Because Pope Francis is perceived as a maverick, almost everything he says or does is taken as a break with the past even when it clearly isn’t. His rhetoric on the economy, for instance, or his recent comments on evolution, are both utterly consistent with established papal teaching, and yet both have been trumpeted as groundbreaking.
There’s at least one case, however, in which the exact opposite is true – something revolutionary actually is happening, but is rarely perceived as the complete earthquake it actually represents.
It’s the financial reform of the Vatican, launched by Francis and spearheaded by Australian Cardinal George Pell, whose audacious aim is to convert the Vatican from a cautionary tale when it comes to money management into a role model of best practices.
That campaign took another step forward yesterday with release of a new handbook for all Vatican departments prepared by Pell’s Secretariat of the Economy and approved in forma specifica by the pope Oct. 24, meaning it has his personal blessing.
The handbook outlines new procedures to be followed by all Vatican departments beginning Jan. 1, 2015, intended to bring the place in line with international standards of accounting and money management. Among other things, each office will be expected to have an honest annual budget providing a reliable picture of its assets and expenditures.
The handbook also pledges that the Vatican’s consolidated annual financial statement will be reviewed by a major international auditing firm.
While an accompanying letter from Pell and German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chair of the pope’s Council for the Economy, pledges training and support to help people comply, that offer comes with an edge. The implied message is that a new era is coming, and the options are to get on board or to get steamrolled.
For Anglo-Saxons in particular, for whom transparency and accountability are unquestioned goods akin to mom and apple pie, the temptation is to see all this as a no-brainer, at best as a long overdue and incredibly obvious kind of reform.
That reaction, however, badly underestimates the real drama of what’s happening.
For one thing, it’s almost impossible to overstate how much of a break with the past this represents inside the Vatican, where money management always has been more about personality and patronage than good accounting practice.
In truth, the Vatican’s history of financial scandal is only to a limited extent related to occasional acts of brazen corruption. More often, it’s a product of a culture in which all sorts of objectively suspect behaviors aren’t even seen as problematic — steering contracts to friends or relatives instead of abiding by a competitive bidding process, for instance, or not asking a monsignor where the wads of cash come from that he wants to park in his Vatican bank account.
For many Vatican personnel, especially of a certain age, such shortcuts are simply good manners. They’re what it means to keep things della famiglia, meaning “in the family.”
The new approach under Francis, therefore, is the toughest sort of reform, one designed not simply to change law or policy, but to reshape an entire culture. The idea is not to abandon the sense of intimacy and family spirit that’s always been part of the Vatican’s charm, but to leaven it with a healthy dose of “trust but verify.”
Second, it’s organizational dynamics 101 that if you want to break the grip of an old guard in any bureaucracy, the single best way to do it is to take away their power of the purse.
Traditionally, officials in heavyweight Vatican departments such as the Secretariat of State or the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (better known as Propaganda Fidei) have been able to exercise patronage and influence through the discretion they enjoyed over substantial pools of essentially untracked money, and they were rarely required to account for what they were doing.
In theory, those funds will now be placed under much tighter controls, which should mean that old-guard personalities will be deprived of one of their most powerful weapons in the Vatican’s internal battles.
In other words, the pope’s transparency push is a necessary precondition to every other reform he eventually may want to launch, because if it works, those inclined to get in the way on any other front should have a reduced capacity to mobilize resistance.
Lastly, financial reform also illustrates that in the Francis era, the fault lines that matter don’t always break left v. right, but pro- and anti-good governance.
The two prelates who signed the letter for the handbook this week, Marx and Pell, would make a political or theological odd couple. Mark was among the leaders of the progressive faction at the recent Synod of Bishops on the family, while Pell was a conservative lion warning of the dangers of “doctrinal backflips.”
Yet when it comes to the need to clean out the stables at the Vatican and to build more accountable, transparent, and efficient systems, Marx and Pell see completely eye-to-eye. They are also in sync with Francis, who realizes he was elected on a good government platform and feels compelled to deliver.
The jury is still out on whether this reform will succeed. In the meantime, however, if you want to see Pope Francis at his most maverick, the financial front is a great place to look.