Pope announces reform of Vatican finances

Pope Francis took advantage of his first ceremony to create cardinals by hosting a series of pre-consistory meetings that concluded Feb. 24 with a dramatic announcement of sweeping reforms to the Vatican financial administration.

The reforms were signed off on during his Feb. 17-19 meetings with his “kitchen cabinet” of eight cardinals. Throughout three days, the pope and his council heard from commissions that have been carrying out root-and-branch reviews to the financial governance of the Vatican in an attempt to root out corruption and inefficiency.

The day after announcing the financial reforms, Pope Francis on Feb. 25 issued a letter to families asking for support and prayers for October’s extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which will focus on “the pastoral challenges to the family.” In addition, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio — on his own authority — creating a new Secretariat for the Economy with oversight of all economic and administrative activities within the Holy See and the Vatican City State. He named Cardinal George Pell of Sydney — a member both of the Council of Cardinals and a long-standing critic of Vatican financial management — as its prefect, thus putting, for the first time, a non-Italian in charge of the Vatican’s money dealings.

Cardinal Pell, who takes up his post in March, will be accountable to a Council for the Economy, which is made up both of professional lay experts as well as bishops with financial experience. Pope Francis also added a further layer of oversight in the form of an Auditor General, with powers to audit any agency of the Holy See at any time.

No decision has yet been made about the future of the so-called Vatican Bank, or the Institute for the Works of Religion, which looks after the assets of institutions and individuals related to the Holy See and the Catholic Church. The institute currently is in a process of what it calls “comprehensive reform.”

The meeting was followed by two days with the College of Cardinals in an extraordinary consistory to prepare for the synod on the family later this year.

New role of cardinals

It was the first time the college has met since the conclave last year when, at the pre-conclave meetings, the cardinals urged the future pope to make use of the cardinals as a kind of papal senate.

By calling them together now to deliberate on the questions facing the Synod of Bishops on the family later this year, Pope Francis has shown he agrees with the idea. Along with the eight-man Council of Cardinals and the reformed Synod of Bishops, the extraordinary consistory of the College of Cardinals is yet another move by Pope Francis toward a more “collegial” Church governance.

The 185 cardinals were addressed by one of Pope Francis’ favorite living theologians, the German Cardinal Walter Kasper, in a two-hour lecture whose purpose, said Pope Francis, was “to deepen the theology of the family and discern the pastoral practices which our present situation requires.”

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi stressed that the cardinals’ deliberations did not bind October’s synod and were intended to float questions rather than provide answers. But it was clear the extraordinary consistory was designed to set the framework for what will be a two-year focus on the pastoral challenges of the modern family.

Among those challenges is the particularly acute question of how better to include the divorced and remarried in the life of the Church. Although Cardinal Kasper’s speech to the cardinals was confidential, reports based on leaks suggest he floated a proposal to allow divorced and remarried people to be admitted to Communion following a “penitential” period, as happened in the early centuries of the Church. This took place under restricted circumstances where a person had been abandoned or made every effort to rescue the relationship, or had undertaken new obligations that it would be wrong to renounce.

Two U.S. cardinals at the consistory — Sean O’Malley of Boston and Timothy Dolan of New York — were keen to downplay expectations of change in this area, pointing to greater access to annulments as more likely.

Consistory details

The Feb. 22 consistory at St. Peter’s Basilica to create 19 new cardinals brought a major surprise: the presence of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, making this the first time cardinals have been created in the presence of two popes. Taking his place in the ranks of cardinals, the pope emeritus was embraced warmly by Pope Francis and applauded by the congregation. Observers said it was very likely Pope Benedict also will attend the April canonizations of Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II.

There were no new U.S. cardinals, four Roman curial appointees and just two from European dioceses. The remaining red hats were from the developing world, meaning that the 122 cardinals eligible to vote are now evenly divided between Europe and the rest of the world. In the words of Cardinal Dolan, this was the “consistory of the poor.”

Among the emeritus archbishops awarded a red hat was one sentimental choice: Loris Francesco Capovilla, Pope John XXIII’s former faithful secretary, now 98 years old. He did not attend the consistory. “I’m not strong enough and I feel uncomfortable at the thought of meeting so many people,” he said.

At both the consistory and the Mass with the cardinals the following day, Pope Francis took up a favorite theme of power as service, telling the cardinals to shun a “worldly mentality” of “rivalry, jealousy, factions” and that “a cardinal enters the Church of Rome, not a royal court.” In what looked like a commentary on the factional infighting that bedeviled the curia before the resignation of Pope Benedict, Pope Francis said: “May all of us avoid, and help others to avoid, habits and ways of acting typical of a court: intrigue, gossip, cliques, favoritism and preferences.” Jesus, he said, did not come to teach good manners, but “to show us the only way out of the quicksand of sin, and this way is mercy.” He said they should “oppose arrogance with meekness” and to use “the language of the Gospel: yes when we mean yes; no when we mean no.”

With these words, this papacy’s first consistory and all that surrounded it offered a very Pope Francis-like paradox. While including the cardinals more than any modern pope in the governance of the Church, entrusting them major new powers and responsibilities, he also invited them in no uncertain terms to renounce being princes.

Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (www.catholicvoices.org.uk).