Pope Francis’s Vatican is in rough shape. The brighter view of the business – though not necessarily more clear-eyed – would have it that the scandals emerging and the action Francis has taken against the more highly publicised among the alleged malefactors are both signs that the walls are closing in on the Old Guard: the maxim “Truth will out” is proving true, and the exposure of scandal is somehow by acquiescence if not by design. The apparent reluctance of official organs to cooperate with chroniclers in the media, on this view, is mere reflexive flinching.
Sustainers of this thesis point, firstly, to the blizzard of reform laws enacted over the past 18 months or so: some technical, like one changing the statute criminalising use, possession or distribution of pornographic materials feat-uring minors so it covers all minors under the age of 18; others more sweeping, like Vos estis lux mundi, which laid out a streamlined procedure for the investigation and prosecution of abuse and coverup, and introduced some protections for whistle-blowers; some in-between, like the financial oversight reforms, some of which have even seen some semblance of implementation.
Then there is L’Affaire Becciu, named for His Eminence, Giovanni Angelo Cardinal Becciu, until recently the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and before that the sostituto in the Secretariat of State of the Holy See: a tripping title that basically says “chief-of-staff” and means the officeholder can, or could until recently, do pretty much as he please with the monies and other assets available to him (small amounts for a sovereign entity but by no means absolutely insignificant, running into the hundreds of millions of Euro). The story, which recently ended with Becciu resigning (encouraged to do so by the Pope), involves several inter-national lending houses, improbable Italian businessmen and a costly investment property venture at 60 Sloane Street, London.
The crackdown, which began in spectacular fashion a year ago, with October perquisitions of offices in State and the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR, or the “Vatican bank”), and came to something of a head in early October this year with Becciu’s renunciation of his rights as cardinal, is taken for a sign the Pope means business this time.
“The swift removal of a senior figure he believes behaved improperly, even someone who was once a trusted aide,” wrote the Tablet’s Christopher Lamb in the wake of the news Cardinal Becciu had resigned, “is evidence of Francis’s determination to clean up the Vatican’s scandal-prone finances.”
That may be the case, but it glosses over the fact – not an insignificant one – that Becciu rose and rose for years on Francis’s watch. He also won several fights with Francis’s appointed reformers – chief among them Cardinal George Pell, who came on to do the work of putting the Vatican’s financial house in order and was stymied along the way by an intransigent Becciu, then a lowly archbishop, but one apparently with enough moxie to have his way with the Pope.
Then, there’s the fact that the gravamen of the allegations with which Cardinal Becciu is faced appears to be a series of transactions involving family to the tune of €600,000 or €700,000 at most: par for the course in these parts, and nothing really to shake a stick at, unless one need an excuse to shake it that would do for the real reason. As Charles Collins – quoting the great anti-Roman and anti-clerical French polemicist of the 19th century, Edmond About – pointed out for Crux: “[If] occasionally officials of a certain rank are punished, if even the law is put in force against them with unusual vigour, rest assured the public interest has no part in the business. The real springs of action are to be sought elsewhere.”
In this, as in all matters of state and governance, the true measure of commitment is taken in personnel and in dollars and cents – and the annual budget of the reform institutions is not exactly sizeable. The Secretariat for the Economy has a lowly priest for a Prefect. The AIF – that’s the Vatican’s financial intelligence unit – is stacked with Italian insiders. The Auditor General’s position has yet to be permanently filled after Cardinal Becciu secured the unceremonious dismissal of the first person to hold that job: Libero Milone, who in 2015 was frog-marched out of the Vatican on Becciu’s orders and threatened with prosecution.
Institutional reform does not happen overnight, and it is doubtless true that Francis plays a long game, but one wonders whether institutional commitment is now or ever has been his real object.
Lamb noted in his early analysis of the Becciu business that Pope Francis “retains the instincts of a Jesuit superior: disagreement is one thing but breaching trust is unacceptable.” Yet if Becciu’s alleged funnelling of money to his brothers was the thing that breached the trust Francis had in his erstwhile consigliere, it raises the question: why did Becciu’s fast-and-loose manoeuvring with Peter’s Pence money – ostensibly collected from the worldwide body of the faithful to support the charitable works of the Holy Father, but used in effect to plug holes in the Vatican budget – not merit a closer look when the London deal began to unravel in 2018?
