This past week, the Italian media was littered with headlines claiming financial misdoings at the Vatican. Perhaps this isn’t terribly shocking given that their tendency for sensationalism with all things Church and all the issues the Holy See has faced in the last couple of years. However it was where the fingers were pointed that managed to raise the eyebrows of not just the Italian, but also the world’s media.
It was the contention of L’Espresso, a popular Italian magazine that the Vatican’s new Secretariat for the Economy was guilty of excessive spending. This came after the magazine was given leaked internal financial receipts of the Secretariat. Not only that, but they reported that the Prefect of the new office, Cardinal George Pell was called to the carpet by Pope Francis as a result of the spending. So there is the narrative, the very department that was established to clean up the Vatican is found guilty of being financially irresponsible.
That is the narrative of L’Espresso and they’re entitled to their opinion, however let’s take a little closer look at the situation.
Not long after the leak, the director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi sought to clarify the situation, emphatically denying the allegations of the magazine. He noted that the Secretariat, which only employs 12 people, was in fact operating well under budget. Contrary to claims, there was in fact no meeting on overspending held between Francis and Cardinal Pell.
So on one side we have an Italian periodical claiming to have uncovered improprieties, and on the other we have a no-nonsense Australian Cardinal who finds himself in a very frustrating position.
When Cardinal Pell was called to the Vatican last year and asked to take on the dubious task of reforming the financial apparatuses of the Holy See, it could be described as nothing short of a thankless posting. The task given to him by the Holy Father was to root out the discrepancies, the malpractice, the overspending and overall financial mishandlings of the Vatican. That a finance department with such freedom to audit and open the books was established was nothing short of revolutionary. But like in any revolution, there will always be those who don’t quite take to the winds of change.
Perhaps it was a clash of cultures, concern over style, methodology or uncovering inconvenient truths. Whatever it was, someone was frustrated enough with Pell and company to throw what they thought to be his dirty laundry to the wolves to chew up and spit out. History has proven that whether it is governments, mafias, financial institutions or any powerful entity, once you go for their kitty, the gloves are off. Sadly, it appears the Church may very well not be immune to such tactics.
It is no secret that in recent months, various departments of the Vatican were discovered to have had significant holdings. While nothing about these holdings was reported to have been against the law, they simply flew under the radar. However in the new era of oversight that has already reformed institutions like the Vatican Bank, it cannot come as a big surprise that there would be some individuals who might be resistant to change. While there is no way of knowing for certain, the expediency with which the Vatican cleared Pell’s name should be indication of the faith they have in him to do his work.
It was never going to be easy cleaning up the Vatican’s finances. However like so many things in this world, someone inevitably has to get down into the dirt and grime and clean up the mess that nobody else has. It is a thankless job, however one that is wholly necessary for the future of the Church in the 21st century.