ROME – Some years ago, I was sitting over a beer with a fellow journo who’d covered the Vatican for a long time, discussing a new scandal in which a cardinal who ran a major Vatican department had been accused of making sweetheart deals for Italian politicians to rent apartments in exchange for their votes on funding the rehabbing of his properties under Italy’s “cultural goods” law.
“You know, what he did is obviously corrupt,” my friend said, “but I doubt it’d meet the classic Catholic test for sin.”
What he meant is that for something to be subjectively sinful, the sinner has to know he or she is doing something wrong. Yet a sort of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” traditionally has been so much a part of accepted Italian business practice that it’s entirely possible this prelate didn’t think there was anything amiss – perhaps explaining the “deer caught in the headlights” look he always got whenever you asked him about it.
That bit of background is helpful in thinking about a sweeping new law on procurement and contracts decreed by Pope Francis today, because it amounts to a direct frontal assault on two cornerstone aspects of Italian, and, by extension, Vatican business and political culture: Nepotism and feudalism.
One can make the case, actually, that nothing Pope Francis has done prior to Monday has greater potential to truly remake the Vatican’s conventional ways and means.
In summary form, the new procurement system is intended to accomplish two things:
First, it centralizes control over awarding contracts for goods and services in the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) for the Roman Curia, meaning the offices that administer the affairs of the global Church, and the Government of the Vatican City State for the pope’s physical territories and the personnel who run them.
Second, it creates an impartial competitive bidding process with a commission of officials empowered to review bids without any direct relationship to the bidding agents.
Both may seem like no-brainers in terms of normal corporate or government practice in at least some parts of the world, including the U.S., but they’ve rarely been practiced more in the observance than the breach here in Italy, and certainly not in the Vatican.
As far as nepotism is concerned, it’s historically been seen more as a virtue than a vice in the Vatican. Keeping things nella famiglia, “in the family,” long has been seen as simple prudence here, where there’s a premium on working with people of trust. The idea is that the Vatican is a unique place, with its own logic and values, and you want to do business with people who understand all that.
Sometimes, that nella famiglia instinct is expressed literally, as in giving favorable treatment to the blood relatives of Vatican personnel. Other times it’s metaphorical, seeking relationships with people who are known quantities and perceived as loyal.
In any event, to seek to overturn it, as this new procurement system does, is nothing short of revolutionary. Perhaps that’s why Giuseppe Pignatone, president of the Vatican tribunal charged with handling prosecutions arising from alleged violations of the new system, said Monday that it could be a “very demanding” job.
With regard to feudalism, that too is a time-honored aspect of Vatican culture, according to which the various congregations, councils, commissions, offices and secretariats all act as independent little kingdoms, with their own rules, argot and informal cultures.
Just as in the real feudal period, when people in villages just a few miles apart might go their whole lives without meeting each other unless they went to war, there are plenty of Vatican personnel who’ve worked right down the hall from another department for twenty or thirty years but never really spoken to anyone who works there other than to say Buongiorno.
Part of the reason for that is historical. A reform carried out by Pope Pius X in 1908 insisted that each department be supreme and autonomous in its own area, which was intended to solve the problem of “jurisdiction shopping.” In effect, people who wanted something from the Vatican and couldn’t get it one place were simply going from one place to another until they got the answer they wanted, which was a prescription for corruption and incoherence.
Another reason is structural, in that an official in one department is not supposed to be able to call a buddy in another and get a piece of information that hasn’t been authorized through official channels. Knowing that’s often how Italian enterprises work, the Vatican sort of built what the Jewish tradition would call a “fence around the Torah,” erecting barriers to that sort of informal exchange so high as to be virtually impenetrable.
In any event, by centralizing control over contracts and requiring various entities to pool resources, Francis is directly challenging that tradition too.
Up to this point, it would have been possible to argue that Pope Francis perhaps isn’t truly in earnest on financial reform, or perhaps simply has given up on it, because the trend seemed to be in favor of consolidating the status quo rather than shaking it up.
After today, that’s no longer a sustainable position, because this new law attacks the internal culture of the Vatican at its core. Whether it will work, of course, remains to be seen, but the pontiff and his advisers at least have to get high marks for hutzpah.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.