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.

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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