One month into his papacy, Pope Francis has made his first episcopal and administrative appointments and has met with heads of state and the faithful, but one decision that is likely to play a key role in his reform project will be how he deals with the Vatican’s financial operations.
As the Church’s cardinals were preparing to elect the next Pope one month ago, two of them suggested closing down the Institute for Works of Religion, because it has drawn negative media coverage in recent years.
But Pope Francis might not be inclined to take that path because of a financial mess he had to wade through in his former position as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
A source familiar with the Vatican’s financial operations told CNA April 12 on the condition of anonymity that based on that experience, Pope Francis “should understand that the Holy See needs financial sovereignty, that is, the capacity to carry out its institutional works of religion and charity without the interference of foreign financial institutions.”
Alberto Barlocci, the long-time director of the Buenos Aires-based magazine Ciudad Nueva, explained in a late March interview that when the future Pope was appointed coadjutor Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he inherited “a diocese with a financial disease.”
In 1998, the administration of his predecessor, Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, was involved in trying to prevent the collapse of a bank in which it was a shareholder.
The cardinal’s secretary, Monsignor Roberto Marcial Toledo, signed an agreement in his boss’ name to obtain 10 million dollars from Sociedad Militar Seguro de Vida (Military Society Life Insurance). The archdiocese then gave the money to the cash-strapped Banco de Credito Provincial, which it held shares in.
But in spite of the injection of capital, the bank collapsed. In the midst of the investigation of the meltdown, Msgr. Toledo was imprisoned.
Then-Archbishop Bergoglio swiftly took responsibility for the financial turmoil in his archdiocese.
The key move, according to his former spokesman Federico Wals, was Archbishop Bergoglio deciding to sell off the archdiocese’s bank shares and to transfer its funds to international banks such as HSBC and UBS “as an ordinary client,” rather than as a partial owner.
Now that he is Pope, Francis will have to consider the idea of whether or not to shutter the Institute for Works of Religion, which receives and administers funds for charitable activities, especially in the developing world where the financial strength of institutions is not always robust.
At the moment, he still has not revealed what path he will choose, but before he makes makes any decision, its reasonable to expect that he will consult with the eight cardinals he has chosen to advise him.
Until now, he has met almost all the heads of the Vatican congregations but has only spoken with a few heads of the pontifical councils, which means a decision is not expected soon.
For its part, the cardinals’ council will not hold its first meeting until October, but Pope Francis is currently in touch with them, leaving open the possibility of a decision before the fall.
Any future decision on the Institute for Works of Religion is also clearly linked to the appointment of the new Secretary of State, who traditionally serves as the president of the commission of cardinals who oversee the institute.
New developments in the status of the institute also mean that the decision making process is still very fluid.
The Vatican’s commitment to financial transparency could soon result in another reform of its anti-money-laundering laws, according to a top official at the Secretariat of State who spoke to CNA April 10 on a condition of anonymity.
The state department source thinks “some novelties will come up” because “the Holy See asked the Council of Europe’s financial arm Moneyval to make a report wider than required.”
Moneyval is a committee that evaluates the adherence of member states to international standards for combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism.