Thursday, September 8, 2016

Politics over Finance at the Vatican: The Status Quo Vanquishes a Reformer

Late in 2015, Cardinal Pell hired PricewaterhouseCoupers to conduct a comprehensive audit of the Vatican’s finances. Beforehand, he had hired McKinsey to do a review of assets; that company found a total of €1.4 billion (about $1.6 billion) “tucked away” off the books.[1] Other church officials, led by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, let Pell know that the audit wouldn’t happen. This was a setback for the financial overhaul that Pope Francis had charged Pell with wide authority to do a thorough job. That pope had been given the mandate to clean up the Curia, as the last pope had resigned amid allegations of “cronyism, inefficiency and corruption.”[2] So why did Pope Francis take Parolin’s side in scrapping any audit even though that pope had given Pell the o.k. to have it done?

Additionally, in July, 2014, Pope Francis had given Pell authority over the properties managed by the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (or APSA), which at the time managed most of the Vatican’s mammoth real-estate portfolio, valued at €1 billion or more.[3] Pell found substantial mismanagement in that department. As APSA’s president, Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, “developed a strong relationship with Francis, however, the pope stripped Pell of control over APSA’s real-estate holdings.”[4] The pope also declined to approve Pell’s recommendations to reorganize the management of the financial portfolio.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke tried to play down the demise of Francis’s mandate to reform the Curia. “When a new administrative body is created, it always takes a while until it fits into the broader organization. . . . We shouldn’t be distracted by the noise.”[5] Burke’s take seems euphemistic to me. The pope charged with fixing the financial mismanagement and corruption in the Vatican strangely backed down on the authority he had given to his principal reformer, Cardinal Pell. The man must surely have felt betrayed.

My question is this: Francis is no dummy; he no doubt knew his mandate. At the very least, he appointed Pell to reform the Vatican’s finances. Francis had been in church administration long enough to know that in siding with the men opposing the audit and new management procedures (even outsourcing the investment portfolio to money managers in Luxemburg), he was going against his own efforts at reform (i.e., appointing Pell with sweeping powers to clean the place up). All of a sudden, Pope Francis looks like a Vatican conservative rather than a reformer. The cardinals who voted for Francis and gave him his mandate must also have felt betrayed. What was going on in Francis’s head requires more explanation. Crucially, he did not have to take back the powers he had granted to Pell, yet he did so anyway.

Interestingly, as in the film, The Shoes of the Fisherman, Francis could have really reformed the Vatican by announcing that many of the properties would be sold and most (but not all) of the financial instruments cashed in, and the resulting money would be given to the poor as rent assistance and food. Catholic social services would be invigorated. That the Vatican spent €550,000 on a manger scene for St. Peter’s Square suggests that priorities were at odds with the religion itself, certainly not in line with what Jesus would do with the money.

Moreover, in spite of taking in millions from parishes and more from investments, the Vatican had a deficit of e26 million in 2014 (and a larger one the next year). This indicates that dealing with lots of money is not what the Vatican is good at—so why not give much of the money away?

In short, I contend that Francis didn’t go far enough in his conception of reform, which is ironic given all his preachments on helping the poor. Had his notion of reform been consistent with his view of the mission of the Church, Francis would have been more motivated to stave off the pushback from the status-quo conservatives in the Holy See. In fact, they may not have had so much power to obstruct real change that would fundamentally change many Vatican departments because wholesale reform is more difficult to pick apart. It is time, perhaps, to ask, just what kind of business lies within the Vatican’s forte? I submit that banking and investment management (and even just dealing with so much money) is beyond the Vatican's ability, whereas helping the poor is not. I suspect that Jesus’s answer would likewise shock many in the Curia—and, incredibly, maybe even the pope who made Mother Teresa a saint after caving in on financial reform of the Curia.

[1] Francis Rocca, “Vatican Finance Chief Runs into Resistance,” The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.