What the Peter’s Pence furore tells us about Vatican financial reform

Street in front of St Peter 's Basilica in the Vatican (Blue Planet Studio / Shutterstock)

Why people were upset by recent reports regarding the collection

A piece by veteran Vatican beat journalist Francis X Rocca ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal late last week, reporting that only a small fraction of the Holy See’s annual Peter’s Pence collection — roughly 10 per cent — goes directly to papal charities, while roughly two thirds of the collection goes to the operating budget of the Holy See, with as much as a quarter available for investment (money that could, in theory, eventually go to the poor or generate returns that do).

People read the piece far and wide. Many readers’ takes — especially on social media — were predictably warm. A great many other news outlets in the Catholic and the mainstream secular press picked up the story and ran with it. Several outlets published pieces explaining what Peter’s Pence is and how the Vatican uses the collection.

Many of those explanatory pieces were at some pains to note that Peter’s Pence has always been used to support the Holy See. Neither the Pope nor the Vatican has ever said otherwise, and in fact, they’ve always acknowledged it. The lion’s share of Peter’s Pence has been going to prop up the Vatican for decades. If it’s not quite true that everybody knows it, “[T[hat the Vatican has been using funds from Peter’s Pence to balance its budget has hardly been a closely kept secret,” as America magazine put it in their balanced and informative explainer.

Two observations are in order.

First, if insiders, professional Catholics and Vatican watchers were not bowled over by the split the WSJ reported, reaction around the world was of some surprise and not a little outrage. To judge by the social media reaction, the people to whom Peter’s Pence solicitation materials have been targeted were surprised, not least because of the way the Vatican and national bishops’ conferences have pitched the collection.

On Twitter, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban noted, “According to information given to the Council for the Economy,” of which he is a member, “the Pope’s Petrine ministry extends beyond care of the poor”. Napier went on to say, “Therefore, if the Peter’s Pence Collection is taken up to support the Pope in his Petrine ministry, it is for a much wider purpose than simply care of the Poor.”

Rocca replied: “Your Eminence, that is of course correct under the law. The problem is that the promotional material from the Vatican and local churches gives an entirely different impression, so people are giving under the misapprehension that the money goes mainly to the poor.”

Cardinal Napier responded, “Then I think we have to say the promotional material is not accurate, misleading or even wrong, because it does not reflect the truth.”

The news core of the WSJ report, in other words, was not the use of Peter’s Pence money to help cover operating costs, nor even the lopsided split in itself, but the Vatican’s advertisement of Peter’s Pence as a collection primarily dedicated to the assistance of poor and needy Churches and peoples around the world, some of which also goes to support the Apostolic See and the Vatican bureaucracy.

It looks rather like the reverse is true: a little of the collection goes to help the poor and needy, while the lion’s share goes to service investments and run the Vatican.

Second, the hard numbers the WSJ reported, and the hasty explainers, together make it difficult to maintain the narrative that, when it comes to finances, Francis is a great reformer. While it is true that financial reform has been a central issue of Francis’s pontificate, and also true that he complained early and specifically about the use of Peter’s Pence, it is apparent that serious structural problems persist despite his efforts, and that Peter’s Pence is still plugging budget holes.

There’s nothing wrong with using Peter’s Pence to run the Vatican, mind. The current climate among the faithful in the worldwide Church, however, is one of suspicion regarding the prudence with which the Vatican manages its assets. Peter’s Pence donations are reportedly down. There is also the persistent and general opacity of Vatican finances. The reaction of the faithful to the sense the Holy See, with the help of their own local bishops, has solicited their support under pretences less than perfectly transparent, may be for them to continue to vote with their wallets.

The worldwide faithful may yet be quite willing to give generously in support of the Holy See’s upkeep and operation. The Holy See, for its part, might consider plainly asking the faithful to contribute to that cause.