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Pope Francis prevails in Round I of battle for Vatican reform

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 05, 2015

Pope Francis has withstood the first major challenge to his campaign for reform within the Vatican. But the battle is not over. The Pope will face more challenges as that campaign continues.

By approving the statutes of the Secretariat for the Economy with only a few minor modifications, the Pope signaled his support for Cardinal George Pell, who is determined to bring accountability and financial transparency to the Vatican.

The opposition to Cardinal Pell was evident in February, when the world’s cardinals met in a consistory to discuss the plans for Vatican reform. “Heated arguments” reportedly erupted after the Australian cardinal presented his plans for the Secretariat for the Economy, and several influential cardinals suggested measures to restrict the powers of the new Vatican agency.

That opposition turned nasty last week, with the publication of leaked documents on the expenses incurred by the Secretariat. The leaks were obviously designed to embarrass Cardinal Pell and damage his standing. But those leaks also put Pope Francis in an awkward position. If he wavered now in his support for Cardinal Pell, he might give the leakers reason to believe that his entire program of reform could be derailed.

There is a special significance to the fact that critics of Cardinal Pell used anonymous leaks to further their agenda. Remember that Pope Benedict XVI announced his plan to resign at a time when the “Vatileaks” scandal had shaken confidence in the Holy See and exposed ugly backbiting within the Roman Curia. Pope Francis was elected with a mandate to clean up the mess. Now the leaks were starting again. Pope Francis could not tolerate this underhanded approach to office politics.

It is also significant that after the Vatican announced the Pope’s decision to approve the statutes of the Economics Secretariat, some Vatican officials (again not speaking for attribution) took pains to note that the Pope had not given Cardinal Pell everything that he wanted. The Secretariat will not handle the Vatican’s real-estate holdings, for example, and there will be three auditors rather than one. But these were minor details, measured against the authority given to the Secretariat. On balance the Pope’s decision was a clear “win” for Cardinal Pell. But his critics were not willing to accept that result; they were now engaged in a rear-guard action, a program of “spin control,” trying to minimize the perception of the Australian prelate’s influence.

For anyone who follows the Vatican carefully, that “spin” will be unconvincing. The Secretariat for the Economy is now poised to bring about an enormous change in the working culture of the Roman Curia. For decades, even for centuries, the top officers of the Curia have been free to set their own budgets, authorize their own expenses, make their own rules. The Vatican administration was modeled after a royal court, in which the sovereign (in this case the Pontiff) granted princes (the cardinals who headed Vatican congregations—and sometimes literally were princes) the franchise to rule within their own realms. It would have been considered undignified to ask a “prince of the Church” to justify his costs or explain his management decisions.

Now Pope Francis has set out methodically to erase the perception that cardinals are “princes of the Church.” The Secretariat for the Economy will ensure that all Vatican officials abide by the same rules of transparency and accountability; all budgets and all purchases will pass through the same scrutiny. This is the most important reform that Pope Francis has brought about at the Vatican.

During their February consistory meeting, the cardinals discussed another aspect of Vatican reform: the creation of two new congregations, merging several existing pontifical councils. But when that step is taken—as it seems clear it will be, in the near future, it will not really be a reform so much as a restructuring. The responsibilities of particular offices will be changed; the organizational charts will be re-drawn. But serious reform requires more than that.

Real reform would mean changing the attitudes of entitlement, arrogance, and careerism that still infect the Vatican. Real reform would be rooting out the “spiritual sicknesses” of the Vatican bureaucracy, which Pope Francis identified in his memorable address to the Roman Curia last December.

The Secretariat for the Economy will address some aspects of the problem: the haphazard financial dealings that have bred inefficiency and invited corruption. But much more work still remains to be done. Pope Francis, in his Christmas “greetings” to the Curia, spoke of the gossip and flattery, the careerism and petty rivalry, the attitude of superiority, the isolation, the failure to cooperate. When he made that remarkable indictment of the Curia, Pope Francis angered some of his subordinates, and stiffened their resistance against his program of reform. In all likelihood, then, the struggle over the rules of the Secretariat for the Economy will prove to be just the first of many battles inside the Vatican over the Pope’s program of reform.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mumof5 - Mar. 11, 2015 4:12 PM ET USA

    Thanks for the interesting assessment. Politics in the Church? What a surprise! Leaking information? Ditto. Reminds me of Wolsey's politics trying to get Henry approval for his adulterous marriage and the politics of Bishop Pierre Cauchon whose skulduggery killed Joan of Arc. Some things never change. Politics at the Vatican appears to be one of them.