Stalled Vatican financial reforms could hurt cause of evangelization

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 08, 2016

The Wall Street Journal has noticed that the ambitious financial reforms begun under Pope Francis have run out of steam. Reporter Francis X. Rocca notes that the diminished authority of Cardinal George Pell, the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, is "a sign that the Vatican's established interests have gained the Pope's support..."

After initiallty giving Cardinal Pell broad authority to clean up the chaotic Vatican finances, Pope Francis has now trimmed back that authority, in the process reaffirming the powers of the Secretariat of State and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See—which are, not coincidentally, two of the Vatican offices most frequently associated with cronyism and bureaucratic intrigue. 

“My job is to keep pushing,” Cardinal Pell told the Journal. “Some people don't like change, some people don't like a diminished authority.” He added gently that “there's always the hypothetical possibility that you've got some people who have something to hide.”

Not every observer of Vatican affairs would be so diplomatic. As I have argued recently, given the track record, it is only a matter of time before the eruption of the next Vatican financial scandal. In the past, questionable transactions could be partially explained away as the isolated errors of misguided clerics who did not properly understand the complexities of the financial world. But now that the Vatican bureaucracy has beaten back an attempt to make every office strictly accountable for its stewardship, that innocent excuse is no longer plausible. When the next set of dubious transactions comes to light, there will be suspicions not only that a Vatican official was feathering his own nest, but also that he and his colleagues deliberately thwarted the audit that might have exposed the corruption earlier. In other words, to the possibility of a financial crime, there will be added the more ominous possibility of a cover-up. 

Cardinal Pell was brought to Rome by Pope Francis to combat an attitude that had developed for generations: an unspoken assumption that officials of the Roman Curia should not be questioned about their handling of money. The Australian cardinal was the right man for the job, Samuel Gregg remarks, in part because he “comes from a culture with higher expectations regarding financial transparency and accountability than what’s hitherto prevailed throughout much of the Vatican.” Now that Cardinal Pell's authority has been diminished, and the “old guard” has been reinforced, the risk to the Church is greater—not just in monetary terms. Gregg observes that “we shouldn’t be surprised that Christians and non-Christians alike are especially scandalized when they read about Christians getting entangled in sins associated with money.”

Reacting to the Wall Street Journal article on Cardinal Pell’s “trials and tribulations,” Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban—who is a member of the Council for the Economy, which oversees the work of the new Secretariat—loosed a series of Tweets downplaying the damage that has been done to the cause of transparency. Most Vatican offices cooperated fully with the Secretariat’s efforts, Cardinal Napier said, and the trimming of Cardinal Pell's powers was a matter of division of labor rather than a bid to stop reform. The South African cardinal concluded his comments by writing: “While hard road lies ahead, hope is certainly not lost!”

Notice that Cardinal Napier—who by all accounts has been a diligent participant in the quest for financial reform—does not say that the drive for accountability and transparency is progressing. Rather he says that hope is not lost. That’s not encouraging.

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: fenton1015153 - Sep. 12, 2016 10:51 AM ET USA

    I feel very sad that the Church fails to lead by example. How can we expect others to do what we are reluctant to do? It would be real leadership if we reformed our financial ship of state. And further we should reaffirm the evil in usury. This would bring Muslims closer to us and would open the door for many fruitful discussions. Talk about evangelization. This financial trouble does illustrate how hard it is to serve God and Mammon. Pray for our Church leaders. Their souls are at risk.

  • Posted by: unum - Sep. 09, 2016 6:34 PM ET USA

    Phil hits the nail on the head when he points out that Cardinal Napier, does not say that the drive for accountability and transparency (at the Vatican) is progressing. Rather he says that hope is not lost. That’s not encouraging. I would point out that Cardinal Napier's comment is just as applicable to the Church in the U.S, and I'm not encouraged either!