By now, one thing ought to be abundantly clear about Pope Francis: Faced with attempts to hobble his reform efforts through character assassination of his reformers, this pope just doesn’t blink.
The latest case in point is Australian Cardinal George Pell, put in charge of leading an historic clean-up of Vatican finances one year ago. The hard-charging former Australian Rules Football brawler has more than his fair share of critics, but on Tuesday Pope Francis issued a set of statutes for his operation which, to some extent at least, amount to a vindication.
(The statutes were released Tuesday, but were signed by the pope on Feb. 22 and actually took effect March 1.)
Early reaction to the decision has been mixed, with some Italian commentators seeing it as a defeat for Pell’s ambition to create a “super-dicastery,” meaning a Vatican department with virtually unlimited powers over both administration and vigilance of all Vatican assets.
Measured against what was realistically on the table, however, when the dust settles, most observers are likely to see the result as a basic win for Pell and his team.
Francis approved a legal framework for all three new financial oversight bodies he launched last year:
- The 15-member Council for the Economy, which sets policy
- Pell’s Secretariat for the Economy, which implements it
- A new independent auditor general, charged with keeping everyone honest
What’s most notable about the statutes isn’t so much what’s in them, but what isn’t.
In the run-up to the pope’s decision, a number of veteran Vatican insiders had suggested imposing new limits on Pell and his Secretariat for the Economy, fueled by perceptions that he had amassed excessive control.
Italian Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, formalized that discontent in a series of suggested amendments to the statutes that he first presented to the Council for the Economy, which largely rejected them, and then passed onto the pope.
Among other things, Coccopalmerio proposed creating a new group of four of five cardinals who would ride herd on Pell; limiting the role and influence of the lay financial experts who serve on the Council for the Economy, and who are widely perceived as Pell allies; and slicing off some of the Vatican’s biggest financial players, such as the Government of the Vatican City State, from Pell’s purview.
All would have been seen as significant new limits, but none of them happened.
The most important substantive change came in a decision to take back administration of the Vatican’s real estate holdings from Pell’s department, which it assumed last July when the “ordinary” section of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) was transferred to the Secretariat for the Economy.
Even there, however, the secretariat will still be responsible for procurement and personnel, which are actually the more labor- and time-intensive aspects of the ordinary section’s work.
One suggestion Francis did adopt from Coccopalmerio was to add two assistant auditors to work with the new auditor general, presumably providing greater professional capacity for that office.
In a small but telling show of backing for the Australian prelate, Francis also spurned a suggestion from Coccopalmerio that English be eliminated as a working language in the new offices, in favor of the Vatican’s typical insistence on Italian.
The qualified thumbs-up is striking, given the ferocity of recent efforts to bring Pell down.
In September, steamy exposés in the Italian press focused on Pell’s record in handling sexual abuse complaints while he served as the archbishop of Sydney in Australia, suggesting that criticism from an Australian Royal Commission might weaken Pell to such an extent that Francis would be compelled to get rid of him.
Last week, the anti-Pell campaign scored another hit, this time with leaked receipts from his department showing it had managed to spend more than a half million dollars in its first few months of operation, despite its mandate to impose discipline and sobriety.
Virtually every time Pell has tried to notch a success, somebody inside the system has fired back.
When he claimed in December to have uncovered hundreds of millions of euros in hidden assets, for instance, officials in the Secretariat of State prepared a memorandum insisting those funds were perfectly legitimate and had been set aside for unforeseen expenses. The memo was leaked to the press, forcing Pell to scramble to defend his alleged discovery.
The same thing happened in February when Pell briefed cardinals on where things stand, among other things saying his office had found an almost $1 billion shortfall in the Vatican pension fund. Days later, officials of the fund issued a statement insisting that it’s in good shape and rejecting “alarmist” accounts of its viability.
In the end, none of that was sufficient to cause the pontiff to abandon Pell. It’s not a terribly surprising outcome, however, because we’ve seen this show before under Francis.
Back in July 2013, Francis tapped Italian Monsignor Battista Ricca as his delegate to the Vatican bank, monitoring a clean-up operation intended to spare the bank future scandals.
Shortly thereafter, respected Vatican writer Sandro Magister published charges in the Italian news magazine l’Espresso that Ricca had been involved in gay relationships while serving as a papal diplomat in Uruguay a decade before.
While there was no suggestion of sexual abuse or criminal conduct, the revelations were still embarrassing. Many observers assumed the pope would be forced to remove Ricca, but Francis stood by his man and Ricca remains on the job today.
One could cite other examples, including grumbling in some quarters about the volume of media interviews and public speeches given over the past couple of years by Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, named by Francis as coordinator of his “G9” council of cardinal advisors.
Critics sometimes grouse that Rodriguez seems to regard himself as a vice-pope, often revealing details of the council’s work or floating ideas before anyone else has vetted them. Despite that, there’s zero indication that Francis has any intention of asking the Honduran prelate to step aside.
The moral of the story would seem to be that if one of the pope’s chosen reformers is a burr under your saddle, probably the last thing you want to do is leak damaging information or engage in a whispering campaign.
That sort of thing, it would seem, virtually guarantees that Francis will dig in his heels rather than change course.