ROME – During the St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI years, the Vatican had a council of cardinals from around the world who allegedly oversaw its financial affairs. Members of that body routinely complained that the information they received was incomplete, that it lacked credibility and was fundamentally untrustworthy.
Two of the prelates voicing those objections most consistently were Cardinals Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and George Pell of Sydney, Australia. Thus when the new “Papa Bergoglio” made Pell his tip of the spear for Vatican financial reform in February 2014, it boiled down to one veteran reformer turning to another, despite their clear ideological differences on other fronts.
Unfortunately, the odd couple partnership between Francis and Pell fell apart almost before it could begin. The rift had nothing to do with the sexual abuse charges against Pell in his native Australia, which came later – it was about the transition from what the two men had been against, to what they were actually for.
For Pell, reform meant adopting virtually wholesale the “best practices” of international finance, premised on minimizing expense (in part by combatting losses due to corruption, but also by achieving economies of scale and trimming payroll) and maximizing profit. The centerpiece of his vision was to be a consolidated Vatican investment fund, which would be so well-managed and adept at playing international stock and currency markets that other Catholic entities would want to join, creating even greater financial leverage.
In the end, that was never really Francis’s scene.
Famously the champion of the underdog and an inveterate critic of a globalized “economy that kills,” Francis saw reform more in terms of personal integrity, simplicity of lifestyle, and an option for the poor. He never wanted to be running an ecclesiastical version of a multi-national corporation, and he was uncomfortable with some of the new players who seemed to be running the show.
In other words, things fell apart because “reform” isn’t just about ending one way of doing things; it requires a shared vision of what to do instead.
That bit of history comes to mind this week as Mario Draghi, or “Super Mario” as the Italians call him, takes over as Italy’s Prime Minister after winning massive majorities in both houses of the Italian parliament.
A pope is traditionally the Primate of Italy, and inevitably, what happens in the Vatican’s own backyard consumes a disproportionate share of any pope’s time and energy. A thoughtful recent piece by AGI, a news service owned by the Italian gas company Eni, observed that popes are forever trying to reconcile “their own courtyard [in Italy] and its quarrels with the universal scope of their apostolic mission, and usually, or, at least, not infrequently, the former prevails over the latter.”
At first blush, it would seem that Francis and Draghi are primed for an era of good feelings.
Draghi is a product of Jesuit education in Rome, with strong ties to various members of the pope’s order, he’s a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and personally he’s a devout Catholic. Moreover, like the pope, Draghi is a strong believer in European solidarity – his claim to fame is that, as governor of the European Central Bank, he saved the EU’s common currency during the Eurozone crisis. He’s vividly opposed to the nationalist and populist currents in Europe today that loom like a bête noire in Francis’s political rhetoric.
However, like Pell, Draghi’s version of “reform” may well differ from that of Francis, in this case not in terms of Vatican finances but public policy.
A banker and economist, Draghi’s vision of reform appears to imply trimming public debt, encouraging economic growth, easing business regulations and reducing Italy’s infamous “spread,” meaning how much more the country has to pay to borrow money than Germany. It’s considered an index of how much riskier lenders perceive Rome to be as compared to Berlin.
All that may reassure stock markets and corporate board rooms, but how much similarity it bears to Francis’s bottom-up vision of economic life remains to be seen.
Ten days ago, Italian economist Luigino Bruni, who convened the recent “Economy of Francis” seminar and who’s a thinker close to the pope, warned that Draghi may not be the leader of the pope’s dreams in an interview with the widely read Famiglia Cristiana newsmagazine.
“The Church has never expressed much sympathy for high finance,” Bruni said. “Pope Francis, in the footsteps of his predecessors, has said it all, and more, about the problems when finance becomes the primary dimension of the economy.”
Bruni expressed skepticism that Draghi actually has a vision of economic life rooted in Catholic social teaching.
“That an economist whose doctoral thesis was on monetary theory, who worked for Goldman Sachs, who led the Bank of Italy and the European Central Bank, actually has a vision based on subsidiarity, is entirely to be seen,” he said.
“In Draghi’s résumé, there aren’t any measures regarding the poor or social justice,” Bruni said.
Of course, the fact that two leaders may have differing accents when it comes to policy doesn’t mean they can’t do business together.
We’ll get an early indication of how Italy’s two centers of power, the Vatican and the Chigi Palace (the Prime Minister’s residence), want to manage their relationship on March 2, when Draghi meets Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, at an event marking the anniversary of the Lateran Pacts.
For Bruni, the first real acid test will come later in March, when a freeze on firings due to the coronavirus pandemic is due to expire. If Draghi doesn’t renew that measure, at least for the most heavily affected industries – restaurants, catering, hotels, tour operators, and so on – Bruni predicts that a seemingly sunny relationship with Francis could turn sour.
Time will tell whether Francis and Draghi truly are a good match. Until then, Bruni’s counsel may be apt: “I’d wait to beatify Draghi,” he said, “until we see him at work.”
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.