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Reform gets real

The first big structural move by Francis comes, as expected, on the financial management side:

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis on Monday (Feb. 24) launched a sweeping reform of the Vatican’s scandal-plagued financial system by naming one of his closest advisers on reform, Australian Cardinal George Pell, to head a powerful new department that will oversee the entire management of the Holy See.

The new Secretariat for the Economy, with Pell acting as a unique kind of Vatican comptroller, will have “authority over all economic and administrative activities” in the Vatican, according to a statement summarizing Francis’ decree.

The aim is to streamline a famously byzantine system of governance by eliminating redundant offices, increasing accountability and financial safeguards, and generally bringing the Vatican into line with accepted accounting and procurement practices.

The changes also provide for an official who will be empowered “to conduct audits of any agency of the Holy See and Vatican City State at any time” — a remarkable degree of authority in a bureaucracy where offices are known for zealously guarding their own turf.

The role and structure of the Vatican bank, a separate entity, will not change for now, though major changes in that institution are said to be in the offing.

“The changes will enable more formal involvement of senior and experienced experts in financial administration, planning and reporting and will ensure better use of resources, improving the support available for various programs, particularly our works with the poor and marginalized,” the Vatican statement said.

Monday’s action is the most concrete step that Francis has taken after a months-long review of the Curia, the centuries-old Vatican bureaucracy whose dysfunction and scandals helped push Pope Benedict XVI to resign the papacy a year ago this week.

Also interesting is that it removes Pell from the Australian hierarchy, where he has often been a lightning rod, to say the least.

There were hot and heavy rumors this week that Pell was about to be named head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, which would have been a different story altogether. Francis seems to know where to put people where their talents will be put to the best use for the church.

Not everything is entirely new: I recall when former Detroit archbishop, Cardinal Edmund Szoka, was named to help run the Vatican finances in the 1990s. He helped bring the Holy See from the red to the black. But many other problems remained that he couldn't fix, and the financial situation today -- not to mention the Holy See's credibility in light of so many scandals -- calls for major surgery, not a facelift.

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Quite Positive. It has been widely believed that the next big problem (scandal) would be the financial dealings of the Vatican and the dioceses throughout the world.  This is an appropriate and necessary move. The one negative appears to be Pell's stonewalling when it comes to pedophilia where he seems to be more sympathetic to predators over the victims. So this may not end up well. Where Francis is meeting a serious need with a tainted person, however competent adminstratively. So Francis' most dramatic move might result in his worst blunder. 

Does Cardinal pell have any kind of finance background? Is the Promontory Group working for the Vatican on the restructuring? They were doing some consulting for them; was it on this?

From Rocco Palmo of “Whispers in the Loggia”:

"While Pell’s outspoken conservatism on doctrinal and social issues has made for no shortage of clashes over his 13 years by the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, even his most vicious critics hold his effectiveness as a “bull in a china shop” in the utmost regard, even to the point of admiration. Accordingly, while noting that the announcement had sparked “dancing in the streets” among Sydneysiders, Whispers’ resident top op there confidently said that “He'll kick ass and deliver reform ... Or bodies. Or both.”

That’s what this church needs … more ass-kickers in red garb. Is this the “Francis effect” that we can expect in curial reform?

And where is this much-vaunted Francis effect where the rubber hits the road, i.e., the laity are always told that their mission is in the world.  Well, Vatican finance or church finance in general is "in the world" if anything ever was.  So why is this 15 member council to be composed of 8 prelates and 7 lay experts?  Why the continual imbalance in favor of clericalism?

Is this pope turning out to be much more talk than walk?

As described, this move has the potential to be very positive.   


I find it hard to imagine anything positive coming from Pell, the enemy of consicnece (, the architect of the reviled missal translation (, and the leader of a church that covered up sex abuse ( 

Reading through Cdl Pell's wikipedia entry, one cannot find a single reason why he should have expertise in financial matters. There are probably a million committed lay Catholics who are more competent than him on the matter. Why him?

Control over "all economic and administrative" activities at the Vatican sounds like quite a brief.  The long-suffering people of Sydney deserve a break, but it would be good to know more precisely the nature of the "administrative" activities he will be supervising. 

