Pope Francis boosts financial reform | Catholic National Register
The numerous Financial Times reports on a shady Vatican land deal in London and the restrictions of the pandemic have combined to draw the Holy Father’s attention to this area.
The Vatican has four specially designated official years in progress – Our Lady of Loreto, Saint Joseph, Amoris Laetitia, Laudato Si – but in practice the last 15 months have been a prolonged and intensive year of the financial reform of the Holy Father.
In 2020 and 2021, Pope Francis enacted six legislative acts – apostolic letters issued “motu proprio” – imposing significant reforms related to finance, accountability, transparency, purchasing, corruption and prosecution. In addition, he sacked his former chief of staff, Cardinal Angelo Becciu on suspicion of financial corruption, dispossessed the powerful Secretary of State of all asset management and re-established the office of the Vatican Auditor General.
The latest reforms, announced in the last days of April, prohibit the “envelope culture” of gifts at the Vatican. From now on, no civil servant can accept a gift of a value of more than 40 euros. This means a pranzo for two with antipasti and pasta only, no second course.
The practice of giving generous gifts to Vatican officials has recently smelled badly due to the largesse of former cardinal and secular priest Theodore McCarrick. Another attacker was the great master of skate lubrication, the late Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ and arguably the greatest fraudster in the long history of the Church. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was notable for being one of the few who refused his gifts.
In fairness, many prelates used envelopes of money for honorable purposes, conveying money to those in need. During the John Paul years, it was common for bishops from behind the Iron Curtain or in poor dioceses to receive thousands of dollars in cash from the papal household itself, when official channels were blocked by authorities in the ‘State. And there are more than a few senior prelates in the curia who live simply and are very generous with the funds that come to them.
Nevertheless, the line between gifts and bribes is fine, and the reforms of the Holy Father force Roman officials to move away from it.
These same senior officials are now liable, if prosecuted, to appear in ordinary Vatican courts. Cardinals and bishops had previously had the privilege of being tried only by the Vatican’s highest criminal court, presided over by fellow prelates. Now the lower Vatican courts, presided over by lay magistrates, can try prelates – if the Holy Father gives his approval.
In practice, prosecutions against prelates in Vatican courts – rather than canonical processes in different Vatican congregations – are very rare. The change made by Pope Francis may indicate that there may be such lawsuits over financial matters in the future.
What supercharged the year of financial reform?
Most of the reforms Pope Francis advanced last year were suggested, if not initiated, by Cardinal George Pell during his years as Prefect of Economics, 2014-2017. Some of these reforms were implemented but were later reversed, while others were blocked by the then Archbishop Becciu. By the time Cardinal Pell returned to Australia to challenge the false allegations against him in 2017, it looked like the reform would be stuck in the sand in his absence.
It seems that the catalyst was the Time – and the time.
In December 2019, the Financial Time of London published a series of articles on a questionable real estate transaction in London’s prestigious Sloane Square. Both the transactions and their authorization appeared irregular, and early indications showed that the Secretary of State had used charitable funds for speculative real estate investment. Efforts had been made to hide the Vatican book transactions. Hundreds of millions of euros were at stake.
It was no longer about Cardinal Pell’s watchdogs sounding the alarm, as they had done with the Sloane Square purchase, or the questions posed in the Catholic press. the Financial Time is read by every regulator and investor in Europe; if what they had printed was true, the credibility of the Vatican’s finances was at stake, and its ability to participate in international financial forums.
Only a few months after the Financial Time stories, the pandemic has hit Italy hard. Much of the Vatican’s activity has been shut down. Income has plummeted. It was a time of financial stress – and the Holy Father now had time to focus his attention on the matter. He did so with remarkable intensity, producing new financial legislation in his series of “motu proprio” letters. Much of this was to introduce best practices already common elsewhere, for example, competitive bidding, with independent evaluation of bids.
Some reforms have been earthquakes to the curia, such as the decision to strip the secretary of state of control of all assets. The Sloane Square debacle meant that the most powerful department in the curia would never again be vested with the power of the stock exchange. Criminal trials may be pending in this case.
Another of these earthquakes was the dismissal of a cardinal curial and the removal of his cardinal privileges. There was no precedent and the fact that the Holy Father defenestrated Becciu without warning suggests that the allegations against him are serious.
The most recent requirements that senior prelates must disclose their financial holdings and certify that they do not have irregular financial transactions are another step in this direction. Financial disclosures are common in secular governments; they are new to the Vatican.
Finally, another Pell initiative that had not progressed in previous years is now established. Vatican investments must now conform to Catholic morals and social teaching. No more investment in Elton John biopics, or in pharmaceutical companies that produce contraceptives or abortives.
The year of financial reform has already passed for 365 days. There may well be no end date.