Why there’s still a case for hope on Vatican financial reform

Why there’s still a case for hope on Vatican financial reform

Why there’s still a case for hope on Vatican financial reform

New questions have arisen as to whether Pope Francis’ pledge to impose transparency and accountability can succeed in an institution historically more inclined to cronyism and operating under cover of darkness. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

This week brought fresh embarrassments for the Vatican on the financial front, raising questions anew about whether Pope Francis’ pledge to impose transparency and accountability can succeed in an institution historically more inclined to cronyism and operating under cover of darkness. It began with the arrest of two Vatican insiders

This week brought fresh embarrassments for the Vatican on the financial front, raising questions anew about whether Pope Francis’ pledge to impose transparency and accountability can succeed in an institution historically more inclined to cronyism and operating under cover of darkness.

It began with the arrest of two Vatican insiders on charges of leaking secret reports to journalists. Both are former members of a now-dissolved commission created by Francis in the summer of 2013 to get a handle on the financial situation.

Mid-week, two new books on the Vatican’s money woes appeared, to some extent based on those leaked documents.

The books are Avarizia (“Avarice”), by Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, and Via Crucis (released in English as “Merchants in the Temple”) by Gianluigi Nuzzi, another Italian journalist who was at the heart of the Vatican leaks affair under Pope Benedict XVI.

Both offer enough ugly detail to raise fears about whether reform efforts can prevail.

RELATED: Pope: Leaks were a crime, but my reform will continue

For instance, we learn that having someone declared a saint can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that “postulators,” officials who manage sainthood cases, sometimes command impressive fees to speed things up – raising the suspicion that, in some cases, halos are being bought rather than earned.

Nuzzi also reveals that “Peter’s Pence,” a collection from ordinary Catholics around the world and often billed as support for papal charities, functions as a way to offset Vatican deficits. For every dollar taken in, Nuzzi asserts, barely 20 cents go to help the poor.

(In fairness, the Vatican insists the collection is intended to support the pope, and it’s up to him how to use it. In past years, virtually all of it went to offset deficits, making the current situation actually an improvement.)

As the week rolled on, other twists emerged, including reports that one of the alleged leakers, Italian laywoman Francesca Chaouqui, faces an investigation in the city of Terni along with her husband for influence-peddling. One report claimed Chaouqui has a wide network of ecclesiastical contacts, including Andrea Riccardi, founder of the influential Community of Sant’Egidio – triggering a denial from Riccardi, who said he’s never met her or spoken to her.

Also this week, Reuters reported that an Italian banker, Giampietro Nattino, is under investigation for having used accounts at the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), a department that’s traditionally handled Vatican investments and real estate, for alleged money-laundering, insider trading, and market manipulation.

Speaking on background, sources with knowledge of the investigation told Crux that Nattino may have had the support of Vatican insiders.

Before concluding the reform cause is hopeless, however, three cautions are in order.

1. The dollar amounts involved are strikingly low. Combining the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy of the global Church, and the Vatican City State, which runs the 108-acre physical space, the annual budget for the Vatican is around $700 million.

For a frame of reference, the University of Notre Dame’s operating budget for 2014-2015 is $1.5 billion – which means the Fighting Irish by themselves could fund the Vatican twice, and still have money left over for new football uniforms.

The Vatican Bank, to take another case, controls just under $9 billion in assets, which is nobody’s idea of chump change. By the standards of major commercial banks, however, it’s small potatoes. J.P. Morgan, for instance, controls an astronomic $2 trillion.

Yes, there’s real money involved, but the Vatican isn’t a financial colossus.

2. The scandals documented in the new books are two years old. They’re based largely on documents generated by that study commission, known by its Italian acronym COSEA, which expired in early 2014 after making recommendations to the pope.

Since that time, new structures — including a Council for the Economy, a Secretariat for the Economy, and an independent auditor general, as well as a beefed-up watchdog agency in the Financial Information Authority — have brought new systems of vigilance on-line.

In other words, the books provide a snapshot of the situation shortly before the pope’s reform effort got real.

3. The pope started all this transparency. The key point is that this week’s revelations never would have happened had the pontiff himself not demanded that such things be revealed — to him, that is, not necessarily to Italian journalists.

The reason there were internal reports to leak from a study commission is because Francis launched that commission and backed it at key moments. Similarly, the reason we know about the suspicions against Nattino is because an internal Vatican review flagged them.

In sum, three claims appear plausible about the Vatican’s financial situation in late 2015:

  • The dollar amounts involved are not so vast as to lie beyond anyone’s effective control.
  • This week’s revelations belong to the recent past, not necessarily to today.
  • New means of oversight desired by the pope appear to be working: identifying potential hanky-panky and passing it along for action rather than sweeping it under the rug.

