March 10, 2020

Pope Francis back and forth reform: the centralized personnel office

By Andrea Gagliarducci
The Apostolic Palace - credit AG / ACI Group
The Apostolic Palace - credit AG / ACI Group

It turns out, a motu proprio by Pope Francis will be needed after all, to make effective the General Directorate for Personnel — essentially a supercharged human resources department within the General Affairs section of the Secretariat of State.

The establishment of the office was announced on March 6, 2020, as a ”highly relevant step in the path of reforms initiated by Pope Francis.” On March 7, however, the press office released a statement “specifying” that the thing announced as a fait accompli  was really only  a ”proposal” currently under Pope Francis’s consideration, and that The pope has yet to decide whether to establish it.

If he does, it will be by means of a motu proprio.

The announcement and the very quick walk-back raise several questions. The first and most important one is also the simplest one: why was the statement released in the first place? If the decision had not been made yet, there was no reason to say it had been.

We should look at the impact of the new office to ponder on the possible answer to the questions. The centralized personnel office was going to be included in the First Section for General Affairs of the Secretariat of State. According to the March 6 Holy See Press Office release, the centralized personnel office was going to replace the Personnel office of the Vatican Secretariat of State.

The former staff office was only competent for dicasteries and entities of the Holy See. The new centralized office was also going to take responsibility – the release read – for “Institutes (like the IOR), Fabrics, Capitols, Administrations, Bodies, and Foundations that are currently not under a central oversight.”

The decision represented a further concentration of Vatican power within a single entity: the Secretariat of State.

The reform was in line with the reform of the Vatican penal code, as well as the general rationale of the Curia reform. For example, the reform of the regulation of the General Auditor of the Vatican City State was made on February 9. The new regulation aimed at harmonizing the office of the auditor with the General Regulation of the Curia, and so with all the Holy See bodies.  

According to the new regulation, the general auditor is now the equivalent to an “Anti-Corruption office” for the Vatican, and included a procedure to submit procurements.

The establishment of the new personnel office did not require a Papal motu proprio, as it was not the establishment of a new office. It was instead the enhancement of an existing office.

The centralized personnel office was supposed to be under the sostituto of the Vatican State Secretariat. The March 6 release stressed that the new office was going to be “given strategic, inspection, and operational power, and will be tasked withcoordination, control, and oversight.”The release also read that the new office was going to be fully equipped to “meet, in good time, the several requests it will receive.”

None of this will happen, for now.

On March 7, the Holy See Press Office declared that the establishment of the office is “only a proposal advanced to the Holy Father by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the Council for the Economy, and by Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, coordinator of the Council of Cardinals.”

The release read that “the Holy Father will address the proposal and, if he deems it convenient, he will establish the office in the way he will decide via a motu proprio.”

No office, then. The whole thing is a brain-child of Cardinals Maradiaga and Marx. The proposal was one to which the Vatican Secretariat of State was broadly amenable. The office would formalize the fact that the central power was in the Secretariat of State’s hands, as it is now de facto.

The establishment of the office would fit with the Curia reform under discussion. According to the draft leaked of the new Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium, the Secretariat of State stays as the center of the Curia, as St. Paul VI wanted.

Several steps have already been taken toward consolidation of power within the Secretariat of State and toward streamlining State to make it ready to take on more power. Some of them are the creation of a Third Section — for diplomats — and the creation of a separate Undersecretary for multilateral relations

A centralized office for personnel would be a logical next step. However, the establishment of such an office office leaves some issues open. For example, full control over personnel attached to the  Institute for Religious Works, the so-called Vatican bank, would appear to be at loggerheads with the IOR new statutes, published in Aug. 2019.

Article 28 of the new IOR statute stresses that “concerning the hiring and the contracting of personnel, principles, and norms established by the Regulation of the Personnel of the Institute time by time are applied, valid for the discipline, salaries, pensions, and health care issues."

In short:  the IOR has its own internal regulations that differ from the General Regulation of the Curia.

Article 29 of the Statute included the clause of exclusivity: no IOR official could have other positions outside. This way, the IOR intended to protect itself from of the appearance of conflicts of interest, which were not unheard-of in the season of  greater reliance on external consultants.

The new centralized personnel office would break this autonomy. The issue was likely spun to the Pope.

The debate can also be framed in a broader institutional context, linked to the financial scandal for the purchase of a luxury real estate in London. Although the media focused on the financial details of the purchase, the bigger issue was institutional.

The Promotor of Justice, i.e. the Vatican prosecutor, had received two complaints, one initiated by the IOR and one by the Vatican’s Auditor General .

Once he got the green light, the prosecutor launched the raids in the Secretariat of State and Financial Intelligence Authority, which led to the suspension of a top-ranking official, a chief of office and three Holy See's employees. 

Among these, Monsignor Mauro Carlino, former Secretary to the Cardinal Angelo Becciu (who served as Vatican Secretariat of State's 'sostituto' from 2011 to 2018) and since Septemeber 2019 chief of the Office for Information and Documentation of the Secretariat of State.

According to the leaks that made it to the press, the IOR filed its complaint after it refused to concede to the Secretariat of State a loan for the purchase of the real estate. 

So, it appears there is a sort of protracted institutional arm-wrestling match still underway. All the Vatican dicasteries and entities want to keep autonomy of management. The reforms tend to centralize control. 

In the beginning, the centralization of management was directed toward the Secretariat for the Economy. It was, in the end, a non-sustainable model for the Holy See. It did not leverage on the particularity of the Vatican City State. It instead operated considering the Holy See as a business concern rather than as a sovereign entity. 

This is the reason why the reforms were adjusted. Some history will help. 

The Secretariat for the Economy was initially launched on July 18, 2013, essentially as the “arm” of the Council for the Economy. The office of the general auditor was also announced.

It seemed there was a wrong initial perception of the situation, which also led Cardinal Pell to take unfortunate steps: for example, the announcement of secret accounts that were just not part of the revenue sources for the regular budget because they were meant to be at the Pope’s disposal; the continuous and expensive involvement of international agencies, as prestigious as they were unfit for the Vatican complexity; and the high salaries and expenses for collaborators and offices.

About a year and a half after  its establishment, on February 22, 2015, the statutes of the Secretariat for the Economy were revised, and its wings effectively clipped. The motu proprio “The temporal goods” issued July 9, 2016, provided a further separation between oversight and administration duties.

After the clarification of the role of the Secretariat of State, the second step was to understand how to tailor the Vatican City State. At the moment, there are periodic meetings among all the entities interested in reforming the Vatican City State’s fundamental law. The discussion s mostly about considering the Vatican as a State like the other or keeping the current Vatican model, which emphasizes the peculiarity of the Vatican City State. 

So, the arm wrestling is no longer between the Secretariat of State and the Secretariat for the Economy, but between the Secretariat of State and other entities. Entities that enjoy financial independence are going to fight to keep it. There is a pressure on the Secretariat of State, to take its control over. 

The London real estate scandal shed light on the fact that the unacceptable thing wasn’t a lousy investment on the part of the Secretariat of State. It was considered unacceptable that the Secretariat of State tried to involve the IOR, which wants to keep its independence, and also likely does not want to get involved in investing a considerable amount of money, while profits fall. 

The setback on the General Directorate for Personnel must also be read through these lenses.

Seen from this perspective, the setback validates the thesis of institutional confusion in the Vatican and interdicasterial infighting.. It also shows that there is no awareness of who makes the final decision.

The story also strongly suggests that the Pope himself does not have a perfectly clear picture of the business afoot. 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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