Pope Francis, Vatican Finances and the Papal Court

COMMENTARY: In the last few weeks, Pope Francis’ financial reforms have moved into high gear again.

Pope Francis during an ad limina visit on January 27, 2020.
Pope Francis during an ad limina visit on January 27, 2020. (photo: Vatican Media.)

The last few months have shut down much ecclesial life, but at the Vatican the financial reforms are going from strength to strength, with major new developments coming every few weeks.

The financial reforms of Pope Francis, which began with a bang in 2014, were largely dead by 2017. Now they live again. What happened? The ups-and-downs reveal something of how popes govern; the Roman Curia really is the last “royal” court for a “monarch” who holds virtually unlimited authority. Every pope governs that way to a certain extent; power is determined not by office alone but by those to whom he grants access. Pope Francis, in choosing to bypass much of the usual structures of the Roman Curia, has accentuated this.

Recall that when the financial reforms were launched in 2014, with Cardinal George Pell appointed to head a new Secretariat for the Economy, it was not done through usual channels. The secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, himself was blindsided, having not seen the relevant motu proprio, Fidelis dispensator et prudens, ahead of time. Cardinal Pell had the high position at court, having been heard by Pope Francis at the Council of Cardinals.

Cardinal Pell spoke often about how he had fortnightly meetings with the Holy Father and had his strong backing. But by 2016, the reforms were being blocked. The external audit that Cardinal Pell had mandated was stopped by Cardinal Angelo Becciu, then an archbishop and the “substitute” (chief deputy) in the Secretariat of State.

In July 2016, some of the key powers transferred from the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA) — the Vatican department charged with management of investments, real estate and personnel — to the Secretariat for the Economy in 2014 were transferred back. This time, it was Cardinal Pell who was blindsided.

While the cardinal would see the Holy Father every two weeks, Archbishop Becciu in his role as chief deputy — who functions as a papal chief of staff — would see him every day. And APSA was headed at the time by Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, who would often take meals with Pope Francis at the Santa Marta residence. Sources at Santa Marta would report that Cardinal Calcagno would dine with the Holy Father more days than not. And everything in Santa Marta — heart of the papal court — is watched carefully. He who dines with the Pope becomes a sought-after intercessor, whose views are given deference by others.

In June 2017, there were major changes at court. Archbishop Becciu forced out the Vatican’s first general auditor, Libero Milone, one of the key figures in the Cardinal Pell reforms. Milone discovered that his office computers had been infiltrated. He called in external IT experts, who traced the source of the infiltration to the office of Becciu. When Milone explored this infiltration, the archbishop accused him of putting him under surveillance. Milone was forced to resign.

Just days later, Cardinal Pell took a leave of absence to fight sexual abuse charges in Australia. He was recently exonerated, but it nevertheless it removed the cardinal permanently from the Roman court.

By late 2017, the Holy Father’s financial reforms, launched in 2014 according to the Cardinal Pell blueprint, had been effectively stalled. The two existing centers of financial power, the Secretariat of State and APSA, had been able, though the proximity of Becciu and Cardinal Calcagno to Pope Francis, to resist them. Cardinal Pell’s departure meant that the new economy office was impotent.

The stalling of the reforms dissatisfied Pope Francis. But to change the policy meaning changing the players. In June 2018 the Holy Father did just that.

An odd thing about the Roman Curia is that one of its most senior people — the deputy secretary of state — cannot be a cardinal. So eventually he needs to be given another job of cardinalatial rank so that he can move up in the Church hierarchy. Sometimes this means moving to a very powerful Vatican department, as happened in 2000 when Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then an archbishop, moved from “substitute” to prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, or in 2011, when Cardinal Fernando Filoni, also as an archbishop, moved from “substitute” to prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. With Becciu, it didn’t happen. He was named prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, supernaturally of great importance but not a key center of Vatican governance.

The same month Becciu was named a cardinal and moved out, Pope Francis replaced Cardinal Calcagno as head of APSA. Remarkably, he publicly said why, telling Reuters in June 2018 that “Calcagno knows the functioning well, but perhaps the mentality has to be renewed.” The new man would have an “attitude of renewal.” In other words, Cardinal Calcagno had been able to block the financial reforms because of his proximity to Pope Francis. It was time to move him out to get the financial reform moving ahead.

The Holy Father turned to Bishop Nunzio Galantino to replace Cardinal Calcagno. Bishop Galantino had been bishop of a small Italian diocese when Pope Francis had previously appointed him general secretary of the Italian bishops’ conference, demonstrating the confidence that he had in him.

Then in late 2019 there was a series of stories in The Financial Times about a suspicious real estate deal in London. A Vatican investigation has led to firings and arrests. The entire affair, which was run out of the Secretariat of State, has damaged the credibility of Cardinal Becciu. Meanwhile, in April 2020 Cardinal Pell was completely vindicated in Australia. Though now retired, the credibility of Cardinal Pell’s original reforms has been restored.

Thus, in the last weeks the financial reforms have moved into high gear again. A key office for financial data and accountability was moved (again) from APSA to the Secretariat for the Economy, which is now headed by Jesuit Father Juan Antonio Guerrero. It had been moved in Cardinal Pell’s original reforms, but then Cardinal Calcagno had managed to reverse it. No longer.

Then Pope Francis instituted an entirely new process for transparency in procurement aimed at financial efficiencies and rooting out favouritism and corruption. Another Pell reform that had been blocked is now implemented.

Early on, in October 2013, Pope Francis told La Repubblica, “the papal court is the leprosy of the papacy.” Like leprosy, the courtier culture is hard — if not impossible — to eliminate. The history of the Church has many examples — from Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More to St. Charles Lwanga and his companions — that positions at court are never completely secure. Cardinal Becciu, now at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, would know that well.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.