All indications are that Francis remains earnest about reform. In an interview with a newspaper for homeless people released on Friday, he insisted Church leaders can’t serve the poor if they’re seen to “lead the life of a Pharaoh.”

If the watchword for any reform effort is “trust but verify,” there’s still a basis vis-à-vis Vatican finances to justify both — vigilance, certainly, but also a degree of trust.

* * * * *

A Crux interview with a key Vatican reformer

Early this week, the senior lay member of the now-expired COSEA and also the Vatican’s new Council for the Economy, Maltese economist Joseph Zahra, will be in New York to provide an update on reform efforts to select audiences. His trip is being sponsored by the US branch of Centesimus Annus Pro Pontefice, a Vatican foundation that promotes Catholic social teaching.

I’ll be interviewing Zahra while he’s in the States, so watch Crux for that report.

* * * * *

Crux chat on Monday

Speaking of things to watch for on Crux, on Monday, Nov. 9, at 1 p.m. EST, I’ll be doing a live online chat with Crux readers to talk all things Catholic. We can certainly discuss the contents of this column, but I’ll also be open for business to reflect on anything else — from the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the family to the pope’s looming trip to Africa, and much more.

Watch for a link to the chat on the Crux homepage. Please join us for a lively and informative hour!

* * * * *

The stunningly common character of anti-Christian violence

In August, my Crux colleague Inés San Martín and I were in Nigeria to cover the ongoing agony in that country produced by the Boko Haram terrorist movement, as part of a larger series on anti-Christian persecution.

While there, we traveled to the city of Jos in north central Nigeria, which has been one of the epicenters for sectarian violence. We met a young lawyer by the name of Dalyop Salomon, who told us that in the past three years, he’s lost more than 140 members of his family as well as close friends to the carnage.

We got together in a modest Jos hotel, and as we were finishing up I said to Salomon what I said to all the victims we met: “Keep in touch,” I said, “because we want to keep our eyes on what’s happening to you.”

Salomon took me at my word, calling and texting regularly to bring fresh atrocities to my attention. In most cases, I haven’t been in a position to do anything with the information he’s provided, because other things were clamoring for my attention.

During the recent Synod of Bishops on the family, for example, Salomon dispatched a text on Oct. 8 informing me that four people had been shot dead in a community of Plateau State in northern Nigeria, merely the latest spasm of violence in a place where such things are depressingly common.

Though the forces fueling the violence are complicated, the general pattern is for the architects of the violence to be mostly Muslim Fulani tribesmen and its victims to be largely Christian members of the Berom ethnic group.

Similarly, while we were in India in July covering the experience of the country’s Christian minority under a new government with strong links to Hindu nationalists, we met several experts and invited them to keep us up to date.

They’ve been diligent about passing along the latest developments, including an Oct. 22 incident in which three Christian families with children were arrested in Madhya Pradesh after Hindu radicals charged them with proselytism, and another on Oct. 11 in which three other Christian families in Andhra Pradesh saw their houses burned to the ground by Hindu radicals.

All this comes to mind in light of a message dispatched by Pope Francis this week to the “Global Christian Forum,” an ecumenical body made up of representatives of various Christian churches, which met in Tirana, Albania, Nov. 2-5.

“In various parts of the world, the witness to Christ, even to the shedding of blood, has become a shared experience of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Protestants, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals, which is deeper and stronger than the differences which still separate our churches and ecclesial communities,” Francis said in his message.

The pope said the common suffering of the martyrs “is the greatest sign of our journeying together,” helping Christians “to understand that all the baptized are members of the same Body of Christ, His Church.”

What shouldn’t get lost is that the “shared experience” to which Francis refers is not rare or exceptional, but, as the examples above illustrate, a phenomenon that’s stunningly frequent and widespread.

Going forward, one hopes that the deeper ecumenical awareness Francis called for in his message takes hold, since it’s a fact of life that in most parts of the world where Christians are under assault, their oppressors couldn’t care less about denominational distinctions.

One also hopes the scourge of anti-Christian violence will emerge as the transcendent human rights issue it clearly deserves to be.

Just as one didn’t have to be Jewish in the Soviet era to be concerned about the fate of dissident Jews, or black in the apartheid period in South Africa to recognize that system as an outrage, one does not have to be Christian today to acknowledge that Christians are among the world’s most persecuted groups and merit efforts at protection.

Crux will do its best to continue to document outbreaks of violence and harassment as they occur. By no means, however, should one succumb to the illusion that just because persecution isn’t being reported in a given span of time, whether on Crux or anywhere else, therefore it isn’t happening.

The truth is that you can almost throw a dart at a calendar at random, and if you look carefully enough you’ll find some Christian, somewhere in the world, who experienced Francis’ “shedding of blood” on that date.

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