On this whole question of reform, there continue to be interesting similarities between the Vatican and China, or more directly between Pope Francis and his Curia, and Xi Jinping and his Central Committee. Granted for the moment both a) the population imbalance; and b) the military imbalance (the Swiss Guard is likely no match for the People's Liberation Army), the rulers of both entities are currently trying to bring about measures of reform that will enable them to run their domains more efficiently without ceding much power (and in the Chinese case indeed strengthening it). Both of them too have to deal with entrenched bureaucracies, whose members are quite capable of confusing their private interests with the public good. Both of them have to deal with a sense among the faithful that corruption, too long left unchecked, has not only hurt efficiency, but more important, has dangerously sapped much of the rulers' moral claim to authority. As the WaPo noted some time ago, "Xi’s signature initiative so far has been what he has called a “thorough cleanup” of the party, with cadres told to “take baths” to purify themselves of greed, extravagance, laziness and hedonism, to reconnect with the grass roots and to firmly adhere to Marxist ideology." Change a few words, and it might well be Pope Francis warning the ordained to reject careerism.

And yet there are limits to the anti-corruption campaigns, for fear of cutting too close to the bone. The PRC is currently denying visas to western reporters who, like those of the NYT, have run stories on acquisition of wealth by the elite. So too in Rome, there still appears to be a refusal to deal with, say, the bishops who covered up the abuse of children. In all likelihood until such aspects are faced forthrightly, the moral underpinnings of both regimes, whether they call themselves Marxist or Christian, will continue to be eroded.  

Reading through Cdl Pell's wikipedia entry, one cannot find a single reason why he should have expertise in financial matters. There are probably a million committed lay Catholics who are more competent than him on the matter.

Leaders needn't, and in fact can't, be experts in everything for which they're responsible.  But over time they do, by necessity, develop a certain amount of practical knowledge, enough to enable them to lead effectively.  Any experienced bishop of a major see, including Cardinal Bergoglio, is responsible for the financial health of a large entity, whether or not he has a financial management or accounting background.  Presumably Pell has been an able administrator; the Whispers passsage that Jim McCrea posted above suggests as much.  Pell will not (probably isn't competent to) personally audit any departments, but he is responsible for bringing in competent and trustworthy professionals from outside who can and, we hope, will conduct those audits and make the necessary specific changes to bring about greater integrity and transparency in the finances of the Holy See.


Here's another reason why Francis might have appointed Pell. When LBJ was asked why he appointed a highly vocal, cantankerous critic to an important post, LBJ replied, "I'd rather have him inside the tent pissin' out than inside the tent pissin' in".

It is also possible that Francis is killing two birds with one stone.  Taking a controvertial guy and promoting him to a position where he'll have virtually no opportunity to be involved in theological debate but rather is effectively a bureaucrat solves the problem of worring that he'll make some embarrassing statement ala Cardinal Burke, plus it quite possibly takes advantage of his strengths as an adminsitrator.  As LBJ also said (or claimed to say) in response to a question at a teaching job interview about whether the world is round or flat, "That's a policy question.  You fellas on the school board decide that.  I can teach it either way."  Cardinal Pell is now out of the policy business. 

Cardinal Pell is now out of the policy business. 

Jim D - I am not sure I would go that far.  He is out of the business of running a diocese (or will be when his successor takes over in Sydney).  But as a member of Pope Francis' special advisory committee of 8 cardinals, presumably Pell is in a strong position to advise on Francis' ongoing reforms.  In addition, according to his page on the Vatican website, Pell has the following curial memberships:

  • Congregations: for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; for Bishops;
  • Pontifical Councils: for Family; for Justice and Peace; for Promoting New Evangelization; for Health Pastoral Care;
  • Council of Cardinals for the Study of Organizational and Economic Affairs of the Holy See;
  • XIII Ordinary Council of the Secretariat General of the Synod of Bishops;
  • Committee Vox Clara (President).

Oops -- that should have been "I'd rather have him inside the tent pissin' out that ouside the tent pissin' in".

On the larger topic of Francis' reform efforts, John Thavis recently noted, "In many ways, today’s Catholic hierarchy, formed largely in a conservative mold under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, represents the biggest drag on Francis’ reform project".  It seems Francis may agree, as he continues, in this address to the Congregation of Bishops, to hammer away at bishops who value perks and position more than the role of a shepherd.  

May bishops be shepherds, close to the people; ‘fathers and brothers, may they be gentle, patient and merciful; may they love poverty, interior poverty, as freedom for the Lord, and exterior poverty, as well as simplicity and a modest lifestyle; may they not have the mindset of “princes”’. Be careful that they are not ambitious, that they are not in quest of the episcopate’, that they are espoused to the Church, without constantly seeking another; this is called adultery.

