Three questions about the new financial reform law
Pope Francis issued a new motu proprio on Monday, laying out exactly how the Secretariat of State would have its purse taken away and establishing where the money and other assets previously held by the powerful department would go for the managing.
The short version of it is that the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See – the Vatican’s central bank and sovereign asset manager, called APSA for short – is getting the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle: bank accounts, investment portfolios – including real estate – basically everything previously administered by the Secretariat of State, as of New Year’s Day.
Getting into the weeds a little bit, APSA is to create a budget line – “Papal Funds” – to be included in the Holy See’s regular financial statements. There will be one sub-account called “Peter’s Pence” and another – the “Holy Father’s Discretionary Fund” – that will be pretty much what it says. A third sub-account – “Entitled Funds” – will be for monies directed by donors to particular purpose or subject to specific regulatory provision.
An old saying about eggs and baskets comes to mind, even if the one basket has compartments – and that’s the first thing one notes in this business.
All this is coming in the wake of a dismal financial year for the Vatican. It’s been a red year for the balance sheet, and one that saw the Holy See savaged in the press for a series of money scandals that really began before 2020 even opened. Some of them have been kicking around for nearly two years. APSA, not to put too fine a point on it, has not exactly been immune to scandal either recently or historically. One wonders what shape the basket is in, and that’s the second thing.
The third question the new law raises is at once rather less technical and more complex.
What does the reorganization of assets mean for the broad reform of the Church’s central governing apparatus?
If the Secretariat of State is still poised to become – on paper, at least – the biggest of the big kids on the block, as Charles Collins perceptively argued for Crux in April of 2019, then it can’t be expected to go to fill out a requisition slip every time it wants – needs – to do something. If, on the other hand, we are witnessing State’s wings being clipped, what then will be the effect of the clipping on day-to-day operations of the Roman Curia in the new disposition?
It’s very nice to say, “The main point of the new Apostolic Constitution, Praedicate Evangelium, is that the mission of the Church is evangelization,” as one of the reform’s architects, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, told Vida Nueva last year. He also said, “[Praedicate Evangelium] puts evangelization at the center of the Church, and of everything the Curia does.”
That’s nice, too, but what will the Curia actually do?
The Roman Curia, I have noted here and elsewhere, is a power structure – a bureaucracy – and saying that evangelization is the motor of curial activity will not make the bureaucracy fit for missionary purpose, but it will risk subjecting the Church’s mission to permanent bureaucratic constraint.
Before we get to any of that, will State even be able to do the things a diplomatic department is supposed to do?
If State has to run to APSA, hat-in-hand, each time it wants to fix a leak in the roof of a nunciature, the long red tape that will unroll should tie up operations in very short order. If State keeps its paper authority, who will bother listening?
In his lengthy 2016 speech to high curial officials, in which he outlined his reform vision, Pope Francis said the new order would be established, “On the basis of the principle that all Dicasteries are juridically equal,” which spurred this Vatican watcher to note that some dicasteries must always in fact be more equal than others.
“On the other hand,” Pope Francis continued, “all Dicasteries report directly to the Pope.”
If this pope has been willing to sidestep the bureaucracy and go it alone – to govern without it – his successors will not necessarily be either as willing or as ready to do the same. In any case, the cardinals who elected Francis saddled him with a mandate to reform the bureaucracy, not to dismantle it.
At this point, one wonders what sort of outfit he plans on leaving behind.