranking politicians absorbed in corruption scandals. Neither the EU nor the UN appear immune either though their procedures for holding senior officials and politicians to account are so opaque that it is likely that much remains uncovered.
Indeed, it is a disturbing feature of political and judicial systems in the developed world that it sometimes seems impossible to hold politicians to account for corrupt activity. Where investigations take place they are often either in secret or conducted at snails pace. In France, the President has immunity from prosecution.
In the EU, when Edith Cresson was investigated for suspected inappropriate financial relationships with her dentist, it took five years to check minor factual matters relating to employment documents and then the European Court decided not to prosecute at a hearing that took place behind closed doors. More generally, the EUs auditors have refused to sign off its accounts for eleven successive years and whistle blowers and those who bring to light inappropriate financial behaviour have been sidelined, suspended or intimidated. In Ireland, the Moriarty Tribunal has been investigating corruption in the political system since 1997 and still shows no sign of reporting. So far the Tribunal has cost Irish taxpayers 18.6m.
I have already mentioned Italy, France and Ireland three Catholic countries (though one has a strong secular tradition too) - in connection with corruption cases. Ian Seniors study finds that one feature strongly correlated with corruption is whether the country is religious. Of course direct cause and effect cannot be drawn but it is rather worrying that more religious countries, as defined by church attendance, tend to be more corrupt.
All the major religious faiths teach something akin to a Catholic understanding of natural law certain actions are always wrong, in all times and places, regardless of whether they are against the law of a particular country or not. Religious countries should be less corrupt if the faithful follow their own declared beliefs. Ian Senior, author of the IEA study, has speculated elsewhere that confessing Christians might believe that they can commit sins, confess them and not mend their ways but feel reconciled with God. It has been said that Calisto Tanzi, the jailed CEO of Parmalat