If you want to know how the reform of Vatican finances is going, two developments are a bellwether: the appointment of Fr Juan Antonio Guerrero SJ to succeed Cardinal George Pell as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy; and the bizarre, unceremonious end of Swiss layman René Brülhart’s tenure as president of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority. Either development would, on its own, signal profound crisis. Taken together, the developments indicate that there is really no point in talking about ongoing financial reform efforts in the Vatican.
The conventional wisdom was that Francis would need a heavy hitter – a pezzo da novanta, as the Italians say – to fill the Australian’s shoes. Fr Guerrero has an impressive resumé, but he is not a pezzo da novanta. Brülhart’s replacement hasn’t even been named. The Vatican promises he’s a top figure, but they haven’t said who he is. The Vatican also didn’t say that Brülhart had walked after the body in which he’d had leadership roles since 2012 (first as director and then, from 2014, as president) got muzzled and investigated, and information that was supposed to be strictly confidential found its way to feuding Vatican officials and then into the newspapers, reportedly earning the Vatican’s AIF a suspension from the secure information-sharing network of the Egmont Group of financial intelligence units. In fact, the impossibly contorted Vatican statement made it sound like Francis decided not to renew Brülhart’s appointment, but Reuters reported that Brülhart resigned.
It’s almost pure speculation, but it looks like there was something of a game of chicken: with Brülhart threatening to resign (or to turn down a renewal of his appointment) and Francis calling his bluff. In any case, AIF board member Marc Odendall did resign, citing Brülhart’s removal and the suspension of the AIF from the Egmont Group’s secure network. “We cannot access information and we cannot share information,” Odendall told the Associated Press. “There is no point in staying on the board of an empty shell.”
The Catholic Herald saw the writing on the wall for the AIF several weeks ago, and suggested this could be only the beginning of serious international repercussions for the Holy See resulting from the recent and ongoing financial scandals.
When it comes to the appointment of Cardinal Pell’s successor, both Fr Guerrero and Fr Arturo Sosa, the Superior General of the Jesuits, asked Pope Francis that Fr Guerrero be allowed to assume his new duties as a priest, forgoing (the expected) consecration as a bishop, the title of archbishop, and even the cardinal’s red hat. As Charles Collins noted at Crux, “[T]he Church is hierarchical, and bishops are a dime a dozen in Rome: even the secretaries at Vatican congregations are archbishops.” In other words, if Fr Guerrero is to do his job, he will have to tell people in other dicasteries what to do, and if he is going to tell people in other dicasteries what to do, he has to have the authority to do so.
Nor is the symbolic significance of a red hat lost on Pope Francis, who consecrated Michael Czerny SJ, his deputy at the migrants and refugees section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, as bishop. He also made him a cardinal. Doing so drove home how dear to the Pope is the work of solicitude for migrants and refugees.
In any case, Cardinal Pell made some progress in implementing the reform of the Vatican’s financial discipline and its oversight, despite significant resistance. He stepped down in 2017 to face charges of historical sexual abuse in his native Australia. Since then, the Secretariat for the Economy has been essentially on autopilot, and much of the progress has been rolled back.
On paper, the Secretariat for the Economy has wide powers and a broad mandate. The Secretariat, reads Fidelis dispensator et prudens, the motu proprio by which Francis created the new dicastery in 2014, is “directly responsible to the Holy Father and is competent for the economic control and vigilance” over the administrative and financial structures and activities of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, the institutions linked to the Holy See, and the Vatican City State, “including policies and procedures concerning purchasing and the suitable allocation of human resources, with due regard to the competencies proper to each agency”. The text continues: “The competence of the Secretariat therefore extends to all that in whatsoever manner concerns such material.”
In reality, the dicasteries of the Roman Curia are like so many fiefdoms: self-contained, internally autonomous and virtually impervious to prying eyes. It takes a powerful personality backed by more than a paper mandate to crack curial nuts, and the toughest nut to crack has been the Secretariat of State, which is now at the centre of a financial scandal over a murky real estate deal that Cardinal Pell reportedly tried and failed to pre-empt when he was prefect.
Even the decision to call the new financial watchdog a “Secretariat” was part and parcel of attempts to weaken the already gargantuan Secretariat of State. Doughty Vatican types, however, were not going to be cowed by a mere name. Indeed, they have not been.
“Guerrero,” Collins noted, “will need strong signs of papal backing.” That is certainly true. Whether he will get it is another story, and whether strong papal backing will mean anything when and if Guerrero gets it is yet another, entirely.