Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Unseemly arguments? Conflict in Rome over financial reform

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 17, 2015

Once again we have a news story emphasizing the disagreements among the various cardinals and offices of the Curia when it comes to financial reform. Such conflict at the Vatican—or even just pointed questions—will always be eagerly reported. It is not insignificant; it makes a good story. Heck, even I find it interesting.

But in the extended winter of our discontent as Catholics (after all, in the big picture not a great deal has gone smoothly over the past few generations), I think we are all prone to identify cigar smoke with a raging conflagration. Yet those with administrative experience know that it is often the smallest and dampest fires that produce the most smoke. The big things tend to get hushed up, to be resolved with daggers in back rooms. When a group of key people suddenly retire all at once, for example, the fire may be out before anyone smells the smoke.

Nothing, in fact, could be more normal than Curial leaders and their departments expressing significant misgivings about changes in the way their funds are to be managed. In the news story I cited above, you’ll note, the concern is not about transparency but about control. In other words, thus far we have not had unnamed sources telling us that this or that Congregation does not want the light of day shone on their financial transactions.

No. The reports simply indicate that some leaders in the Curia fear that too much of the decision-making power about expenditures within their budgets (or perhaps even about how big their budgets will be) will be exercised by the new Secretariat for the Economy. If I were the head of a Vatican congregation or council, I would be concerned as well. Very likely I would be confident that nobody knew better than I did how the money should be spent to accomplish the proper objectives.

The argument, then, swirls around the exact mandate of the new Secretariat. Everyone understands that they will be held to a higher standard of financial accountability. It is unlikely that anyone would protest that (or at least dare to protest it openly). But what those involved may not yet precisely understand is how budgeting decisions will be made, how priorities will be set, and who has the final decision-making power for expenditures of a particular office.

These are all good questions. They are not just questions that affect ego size or the penchant for secrecy; they impact mission efficiency.

Settling into a New Groove

It is certainly possible that some are concerned about these questions for all the wrong reasons. But it is also more than possible—in fact it is probable—that there is concern for all the right reasons. We are dealing with changes affecting the operational autonomy of highly dedicated members of the Curia who have been entrusted with important missions in the service of the universal Church. There will be many tensions and even fears about the results of these changes, and even when those fears are groundless, it will take some time to be sure of that, and for everyone to settle into a new pattern.

When the fears are not groundless, Curial leaders may easily see things differently, one recognizing the benefits of greater autonomy at the subsidiary level, another recognizing the benefits of greater control at the top. When changes are made, nobody gets everything he wants. But if, on the whole, they are reasonable changes, then, in time everybody will adjust for the good of the whole enterprise, which in this case is the Church.

Here is one affected area. It seems that in the past, congregations have been able to utilize independent sources of income—such as taking direct gifts for their work. There is nothing morally wrong with this, and it may enable an effective and well-connected cardinal to do more good. But it is not hard to see serious potential drawbacks. In such cases, the funds would not be allocated according to an overall budget approved by the Holy Father. Indeed, the Pope might prefer that a $10 million gift secured by Congregation X should be divided up to cover more pressing needs in Congregations Y and Z.

Moreover, even with the best of intentions, “extra” money that is available this way too easily becomes a kind of personal or organizational slush fund, not subject to broader scrutiny. Even when no moral evil is even remotely involved, the existence of such funds tend to facilitate the rise of bad habits, and even to foster the rise of “fiefdoms”.

Learning to deal differently with these things—and no doubt with many others—is required to settle comfortably into the new groove.

No Villainy Necessary

The point is that confusion, discomfort, and even disagreement over proposed course corrections do not even begin to suggest villainy. In the same circumstances, all of us would suffer confusion, discomfort and disagreement. That’s why there is consultation. That’s why there is debate. That’s why mandates and regulations get fine-tuned in the light of early experience.

However this is done, financial decisions are never neutral, and I am not referring here to the financial mechanisms or procedures. Equally good and committed Catholics will disagree about both what can be accomplished and what the order of priority should be for potentially viable projects. Here we get into all kinds of potential conflicts, based on differences in our perceptions and, hopefully within a legitimate Catholic range, our values.

Even different popes will allocate funds to various congregations differently, according to their own sense of both immediate needs and long-term solutions. To raise just one question by way of example, which is more important: Saving as many children as possible from abortion today? Or evangelization in the hope of gradually shifting the culture further tomorrow?

Also, in these two areas of concern (two out of many), which tactics will bear the most fruit? Let me offer a minor instance which I personally find a little irksome. With respect to evangelization, the idea of the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” is very big right now in some circles at the Vatican. I believe Pope Benedict XVI came up with, or at least first approved, this idea. Will it bear good fruit? I cannot claim to know. But I do know this program seems highly dubious, and perhaps even somewhat fatuous, to me.

So I would not spend money on it. But somebody else would. And both of us (were we in the right positions) would want to know whose call that is. No villainy is necessary here, on one side of the other—none at all! But it will take time for all Curial officials to work out the kinks, and to settle into a new way of planning, balancing priorities, and budgeting concrete initiatives to carry out their sacred missions.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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