Robert Mickens. Cardinal Pell and the Vatican power struggle.

The Holy See’s abrupt suspension this week of anexternal audit of all its financial operations by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is being described by almost everyone as the Vatican old guard’s latest attempt to derail Pope Francis’ reforms.

This narrative pits “a powerful Italian bureaucracy resistant to greater transparency” (including the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin) against Australian Cardinal George Pell, the controversial figure the pope handpicked two years ago to lead the newly instituted Secretariat for the Economy.

The problem with this explanation is that it is far too simplistic and, in other important ways, more than a bit off the mark. Because if it were true it would mean Pope Francis himself is trying to thwart efforts at transparency or, at the very least, has been duped or co-opted by those who are.

In fact, the pope approved the letters that Cardinal Parolin and his deputy in charge of internal Church affairs, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, sent out this week to all Vatican departments to inform them that the PwC audit has been “suspended immediately.”

Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa points out that the concern was not with PwC, but with the manner in which Cardinal Pell and his deputy, Danny Casey, forged the three-year deal with the global accounting firm.

“The suspension resulted from three possible irregularities in the contract signing process and the missing consultations required by the statutes approved by the pope,” wrote the veteran Vatican analyst this week.

Cardinal Pell’s department – contrary to what he had boasted before its final statutes were published last year – does not report directly to the pope. It actually takes its marching orders from a 15-member Council for the Economy, composed of eight cardinals and seven laymen; chaired by German Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

Yes, this council approved the PwC audit last December. Technically, the council actually ordered the audit, because it is the only office (except the pope himself) with the authority to do so.

But according to Tornielli some of the council’s members complained that Cardinal Pell’s office then kept them in the dark over the terms of the contract with PwC when it should have first sought the council’s approval of those terms.

Some people also did not seem amused that the Australian signed the $3 million agreement on behalf of the Vatican as “manager of the Holy See.”

All this was seen by some officials in the Secretariat of State as just one more instance of Cardinal Pell going it alone, bypassing proper channels and – ironically, given the task he claims to be trying to achieve – acting in a less than transparent manner.

But concerns over the former Archbishop of Sydney’s activities at the Vatican go much deeper than merely his role in bringing forth financial reforms.

It is in the area of Church finance and management, and this small area alone, that it can be said that Cardinal Pell is fully on board with Pope Francis’ more important project of overall Church reform. In fact, he is part of a conservative group of cardinals that backed the losing candidate (believed to have been Angelo Scola, then Marc Ouellet) at the last conclave.

This group, now expanded to include other bishops, has been less than enthusiastic about the pope’s broader Church reforms, evidenced especially by the objections it has raised to the way he led the last two gatherings of the Synod of Bishops. The group has become a respectful but firm opposition that seems to be waiting out what its members hope will be a short pontificate.

Pope Francis surprised a lot of people two years ago when he chose George Pell to lead the Secretariat for the Economy. It appeared then to be a move to give his conclave opponents a share in Vatican governance, but in an area he has not made his top priority.

Francis wants a clean hands operation when it comes to money. No doubt about it. But efforts to achieve this pale in significance to the more urgent and difficult reforms that are required to pull the entire Church out of the deep hole into which his last two predecessors have driven it.

His decision to temporarily halt the PwC audit, via the two letters this week from the Secretariat of State, looks like another message to Cardinal Pell and anyone else who thinks they can set up a powerbase of opposition.

Cardinal Pell turns 75 in June. That’s the age when bishops, including Vatican officials, submit their resignations. Pope Francis will probably not accept it immediately, though he is likely to do so before the cardinal completes the initial five-year term that is the norm for a position like his. That would not be until 2019.

The 79-year-old pope has shown a lot of patience and restraint with prelates resistant to the ongoing change of mentality he is bringing to the Church. But he will not tolerate them playing him or his closest aides as fools.

Keep your eye on the calendar.

This article first appeared in Global Pulse on 22 April 2016.

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