The pope set Cardinal George Pell to the task of reforming some elements of that culture, but well before Pell returned to Australia in 2017 to face abuse charges, the cardinal’s efforts had begun to seem Sisyphean. Cabinet-level officials in the Vatican created workarounds and carve-outs to avoid Pell’s oversight, one had cancelled Pell’s planned PriceWaterhouseCoopers audit of Vatican finances, and the cardinal reportedly found papal support for his efforts to be inconsistent.
Since Pell’s departure, the financial management office he oversaw has wielded ever less influence over financial affairs, and is no longer considered likely to effectively change operational practices at the Vatican.
But to many observers, those structural and systemic problems are the scandal. Officials acting unilaterally are seemingly able to borrow and invest hundreds of millions without oversight or internal checks. Spending caps and thresholds are an ordinary part of financial control, and are even established by canon law for dioceses and religious orders, but seem to be functionally non-existent at the Vatican.
Those familiar with financial administration say that when the Secretary of State arranges for a loan that runs contrary to international convention, or a second-tier official in his office invests in a large-scale development project with no controls to review his action, the problem is illustrated precisely.
Especially, experts say, when the Vatican’s business partners seem consistently disreputable, and themselves mired in scandal.
An American financial expert speculated to CNA that anywhere but the Vatican, “people would be in prison by now.” In the world of the Vatican, that is unlikely.
While some observers seem nonplussed by the financial scandals, characterizing coverage of them as conspiratorial and “lurid,” Pope Francis himself has emphasized their significance. Last month, the pope admitted corruption in the Vatican, called the London development issue a “scandal,” and said that officials “have done things that do not seem ‘clean.’”
The pope’s view, expressed frequently, has been that the problem of corruption, wherever it’s found, is not principally a problem of politics or economics, but of morality, and requires the will to do things differently than they’ve been done before.
The pope has also recognized what financial criminals, grifters, and regulatory agencies have already recognized: that the Vatican, absent internal controls, transparency, and accountability, and run by well-meaning figures trained in theology, not international business, is easily taken advantage of, and has, in fact, been frequently taken advantage of-- sometimes from external figures, and sometimes from within.
The long history of financial scandals involving the Vatican does not make for easy reading; even the Vatileaks cables and the bond and bank scandals of the 1970 and 1980s are a sufficiently discouraging picture of the problems caused by the culture of internal fiefdoms and the lack of internal controls at the Apostolic See.
Commentators, even those without practical Vatican experience, need only review the history of recent decades to understand why Pope Francis has repeatedly called for transparency and accountability, and why there seems to be so much difficulty getting there.
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The pope also seems to recognize the effect that ongoing financial scandals have on the faith of Catholics, and on the morale of those practicing Catholics already discouraged by the 2018 sexual abuse scandal.
The reformers who have tried to clean up Vatican finances have mostly resigned or been defeated. They’ve been thwarted by cultural sclerosis, but also by a cultural tolerance for financial mismanagement that enables bad decisions to become worse ones. The Church’s teaching is clear: the stewardship of ecclesiastical goods is a sacred trust; the Church’s money is not hers, but the Lord’s.
Still, the moral obligations of financial stewards seem not to deter some Vatican officials, and some, including high-level officials, have made the excuse that as long as money is serving good purposes, how it is managed hardly matters.
The principles of Catholic morality say otherwise.
The pope may yet be able to accomplish some policy changes that lead to some measure of Vaticn financial accountability. It seems unlikely that lay Catholics will effectively call the Church to account for financial mismanagement, or effectively insist on the importance of acting with integrity with God’s resources. This means that change, regrettably, is only likely to come through European banking regulators, financial crimes investigators, and lawsuits. It will be a pity if that is the only way things move forward, but it will not be a surprise.
While the recent past has been characterized as “opaque,” the Vatican seems unlikely to learn about transparency until she learns the hard way.