The drive for Vatican reform has stalled

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 21, 2016

The news that the Vatican has suspended an external audit might appear to be only a minor administrative matter, interesting only to accountants. But as an indicator of the trends in Rome today, it is as significant of Amoris Laetitia. It is, in my view (and I am by no means a financial analyst!), a sign of crisis in this pontificate.

Pope Francis was elected by the College of Cardinals to bring reform to the Vatican, after the “Vatileaks” scandal and revelations of financial corruption had marred the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Three years later, the “Vatileaks II” trial is providing new drama fit for the tabloids, and the most critical step in a sweeping plan for financial reform has been put on hold. Has anything really changed?

There has been no explanation for the decision to suspend the audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was to have been the first external audit ever conducted of Vatican financial affairs. For that matter there has not been any official announcement of the decision, which only came to light when the National Catholic Register reported on a memorandum issued to offices of the Roman Curia by the Secretariat of State. Even Cardinal George Pell, who is (at least theoretically) the Vatican’s top official for financial matters, told the Register that he was “a bit surprised” by the decision.

This is the way the Vatican has worked for ages—and, apparently, the way it still works. A vitally important decision is made quietly: without public announcement, without explanation, without accountability. The Secretariat of State, which supervises the work of all other agencies, countermands an order from other Vatican offices, even if those offices have (on paper) the proper authority in their own particular spheres.

Since we do not know why the audit was stopped, we cannot know when—if ever—it will be resumed. Cardinal Pell says that he expects it to “resume shortly.” But since the suspension caught him by surprise, he cannot be too confident in that prediction; he may have been expressing a wish rather than a certainty.

What we do know is that the suspension of the audit is a setback for Cardinal Pell, who had pushed hard for tight financial controls, encountering steady resistance all along the way from entrenched officials of the Roman Curia, and especially the Secretariat of State. The rumor mill in Rome suggests that other Vatican officials saw the Australian cardinal’s plans as too ambitious, too intrusive on the traditional prerogatives of the Curia.

For generations, the top officials of the Curia have answered to no one but the Pope-- and even the Sovereign Pontiff, respecting their dignity as Princes of the Church, would rarely ask detailed questions about how they handled their work. Each Vatican office operated by its own rules. So when Cardinal Pell finally conducted a systemic review of Vatican finances, he uncovered a rat’s nest of unsupervised fundraising and spending, separate accounts, no-bid contracts, undervalued properties, and sweetheart deals: the sort of routine corruption that saps the strength of an institution. He prescribed strong medicine, and not surprisingly, some of the patients resisted the treatment.

So now the treatment has been suspended. The old guard has won at least a partial victory; the impetus for Vatican reform has been stalled.

Three years into his pontificate, what reforms has Pope Francis achieved?

Soon after his election the Pope created the Council of Cardinals, to advise him on an overhaul of the Roman Curia. That Council is still meeting regularly, with future meetings scheduled through the end of this year. But the council’s major recommendations—a streamlining of Vatican communications and the creation of two new Vatican congregations—are steps that were predicted by informed observers even before the consultations began. More to the point, they are steps that have not yet been completed. In each case, the transition has barely begun and the future of the reform is by no means clear. Only one new office is up and running: the Secretariat for the Economy. Now the seriousness of that reform is facing a crucial test.

On another important front—the handling of sex-abuse complaints—the public statements of Pope Francis, especially in the early days of his pontificate, raised hopes for a restoration of public trust. The Pontiff promised to handle complaints decisively; he announced the creation of a new tribunal to hold bishops accountable for their failure to discipline predatory priests. But the Pope’s track record has not yet fulfilled his promises. He has promoted a Chilean bishop who was accused of ignoring abuse, and given a special role in the Synod to a Belgian cardinal who barely escaped criminal charges for the same sort of negligence. That promised tribunal has not yet materialized.

As this week began, John Allen of Crux wrote an appreciation of Pope Benedict XVI as a reformer, noting that it was the former Pope who launched the most important reform efforts at the Vatican. Just one day later, an editorial in the Washington Post, expressed impatience with the Pope’s handling of the sex-abuse scandal. Thus on successive days, two American media outlets questioned the image of Pope Francis as a reformer.

And both of those commentaries appeared before the announcement that the Vatican had suspended the audit. The question that arises now is not whether Pope Francis has brought reform to the Vatican; he has not. The question is whether this pontificate has stalled the reforms that were already underway.

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: pateradam3 - Apr. 26, 2016 9:35 PM ET USA

    It's a great question: "why can't the Pope force the reforms he wants?". I suspect the answer is that the Vatican bureaucracy has grown, over not years but many centuries, so large that the Pope cannot run it by himself, nor even with a handful of trusted advisors, and so he can't just oust everyone. I hope the Pope gets reforms on track, even so there will always be those who game the system for their own desires. The Church is ever in need of reform and renewal until the Lord returns.

  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Apr. 25, 2016 9:00 AM ET USA

    The one thing that I have is faith that "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us". I trust that regardless of what actions are taken, or not taken, the Church will survive. I too have some doubts as to the actions of our Pontiff and lack of actions. I realize that it would take time investigate the various offices in the Curia but they are acting like our Senate and House. In three or four years they will get answers when everyone involved is either retired or dead.

  • Posted by: Tex132 - Apr. 23, 2016 1:31 PM ET USA

    I am a survivor of abuse by a priest. Reading the following statement by Phil, who I trust and respect completely, crushed me: "The question that arises now is not whether Pope Francis has brought reform to the Vatican; he has not." Loumiamo asked the question "why can't the Pope effect the changes he wants?" He suspended Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Els of Germany for spending $42 million on his house in a matter of days. Why is it he doesn't do the same with any other changes he wants?

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Apr. 23, 2016 1:11 AM ET USA

    Yes, but look how Church teaching has been made crystal clear on Capitalism, homosexuals who want to be priests, man-made global warming, and Communion for people in irregular marriages.

  • Posted by: BCLX - Apr. 22, 2016 6:33 PM ET USA

    I had until now the sense that Francis understood the need for financial reform as necessary to give ALL that he does in terms of governance credibility. It appears that the audit was turning up some unpleasant stuff--of a kind that would infuriate the faithful with the odor of soft corruption. If the bureaucrats want an Italian, Arch. Vigano is about to become available.

  • Posted by: unum - Apr. 22, 2016 6:06 PM ET USA

    Phil Lawler has answered the important question that many faithful Catholics wanted answered, "The question that arises now is not whether Pope Francis has brought reform to the Vatican; he has not." So the important question that remains is, "Why?" Two out of the last three popes who were not Vatican insiders (John Paul II and Francis) have not reformed the visibly corrupt institution that is supposed to be the visible sign of Christ's presence on Earth. We ask "Why" and wait for a reply !

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Apr. 22, 2016 8:40 AM ET USA

    I can't understand this idea that a pope can't effect what he wants. He's boss/universal legislator/court of last resort. He could sweep out ALL who don't obey his commands. So why couldn't Benedict, why can't Francis, effect the reform they desire? Its good to be Numero Uno, and Jesus set up this situation, so why do they not use the power given them by God Himself? Can anyone explain this without using simple platitudes? Saying popes can't force compliance doesn't jibe with the facts.