ROME – On Friday the Vatican released a detailed budget statement for 2020, confirming earlier reports that in 2020 it ran a deficit of about $60 million, which would have been closer to $100 million had income from Peter’s Pence, an annual collection to support the works of the pope, not been included for the first time.
Overall, due largely to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Vatican is projecting that total income will be down by 30 percent in 2021 in comparison to 2019, the last year for which totals are available.
Spanish Jesuit Father Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, the pope’s CFO, explained in an interview with the Vatican’s official news outlet that in order to cover costs, the Vatican is being forced to spend down its reserves, and he appealed to Catholic faithful around the world to help out.
“The Holy See aids the mission of the Holy Father and supports itself fundamentally thanks to the contributions of the faithful,” Guerrero said.
“We have to be grateful for the generosity of the faithful in this very difficult year,” he said. “In the middle of the difficulties of this time of pandemic, they’ve continued to help because they believe in the mission of the Church and want to support the Holy Father.”
“I’m reminded of the Gospel story of the widow who gave a small sum, but it was all she had,” Guerrero said. “For me, that’s not just about money.”
In case you missed it, that was a clear “ask”: Please don’t stop giving money, and, if anything, give more.
Guerrero emphasized the Vatican did what it can to contain costs in 2020 and expects to achieve further savings in 2021. The budget statement released Friday indicates that Vatican spending is now at an “historical low level.” Yet Guerrero conceded that cutting costs won’t be enough to meet need without eliminating personnel – i.e., laying people off – a step Pope Francis has refused to take amid the coronavirus crisis and its toll on working families.
The bottom line is that if it doesn’t want to use up the money it’s got set aside for a rainy day, the Vatican needs help.
“If donations don’t arrive, beyond saving as much as possible, all we can do is use the reserves,” Guerrero told veteran Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, today the Vatican’s editorial director.
All this makes three months from now, June 27, a “circle your calendars” date, because that’s the next time the Peter’s Pence collection will be take up around the world. Traditionally the collection is staged on the Sunday closest to the annual June 29 feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, though last year it was postponed until the Oct. 4 feast of St. Francis due to coronavirus-related suspensions of public worship.
At a certain level, one has to admire the hutzpah of making a fundraising appeal at the same time the Vatican is in the grip of several ongoing financial scandals.
Recently, a longtime former president of the Vatican bank, along with the bank’s former lawyer, were convicted by a Vatican tribunal of fraud running into the millions of Euro related to selling apartments at below-market prices for kickbacks. Right now, a couple of Italian financiers and a handful of Vatican officials are under investigation for allegedly bilking the Vatican of more millions in a complicated London land deal authorized by the Secretariat of State – a deal which, for the record, drew on money from the Peter’s Pence collection.
Perhaps sensing the irony, Guerrero stressed that the Vatican under Francis now is fully committed to transparency and integrity.
“We’re the first ones who should show that the social morality of the Church, and the moral criteria that support it, really work and are valuable,” he said. “It’s often said that in management of resources, the Church should adopt international standards … We ought to aspire to becoming an international point of reference.”
All this makes June 27 a major roll of the dice for the Vatican, in three senses.
First, Guerrero and other officials essentially are asking Catholics to take them at their word that the bad old days are over, so today one can trust that money donated to the Vatican will be properly managed and well spent. It remains to be seen what share of Catholics will accept those assurances, and how many may decide instead to “trust but verify.”
Second, they’re gambling that Catholics will be motivated to give out of sympathy for Pope Francis’s refusal to cut Vatican payroll, seeing it as the humanitarian instinct of a compassionate employer. However, it’s uncertain whether Catholics who may have lost work themselves, or who have unemployed family or friends, will be inclined to donate limited resources to save the jobs of people they’ve never met, and for whom they may not necessarily feel much sympathy – after all, complaining about the Vatican always has been the favorite Catholic indoor sport.
Third, the Vatican’s gambling that even places where Francis sometimes has played to mixed reviews – above all the United States, which usually accounts for about 30 percent of total global income to Peter’s Pence – will, nonetheless, come through when the chips are down.
A final thought: Part of the sting of the London financial scandal for many average Catholics was the discovery that money they gave to Peter’s Pence, which is usually marketed as way to support papal charities among the poorest of the poor, was actually going to cover the cost of a Vatican real estate deal.
In response, Vatican officials insisted that if you read the statutes of the fund, it’s clear it’s the pope’s money to allocate as he sees fit. The problem, of course, is that no one actually reads the statutes, but they do listen to what Father says on Sunday and they read what’s in the weekly bulletin.
This time around, it probably would be a good idea for those promotional appeals to match reality. If Father stands up in his local parish and says, “Look, the Vatican is hurting because the Pope doesn’t want to put people on the street in the middle of a pandemic, and he needs our help,” whatever income results would at least have the virtue of being obtained honestly.
If people sense a con, however, the odds against the Vatican’s gamble may get considerably longer.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.