Is a ‘governance gap’ emerging under Pope Francis?

By John L. Allen Jr.
April 23, 2016

Pope Francis speaks as he leads his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican April 20.
Photo by Paul Haring

Pope Francis just keeps on truckin’ as the most compelling moral point of reference in the world today, most recently capping a last-minute trip to the Greek island of Lesbos to make a statement on refugee rights by bringing 12 of those refugees back to Rome with him, thereby offering Europe a pointed lesson about welcome.

Through both word and deed, Francis has a remarkable knack for finding ways to move the ball on the social and political causes he cares about most.

Francis has become so globally visible and consequential, it’s sometimes easy to forget that he wasn’t elected to the papacy in March 2013 primarily to solve Europe’s refugee crisis, or to fight climate change, or to pave the way for Cuba and the U.S. to restore diplomatic relations.

When the cardinals huddled in the conclave three years ago, their diagnosis was instead that internal ecclesiastical governance had been adrift in the Vatican for quite a while, really since the late John Paul II years, and among other qualities they wanted a new pope who would get the system under control, choking off future scandal and making sure Rome set a positive example for the Church rather than offering a case study in what not to do.

Of late, however, there have been reminders that Francis’ success on the global stage is not really matched by comparable breakthroughs as a manager.

Over the past quarter-century, two areas above all have generated persistent scandal and heartache for the Vatican, and were waiting for a new pope to take up: The child sexual abuse scandals, and money.

In terms of the abuse scandals, a recent report by the Associated Press reveals that a new tribunal within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was created by Francis to handle “abuse of office” charges against bishops accused of covering up abuse cases, essentially is going nowhere.

The tribunal, billed as a dramatic move by Francis in the direction of accountability, has been mired from the beginning in conflicting jurisdictions and unclear lines of authority, and so far has not taken up a single case.

In a similar vein, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the body created by Francis to lead the charge on reform from the abuse scandals, has experienced chronic difficulties in getting things moved through the system in a timely fashion, including authorizations to appoint new members and acquiring the necessary bureaucratic materials for new staff.

All of that, and more, has led some critics of the pope’s response to the abuse scandals to wonder if he’s truly serious about reform.

Meanwhile on the financial front, people were caught off guard this week when news broke that the Vatican had suspended an external audit of its finances to be performed by the global firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC).

What’s followed has been a testy public back-and-forth over where things broke down, and why, between Italian Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the number two official at the Secretariat of State who issued an April 12 letter suspending the audit, and Australian Cardinal George Pell, tapped by Pope Francis as Secretary for the Economy in February 2014.

Becciu gave one version of events to the Italian network Tv2000 on Thursday, while Pell’s office issued a statement on Friday offering a different reconstruction. It seems clear part of what’s going on is a bureaucratic shifting of the plates, with the Secretariat of State reclaiming much of the ground in terms of administrative preeminence it lost to Pell two years ago.

Although officials have insisted the audit will resume after questions about the fine print of the contract are ironed out, it’s striking things came to this impasse in the first place, especially given that the audit was a topic of discussion during the pope’s recent C-9 meeting of cardinal advisers April 11-13.

At the time, according to people who took part in the C-9 meeting, it was clear that Pell, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin (the Secretary of State), and German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the policy-setting Council for the Economy, were not on the same page. In fact, both Marx and Parolin reportedly said they had not even seen the contract.

Francis surely would have grasped that if the Vatican is put in the position of having to suspend an audit before it even began, that’s not exactly a development that inspires confidence.

In theory, the pope could have directed Pell, Marx and Parolin to sit down and work out whatever their issues over the contract were, to ensure the Vatican didn’t find itself in such an embarrassing position. Instead, not only was the audit derailed, but the tit-for-tat among senior officials that’s followed hasn’t exactly painted a picture of an administration with its act together.

Once again, it may be tempting for some observers to conclude that if Pope Francis were truly in earnest about financial reform, he would not have allowed things to deteriorate like this, or would have reacted more vigorously once they did.

Granted, Francis may well feel that compared to the human drama of the suffering of migrants and refuges, the violence of war, and the urgency of proclaiming a message of mercy in an increasingly cruel world, he’s got more important fish to fry than moving the levers of Vatican power.

Still, there’s an unavoidable irony about the fact that a pope elected in part to remedy a perceived “governance gap” could end up being seen instead as having perpetuated it.



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