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'Vatileaks II' and the enemies of reform

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 04, 2015

In his novel Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris West has an old Vatican hand give this advice to a newly elected Pope from a country far away from Rome:

“Don’t try to change the Romans, Holiness. Don’t try to fight or convert them. They’ve been managing Popes for the last nineteen hundred years and they’ll break your neck before you bend theirs.”

This week’s headline stories illustrate the problem facing Pope Francis. Having been elected with a mandate to reform the Roman Curia, he is now facing entrenched resistance.

The latest headlines involve allegations of financial corruption: the same problems that were identified during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. But as Vatican spokesmen are now pointing out to reporters, the charges themselves are curiously outdated, based on evidence from months ago. In the last few years—beginning under Benedict XVI and accelerating under Francis—the Vatican has taken great strides toward financial transparency. New polices are already in place to prevent the sort of misconduct that is detailed in the new books that have caused such a sensation.

But financial misconduct was only one aspect of the trouble within the Roman Curia. In their discussions leading up to the conclave of 2013, the cardinals voiced their dissatisfaction with a more general culture within the Vatican bureaucracy: a dysfunctional combination of secrecy, careerism, backbiting, and office politicking. And now fresh leaks of confidential documents have shown that the same culture—the same tendency toward petty rivalries and intrigues—rermains embedded in the offices of the Vatican.

It made sense to address the Vatican’s chaotic financial system first, because money is always the life’s-blood of any corrupt system. The newly created Secretariat for the Economy, led by the imposing Cardinal George Pell, now holds all Vatican officials accountable for their spending. But not everyone is happy with the financial reforms; Cardinal Pell has ruffled feathers. So it comes as no surprise that Andrea Tornielli, one of the best-informed Vatican journalists, identifies Cardinal Pell as the target of the latest gossip.

It is illogical, as well as uncharitable, to blame Cardinal Pell for this week’s unhappy headlines. The juiciest tidbits in the new “scandal” involve incidents that occurred before his appointment—incidents that were, in fact, among the main reasons for his appointment. Yes, one new book reports heavy spending in the Secretariat for the Economy. But this was an entirely new office, with broad responsibilities, needing office equipment and a full staff, including some employees with expertise in accounting and financial affairs; it was never going to be an inexpensive proposition. Perhaps more to the point, the key suspects in this round of “Vatileaks” are two people who evidently expected to play important roles in the Vatican’s new financial structures, and were disappointed. Enough said.

Some reports have suggested that “Vatileaks II” shows the resistance of the Vatican’s “old guard” against the reforming spirit of Pope Francis. That too is, at best, an oversimplification. The two individuals who were arrested last week had been appointed by Pope Francis himself, to a commission that was created to propose financial reforms. So they cannot be simply characterized as enemies of Pope Francis or of economic reforms. Furthermore, there is at least some evidence that the same individuals may have been involved in “Vatileaks I,” long before Pope Francis arrived on the scene, The story is more complicated than that.

Or else, perhaps, the story is simpler. The Vatican is still plagued by an institutional culture that has, for far too long, accepted secrecy and subterfuge and an unhealthy assumption that if you can’t win your arguments forthrightly, you might as well try more devious tactics. The financial reforms are important: crucially important. But the battle to uproot that diseased institutional culture has only begun.

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: Eagle - Nov. 06, 2015 4:42 AM ET USA

    I readily confess that my knowledge of the Byzantine machinations of the Vatican bureaucracy starts at zero. Conversely, after almost forty years of practicing law, there are certain basics to which I look, namely, money, power and sex. The veil covering the homosexual behavior of many clerics began lifting with the sexual abuse crisis. I suspect that there's a link between homosexual behavior and other malfeasance by Vatican clerics. Financial transparency is the wedge into deeper probes.