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Vatican reforms at a crossroad, Part II: the financial scandals

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 27, 2021

Yesterday, in Part I of this analysis, I showed how the Vatican’s quest for financial credibility has been damaged by the highly questionable financial deals originating with the Secretariat of State. But the problem with the Secretariat of State goes beyond the realm of financial affairs.

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Americans tend to assume that the Vatican Secretariat of State is equivalent to the US Department of State: an agency that deals with foreign affairs. But the Vatican’s “superdicastery” has far more sweeping influence. One section of the Secretariat, the Office for Relations with States, is indeed the counterpart of the State Department, concerned with diplomatic relations. But another section, the Office for General Affairs, supervises all of the work of the Roman Curia.

The Vatican’s Secretary of State, then, occupies a position similar to that of a prime minister. One of his deputies, the Secretary for Relations with States, is the Vatican’s top foreign-affairs officer. The other, the “Substitute for General Affairs”—commonly called the sostituto—is like the papal chief of staff, handling all the paperwork that flows through curial offices. It is this latter office, the Office for General Affairs, that has caused so much embarrassment in recent months.

The former sostituto, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, has been stripped of his privileges in the College of Cardinals, as Vatican prosecutors exposed a series of improper financial transactions that he had arranged. Cardinal Pietro Parlin, the Secretary of State; and Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the current sostituto, have been tarred by their involvement with the same transactions.

But if Cardinal Becciu had begun those financial adventures in any ordinary office environment, the damage would have been contained by the ordinary checks and balances that are in place in any normal bureaucracy. Instead, his misdeeds had an extraordinary impact because—as the sostituto, with the power of the Secretariat behind him—he was able to silence, remove, or intimidate those who questioned the propriety of his dealings.

Thus, as as I recounted last September, Cardinal Becciu managed to forestall an audit ordered by Cardinal George Pell, then head of the Secretariat for the Economy. He pressured other Vatican offices to lend money to shore up his investments, and then to cover the tracks of these transactions. As questions persisted about those transactions, he forced out the Vatican’s auditor general, Libero Milone, explaining that Milone was “spying on the private lives of his superiors and staff.” After the Financial Information Agency (AIF) began to probe his real-estate deals, Rene Bruelhart, the president of the AIF, resigned his post. And after the shocking police raid on the Secretariat of State, Domenico Giani, the head of Vatican security, also tendered his resignation. One by one the Vatican officials who were questioning Becciu’s moves were eliminated; for months, the sostituto himself—the man they were all investigating—survived.

Last November, as the real nature of the problem became unavoidably clear, Pope Francis has issued new orders barring the Secretariat of State from investing Vatican funds. So the specific problem that caused this crisis should not be repeated. But the more general problem—the fact that the Office for General Affairs can run roughshod over other Vatican offices—remains.

The overall goal of Vatican reform—of bringing accountability and responsibility to the Roman Curia—requires that each office should have defined roles and responsibilities. The existence of a “superdicastery,” which can countermand legitimate orders and stifle legitimate concerns, is an impediment to any authentic reform.

Unfortunately, by all accounts, the “comprehensive” reform contemplated by Pope Francis will not curtail the powers of the Secretariat of State. In fact, according to Andrea Gagliarducci, writing for the Catholic News Agency in January, “The draft of the delayed document that will reform the Roman Curia gives the Vatican’s Secretariat of State a more prominent place in the workings of the Church’s central governing bureaucracy.”

If that is true—and no Vatican journalist has differed with Gagliarducci’s prediction—the attempt to bring rational modern organizational theory to bear on the Roman Curia will be doomed, even before Praedicate Evangelium is finally issued.

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: feedback - Apr. 29, 2021 6:41 AM ET USA

    The saddest part of this is that no one in the upper hierarchy seems to care about causing so many scandals. It demoralizes believers and non believers in the entire world.