George Pell: Pope’s decree will cement or unhinge Australian cardinal’s rising star
London: When Pope Francis gives the stamp of approval for his much anticipated reforms of the Vatican’s finances, it will also dramatically reshape the roll call of power behind the tiny city’s ancient walls.
Expected any day, the Pope’s decree will change the way the Vatican does business – and cement or unhinge the ascendant star of his “czar finanziario”, former Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell.
The restructure of the Holy See’s financial activities began last April when the Pope anointed 73-year-old Pell to head a powerful new ministry known as the Secretariat for Economy and charged him with improving financial transparency and accountability in the historically shadowy Roman Curia.
Pope Francis is due to make his decree on the reforms in coming days.
Pope Francis is due to make his decree on the reforms in coming days. Photo: Reuters
During the past fortnight however, mounting internal tensions over the shape of his proposed reforms have erupted into the public domain with the publication of two devastating exposes in Italian current affairs magazine L’Espresso.
The first, titled “Peccati Cardinali” (“Cardinal Sins”) outlined in forensic detail his attempt to seize and centralise control of Vatican investments and the multimillion-dollar asset and property portfolio, including hospitals, into his bailiwick.
Fellow cardinals were reported to have mounted a “counter-attack to the Australian’s blitz”, seeking an audience with Pope Francis who blocked the transfer of property to Pell’s secretariat.
The second article, headlined “I Lussi del Moralizzatore” (“The Luxuries of the Moraliser”) included this week’s spectacular leaking of Pell’s expenses, replete with detailed receipts on six-figure apartment renovations, business class flights, bespoke robes, a generous payroll for personal assistants and even a $6650 kitchen sink.
The stories made headlines the world over.
According to insiders, this attempt to paint the Pope’s chosen financial reformer as a profligate big spender obfuscates and oversimplifies the much more complex cultural and power struggle inside the Vatican.
Pell’s supporters, they say, believe his tough, take-no-prisoners approach to administrative and budgetary reform is desperately needed to break through the old ways of doing business and to guarantee a new era of fresh accountability and vigilance.
However his critics are adamant that Pell has taken on much more than the day-to-day financial management of the Vatican, launching a strategic campaign via media worldwide – from the Boston Globe to the powerful Catholic Herald in the UK – to sell himself as the Pope’s sole champion of the new style of “accountability and transparency”. This, they argue, has been portrayed deliberately as a battle between the efficient, Anglo-Saxon style of management and the Italian “fare gli affari” (do business) approach.
Pell’s final aim, they insist, is to create a powerful new economic fiefdom in which he can consolidate personal power rather than achieving real reform.
Andrea Tornielli, the “Vatican Insider” columnist for Italian newspaper La Stampa, told Fairfax Media that nobody doubts Pell’s honesty or desire for reform.
“The problem is that transparency doesn’t mean vesting super powers into one person,” he says. “Yes, there is a need to give new vigour to the checks and balances across the whole system. But Pell and his close collaborators want to create and control a centralised Vatican Asset Management body for both investments and property.”
“Pell is a powerful character and has a strong personality and demeanor that comes from his 15 years Episcopal experience: as a bishop of a big diocese, you command and you have power over everything and everyone. The Roman Curia however is a more collegiate organism. The problem is that he [Pell] has been responding to every situation or debate as if there are only goodies and baddies … with himself as the goodie on the side of transparency and anyone who goes against [him] accused of being bad managers, bad custodians”.
Last year, in a long interview with the powerful American Catholic News Service, Pell was unabashed about his vision, confirming that under the new structures, the “secretary for finances reports directly to the Pope, not via anyone else”
“You report directly to the Pope?” the interviewer pressed.
“That’s right,” responded Pell.
“As you know, some are saying now Cardinal Pell is “numero uno”, the Pope’s No.1. What do you say to that?” asked the interviewer.
“I’d say that’s nonsense, from every point of view. I don’t think money is the most important work of the church. If you’re looking for inadequate political analogies, you might look at, say, the Westminster system, as something like a prime minister and a treasurer. But that’s an analogy, it’s not an exact model” said Pell.
Under the reforms awaiting papal imprimatur, the Vatican would legislate to formalise three new financial oversight bodies:
A 15-member Council for the Economy which would, for the first time, comprise both lay people and cardinals with equal voting rights to drive policy. This has been widely read as a laudable desire to tap into top, international expertise.
The Secretariat for the Economy, headed by Pell, which is ostensibly charged with the day-to-day financial management of the Holy See.
Appointment of an independent overseer, a kind of auditor-general, to test and ensure accountability.
Ultimately, it will be Pope Francis who decides the shape of the final reforms and exactly who will control, supervise and oversee the Vatican’s biggest financial centres, the Secretariat for State and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) .
It was he who announced on his election that he wanted to see “a poor Church, for the poor” and his decision will pave the way for the opening of a new and important chapter in the modern Catholic Church – and seal the fate of his antipodean cardinal.