Francis apparently manages to really live this way.  But is he the only one?  Who among the bishops will start the movement to follow the Holy Father's lead?  Who will be the the next to leave his mansion and move in with the hoi polloi?  Who will pack away his silken and bejeweled vestments and dress simply?  I'm ready to see some emulation!



Jim P. -

And how, pray tell, can a bishop administer his diocese if he moves into a shack with no electricity, no computer, no phone?  Pope Francis doesn't live in the palace, but he does live in the Vatican, a very complex comunications center.  He wears a nice crisp white uniform because that's what people want to see, and seeing him inspires us. Yes, he goes out to meet the people every chance he gets.  But does he really get to know the individuals as he would if he literally lived with them?  Of course not.

As I see it his talk of poverty and being a shepherd is metaphorical.  To be poor in his sense is to be not-attached to the material goods that are necessary for his call.  To be a shepherd is to be willing to die for his sheep, which is a lot more than just living on the hill with them.

It also seems to me that the Church needs a fuller theology of poverty, and that theology must include a much better understanding of economics that it currently possesses.

Jesus Himself spoke in metaphors, and they are the treasures of the Faith.  (Another metaphor there.)  But ISTM that we need to stop being so literal minded when we interpret them.  Context, context.  Understanding metaphors always requires that we look at context, and contexts are almost always complex.  Don't you dare ever literally pluck out your eye.

So I don't fault any bishop for living in a rather complex house with sophisticated means of communication.  And if a soft bed helps his arthritis and makes him more mobile so he can get out and see the particular problems of the poor, then, sure, he should have one. It seems to me that possessing minimal material goods is not what Francis is talking about -- he's talking about ridding the episcopy of the signs of superiority and privilege, and actually meeting people in their own circumstances, then *doing something about those poor circumstances*.  

Surely he's not asking the poor to *stay* poor, as if literal poverty is a good thing.  It's not.  It's a physical and psychological and often spiritual evil.   Being poor in that sense is something we all should try to help eradicate.  "Poverty" as non-attachment, yes.  "Poverty" as lacking fundamental human goods, no.




Ann - I don't think Francis is speaking metaphorically when he speaks of love for outward poverty.  I think he means it quite literally, and wants his bishops to embrace it, too, and learn to love it.  

I agree that Francis is "talking about ridding the episcopy of the signs of superiority and privilege".  I'm suggesting that there are bishops out there who could dial down the signs of superiority and privilege by several notches.  In some cases, their mighty, haughty houses are one of those signs.

I'm not calling for them to sleep on piles of straw and pump their water by hand out in the yard every morning.  But I don't think it would be bad for some of them to scramble their own eggs in the morning, and then load the dishwasher afterward.  And run the vacuum themselves.   And write out a check to the electric utility at the end of the month.  And drive their own car once in a while.  And fill up the tank when it's getting close to "E". Or even walk to the corner and take the bus into the office.  Millions of us do all the above, and even get some spiritual benefit from it - plus work in offices with all the most modern high-tech gadgets and accoutrements.  I don't doubt there are some bishops who do many of these things already.  I'm betting there are some who do none of the above.  More bishops should try it.  Excellencies, just try it for a year.


Jim P. --

The ideal life for a bishop you e have just described is NOT a life of poverty.  The poor don't have vacuum cleaners, they don't have cars, and some don't have enough food, and with the blankety-blank Republicans cutting back food stamps they'll soon have even less food.

Furthermore, if the middle-class stopped buying vacuums and cars and all the rest of the stuff our economy produces there would be millions and millions more out of work, i.e., millions and millions more poor people.  

It's time you clergy learned to think about modern economic facts and about unintended economic consequences. Yes, of course, we must share what we have, but if we llterally acted out the metaphor ("become poor like them") it would wreck the economic system such as it is, and then what would any of us do?

Does our system produce what the people need -- and I mean all the people?  Obviously not.  The poor lack what we -- including you (see above) -- have come to think of as necessities.  But the way to correct that is to provide more education for *both* the young poor and the adults who never got an adequate education in the first place so they can'at get decent jobs even when they're available.  And that means higher taxes.  Sorry, conservatives, but charity requires higher taxes.

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