The Beginning of the End?

Is Pope Francis running out of steam? Will we ever see an end to Vatican financial scandals? And where is George in all of this?

There’s an old Roman proverb, Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro. ‘When a pope dies, they make another one.’ You can’t blame them for their unsentimental bluntness about the papacy. The Romans had to live with it, economically and politically, for 1700 years.

Even before a pope dies or resigns there’s a psychological moment when the ecclesiastical system begins to prepare for the next papacy. According to distinguished church historian, Alberto Melloni, the pandemic marks that moment for 83-year-old Pope Francis’ papacy. ‘In every papacy,’ Melloni says, ‘there’s a historic point after which the final phase begins.’ Historically, the average length of a papacy is about 7.8 years and Francis has been pope for exactly 7.8 years this month.

Recently two books, both entitled The Next Pope, have been published by ultra-conservative commentators George Weigel and Edward Pentin. Both clearly aim to persuade the cardinals to elect someone very different to Francis. Their prognoses are irrelevant, but it’s significant that they’re talking about the next pope.

I’m not saying Francis is going to resign or die very soon; it’s just that something’s happened to him as a second wave of Coronavirus looms, with Italy with 60,000 active cases in early-October and with face masks and social distancing now mandatory in Rome.

No longer in contact with large groups of people and unable to travel, Francis seems to have turned in on himself. Until recently he’s encouraged people to observe COVID-19 protocols. But the small groups of people now meeting him show pictures of him without a mask, standing close to people and physically greeting them. Given his age, that’s risky.

Vatican specialist, Robert Mickens, puts it another way: ‘Francis has appeared at different times in the past several weeks as someone who doesn’t seem the least bit concerned that he may be torpedoing whatever is left of his pontificate.’ This is illustrated by his passivity in the face of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the former Roman Inquisition’s—demand for the imposition of a ‘loyalty oath’ on progressive Irish priest, Tony Flannery, as well as its recent blunt declaration that euthanasia is an ‘intrinsically evil act’, without any consideration of personal, pastoral, or medical circumstances.

This shows that Francis is not reining-in Vatican bureaucrats, who take every chance they can to assert their power. Many of them are profoundly opposed to Francis’ emphasis on a more pastoral ethos in Catholicism and are only too happy to undermine his agenda by articulating a counter narrative of moral rigidity.

The pandemic has also created a worrying cash flow crisis for the Vatican. Its 2019 budget shows an income of €307 million (A$505.8 million) and expenses of €318 million (A$524 million), leaving a deficit of €11 million (A$18 million). With the collapse in visitor numbers to the Vatican due to coronavirus, the 2020 deficit will be much larger because Francis insists that lay staff are paid, even if not working. The expected deficit for 2020 will be around €100 million (A$164.8 million).

Supporting the annual budget are assets held by the Vatican, mainly in investments and real estate, with a total value of about €4 billion (A$6.5 billion). The annual income from those assets is about €258 million (A$425 million).

Needless to say, where there’s money, there’s corruption. George Pell’s successor as head of the Secretariat for the Economy, Jesuit priest, Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, recently claimed that the Vatican has been ‘poorly advised [financially]…and swindled.’ Here he was referring to the shenanigans of Sardinian-born Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who last week was unceremoniously sacked by Francis, with his rights as a cardinal removed, including his right to vote in papal elections, with no reason given. This contradicts Francis’ emphasis on church transparency. Becciu told journalists that Francis accused him of ‘embezzlement’, but it’s unclear if he’ll be charged by Vatican police.

Who is Becciu? After a career as a Vatican diplomat in the UK, US, Angola and Cuba, he was appointed sostituto, or under-secretary for ordinary (i.e. internal) church affairs in the Vatican Secretariat of State from 2011 to 2018. The Secretariat of State is the equivalent of our Department of PM and Cabinet. There are two sostituti, one for church affairs and another for foreign affairs. As sostituto Becciu had control of the Secretariat’s funds. It was here that he came in conflict with Pell who, as Secretary for the Economy, was trying to introduce accountability and ultimately get control of the Secretariat’s finances. Becciu and his boss, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, saw this as a challenge to the Secretariat of State’s role as the most important Vatican office. Becciu appealed successfully to Pope Francis, who clipped Pell’s wings. As it turned out, Pell was right.

What was Becciu up to? The minute details of his activities remain unclear, but there’s no doubt he’s been wheeling and dealing for years through the Secretariat. Essentially, he was borrowing, investing and shifting money around through his brothers and a series of shady characters and suspect Swiss banks. The yields on these investments were low, with the profits going back into Secretariat’s funds. Needless to say, the middle men, including his family, took their cut.

The most expensive of Becciu’s shady deals was the purchase and renovation for luxury apartments of a building at 60 Sloane Street, Knightsbridge through a web of middle men and front companies. The total cost: €170 million (A$278 million). It was after Pell challenged Becciu over this deal that the Sostituto cancelled Pell’s decision to bring in PriceWaterhouse for an audit of the Vatican and specifically the Secretariat, while undermining the Australian’s influence with Francis.

Even more extraordinary than the London deal is the recent claim by the Milan daily, Corriere della Sera that Becciu bribed the complainant in Pell’s Melbourne trial. I believe this claim is nonsense.

You can’t blame Francis for being sick of all this. He’s worked hard to bring Vatican finances out of the ancient Mediterranean mentality that constantly robs Peter to pay Paul and vice versa. The public sacking of Becciu is a sign that he’s not backing off and that the Vatican must meet modern accounting standards, with transparency and accountability.

Francis has already achieved an enormous amount. He has shifted the focus of Catholicism away from a ruthlessly rigorist morality to a focus on pastoral care for real people. In the encyclical Laudato si’ he has placed the environment and natural world front and centre of the church’s concerns. He has repudiated the speciousness of so-called ‘trickle down’ economics and the false religion of the market. He has stood for the poor and marginalized and re-enforced that in his newest encyclical Fratelli tutti. He has already changed the church for the better. All we need now is for the church hierarchy to catch-up with him.

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Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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