Vatican Finance Reform Continues With Two New Papal Decrees

Pope Francis issues sweeping new transparency laws for senior officials but critics doubt their efficacy unless the working culture of the Vatican changes.

Pope Francis offers Mass on Good Shepherd Sunday, and ordains 9 men to the priesthood at St. Peter’s Basilica on April 25.
Pope Francis offers Mass on Good Shepherd Sunday, and ordains 9 men to the priesthood at St. Peter’s Basilica on April 25. (photo: Vatican Pool / Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — Two papal decrees in the space of two days point to Pope Francis’ wish to bring the actions of senior Vatican officials into line with global standards of probity, transparency and equality after a series of highly publicized corruption scandals.

On Thursday, the Pope issued an apostolic letter in the form of motu proprio (on his own initiative) that, with immediate effect, places stringent requirements on senior Vatican officials, including cardinals and bishops, who carry out “administrative, judicial or supervisory functions.”

From now on, these officials must declare every two years that they are clear of convictions or investigations regarding “corruption, fraud, terrorism, or terrorism-related activities, laundering of proceeds from criminal activities, exploitation of minors, forms of trafficking in or exploitation of human beings, tax evasion or avoidance.”

They cannot have any criminal record, have benefited from a pardon, or “have been acquitted by prescription.” They are also forbidden, “even through a third party,” to hold “cash or investments, including shares or interests of any kind in businesses” in countries identified by the Vatican’s finance monitoring authority as a money laundering or terrorist financing risk (bar any familial, work or study ties to those countries).

Senior officials must also have acquired legally any property they own “to the best of the declarant’s knowledge.” They are also barred from holding shares or investments in companies “operating for purposes and in sectors contrary to the Social Doctrine of the Church,” and are disallowed from owning shares or investments, also through third parties, in tax havens (again unless the official has established familial, work or study reasons). 

Once the official signs the declaration, it will then be kept by the Secretariat for the Economy which, when it has “reasonable grounds,” may “carry out checks on the veracity of the declarations submitted.” Failure to make a declaration or making a false one will be a “serious disciplinary offense,” the motu proprio continued, and the Holy See will be able to claim for “any damage suffered.” 

Lastly, the new norms rule that all officials are not allowed to accept or solicit “for themselves or for persons other than the Institution in which they work, by reason or on the occasion of their office, gifts, presents or other benefits of a value greater than forty euros.” 


Vatican Malinvestments

These regulations follow a spate of financial scandals and, in particular, news of the Vatican investing in companies or projects at odds with Church teaching. Most recently, these included several pharmaceutical companies involved in making the abortifacient “morning-after pill,” and investments handled by a longtime investment manager for the Vatican, Enrico Crasso. One allegedly involved using Peter’s Pence to invest in the movie Rocketman, a biopic of the singer Elton John. 

They also come after continued questions over Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s role in financial malpractice when he was the Vatican’s deputy Secretary of State — allegations he has always strenuously denied and which, according to an informed source, will be examined in mid-May when indictments are expected to be served against several Vatican officials.

The motu proprio is also linked to past practices when high-level Church officials sought favors from curial staff, as happened with the case of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was reportedly “well-known” for handing out envelopes of money to bishops and cardinals of the curia to thank them for their work. 

In an explanatory note, Vatican News said the “crackdown” follows regulations Francis promulgated last May which were aimed at making procurement contracts more transparent and remove nepotism and other conflicts of interest related to awarding contracts in the Vatican. The latest regulations are also due to the Holy See being part of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), otherwise known as the Merida Convention, to which, Pope Francis has said, the Holy See has “decided to conform itself” in order “to prevent and combat” corruption. 

Speaking to Avvenire on April 30, Archbishop Nunzio Galantino, president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA) which manages the Holy See’s assets and real estate, said the link with last year’s norms is “very close,” adding that a “general legislative framework is not enough” and that it’s “necessary to go into detail and define the disciplinary and/or criminal responsibilities arising from false or misleading statements.”

The motu proprio, he said, is an “acceleration” of a process already begun by Benedict XVI in order to combat “conflicts of interest, cronyism, and corruption in general.”

The timing of these new norms also coincides with a long-awaited progress report by the Moneyval committee of the Council of Europe which will determine how the Holy See has strengthened its juridical framework to counter money laundering. The report is expected at the end of Moneyval’s April 26-30 plenary meeting. But Archbishop Galantino did not see the motu proprio as a signal to Moneyval but rather as a sign to the conscience of anyone entrusted with administering such resources. 

A source with detailed knowledge of Vatican finances told the Register on condition of anonymity that it was “about time” such regulations came into force, adding that the reason why it has taken so long is because “someone in the Vatican didn’t like the idea of aligning the Holy See with the Merida Convention.” The Holy See signed up to the 2003 UN treaty in 2016

But the source saw “two major weaknesses” in the motu proprio, namely: who will supervise its implementation and have real powers of oversight, and secondly, that it has “meaningless sanctions that consequently offer no deterrent.” 

Another challenge will be managing this new system when the prevailing attitude and culture in the Vatican has always been contrary to these regulations. “Whoever is going to have to police it will have trouble,” the source added, as the cardinal superior has generally acted free of legal constraints in the Vatican, unaccountable to higher laws or enforcement, thus making the new norms difficult to impose.  

Second Motu Proprio

Possibly in an effort to counter such concerns, the Vatican published another apostolic letter issued motu proprio on Friday which modified the judicial system of Vatican City State. Until now, cardinals and bishops could be tried only by the “Corte di Cassazone” (Court of Cassation, the Vatican’s Supreme Court), presided over by a cardinal. 

But with this second motu proprio, the Pope is allowing cardinals and bishops to be tried by a court of first instance, with the stipulation that cases will still have to be authorized by the Pope if they are to proceed. 

In effect, this removes prior judicial privileges for curial cardinals and bishops with the aim, the Pope said, of ensuring “the equality of all members of the Church and their equal dignity and position, without privileges that date back to earlier times and are no longer in keeping with the responsibilities that each person has in building up the Church.” 

Curial cardinals and bishops “will therefore now be judged like everyone else and by the same Vatican Court, according to the three degrees of adjudication,” Vatican News reported

But critics have pointed out that cardinals have always only stood trial at the consent of the Pope, and that the real problem still to be addressed is the absence of a culture in Vatican City State that fully respects the rule of law. “What has this motu proprio really changed?” asked a source with expert knowledge on the matter. 

Yet for his part, Archbishop Galantino is confident that these reforms are a step forward, and expressed qualified appreciation for the media’s help in bringing these issues to light. 

“We should not underestimate the impact journalistic inquiries can have,” he said, but noted that these “inquiries” are based on documentation and investigations already begun by the Vatican judiciary. “Personally, I consider positive everything that, even if it could hurt me, helps me rectify improper conduct,” he said. 

The Vatican prelate also said he rejected the image of a reforming Pope being a “lone fighter surrounded by evildoers,” saying he had “strong doubts that this type of narrative is good for the Church and reflects the truth.” 

Rather he said he prefers to focus on the impact of these reforms which, he said, aim at “decisively orienting those called to render the service of administration in the Church towards an evangelical coherence.”