That was the year Cardinal Becciu got his powerful saint-making fiefdom and the red hat that goes with that billet. That makes one think of another of Edmond About’s observations: “Mgr A—- was an Auditor of the Roman Rota, and made a bad judge. So, he was made a Prefect of Bologna. He failed to give satisfaction at Bologna, and was made a [Vatican] Minister.” Promoveatur ut amoveatur – the act of promoting a troublesome figure to get him out of the way – is venerable, but Francis promised to put an end to it. It may be an available defence that, if Becciu’s promotion was a case of promoveatur, it failed spectacularly.
Time and again, Francis has shown himself less interested in reforming bureaucracy – a Sisyphean undertaking on the best of days – than he has been in reforming bureaucrats, which anyone will tell you is a fool’s errand even if the bureaucrats one seeks to reform are well on their way to living sainthood. The most egregious example of this is his continued – and baffling – support of the disgraced Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, the Argentinian prelate accused of financial malfeasance and currently on trial for sexually abusing his own seminarians. Pope Francis carved out a space for Zanchetta in the powerful and frequently troubled Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican’s sovereign asset manager.
Pope Francis also gave what support he could to Cardinal Pell, when he returned to Australia to face his own charges of sexual abuse. That decision may have been a genuine sign of steadfastness. Nevertheless, leaving Pell in the nominal headship of the Secretariat for the Economy while the Australian endured his judicial ordeal basically put the Secretariat on auto-pilot and crippled the reform effort the outfit was designed to lead.
Meanwhile, the great engine of curial reform, the Council of Cardinal Advisers (once the C9, then the C8, then the C6), which Pope Francis created by fiat at the outset of his pontificate to draw up the blueprint for his curial overhaul, continues to spin its wheels. In fact, it is now the C7, after the mid-October addition of Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, Archbishop of Kinshasa, to the body. Francis made the appointment despite the official position taken in October 2018, according to which: “Given the phase of the Council’s work, the appointment of new members is not expected at present.”
Francis also made another switch: promoting the Council’s Adjunct Secretary, Bishop Marco Mellino, to the Secretary’s position. Mellino’s predecessor in the Secretary’s role got bumped up to succeed Cardinal Becciu as Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The Holy See Press office announced those moves on the same day, October 15.
We are promised that a draft of the new constitution is complete, and is in the process of final review, now with an eye to implementation. After the last meeting of the Council, the Holy See Press Office issued a statement: “During the summer months the Council was able to work via internet on the text of the new Apostolic Constitution, the updated draft of which was presented to the Holy Father. In accordance with usual praxis, the competent Dicasteries are now proceeding with the reading of the text.” This week’s meeting “was convened to summarise the work done and to study how to support the implementation of the new Constitution, once promulgated.” The statement further noted Pope Francis’s reminder to participants that “the reform is already underway, also in some administrative and economic aspects.” It does not inspire boundless confidence to see the head man sit up and say a thing is already happening, when it is not.
One may be forgiven the impression that the architects-cum-implementers of the phantomatic reform are practising classic Fabian tactics: delaying the new constitution as long as possible, in order to minimise its chances of actually taking hold. The hope would be that Francis will promulgate the fundamental law, declare victory, and go … away, before he has a chance to complete the work of turning the Vatican into Buenos Aires-on-Tiber.
Last month, CNA’s Andrea Gagliarducci floated – again – the idea that Pope Francis may be preparing to pass the torch. He cited as evidence a series of recent personnel moves involving the IOR Commission of Cardinals – an oversight board from which the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is now conspicuously absent – and rumours of a consistory in the offing that would take the number of Cardinal-Electors over the limit of 120 set by Paul VI.
Whatever Pope Francis’s plans may be, the next guy is going to have a lot of reforming to do, after all this reform.
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