This Pope did not Blink

This Pope did not Blink

March 21, 2015

“By now, one thing is clear,” writes John Allen in Boston Globe. Faced with attempts to hobble reforms, through the character assassination of his reformers, Pope Francis did not blink.

The latest case swirls around Australian Cardinal George Pell, whom Francis put in charge of straightening up the Vatican’s finances over a year ago.

Pell is a former Australian Rules Football brawler. Despite criticism against Pell, Francis issued early this month statutes for his operation. “To some extent at least, they amount to a vindication for Pell,” Allen writes.

Francis signed the statutes on Feb. 22, but these actually took effect on March 1.
Predictably, some Italian columnists dubbed it a defeat for Pell’s ambition to create a body virtually with unlimited powers over the administration of all Vatican assets.
Francis approved a legal framework for all three new financial oversight bodies that he launched last year. These are: the 15-member Council for the Economy, which sets policy; Pell’s secretariat, which implements it; and a new independent auditor general, charged with keeping everyone “on the straight and narrow.”

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio of Italy, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, formalized the discontent.

He would overhaul the Council for the Economy by forming a new group of four or five
cardinals who’d ride herd over Pell. It would curb the lay financial experts who also serve in the council.

In addition, the new group of cardinals suggested slicing off some of the Vatican’s biggest financial players, such as the government of Vatican City, from Pell’s purview.

The conflict rages. Pell claimed in December to have uncovered hundreds of millions of euros in hidden assets, for instance. In response, Secretariat of State officials insisted that those funds were perfectly legitimate and had been set aside for unforeseen expenses.

The memo was leaked to the press, forcing Pell to scramble to defend his alleged discovery.

A rerun happened in February, when Pell briefed the cardinals. Among other things, he said his office had found a shortfall of almost $1 billion in the Vatican pension fund. Days later, officials of the fund issued a statement insisting that it’s in good shape and rejecting “alarmist” accounts of its viability.

In the end, none of that was sufficient to cause the Pope to abandon Pell. Francis added two assistant auditors to work with the new auditor general.

But the council largely rejected them, and then passed them on to the Pope. “We’ve seen this show before,” Allen writes.

Meanwhile, Francis’ popularity rating continues to surge (“very favorable” from 57 percent of US Catholics, and “mostly favorable” from another 33 percent). He will address a joint session of the US Congress on Sept. 24. A White House invite is in the books.

Pew Research Center found that in the latest surveys, every US segment gave the Pope a margin of at least 5-to-2 support. “This nearly unanimous approval of the pontiff is striking even for highly observant Catholics… These would be the envy of any other public figure,” Allen writes.

Overall, what’s most notable about Francis’ reforms is what is not in them, he asserts.

Francis tacked on a small but telling decision. He spurned a suggestion from Coccopalmerio that English be eliminated as a working language in the new offices, in favor of the Vatican’s typical insistence on Italian.

Last week, the anti-Pell campaign leaked receipts from his department showing that it had managed to spend more than a half million dollars in its first few months of operation. “When Pell tried to notch a success, somebody inside the system has fired back,” Allen points out.

Early on, Francis tapped Italian monsignor Battista Ricca as his delegate to the Vatican Bank. Ricca was to oversee a cleanup operation in the bank.

Shortly thereafter, the Italian news magazine l’Espresso claimed that Ricca was involved in gay relationships while serving as a papal diplomat in Uruguay a decade before.

There was no suggestion of sexual abuse or criminal conduct, but Francis did not blink. Ricca remains on the job.

There’s grumbling about speeches by Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga. He was picked by Francis to coordinate his “G93 council of cardinal advisors.
“Rodriguez seems to regard himself as a vice pope,” sneer critics. “He reveals details of the council’s work or floats ideas before anyone else.” Despite that, there’s zero indication that Francis has blinked and will ask the Honduran prelate to step aside.

“The moral of the story is if one of the Pope’s chosen reformers is a burr under your saddle, probably the last thing you want to do is leak damaging information or engage,” Allen writes.

Juan L. Mercado was a communication officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangkok. Thereafter, he was posted in FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy, as attaché de cabinet. He wrote for the Inquirer as a regular columnist from February 2004 until December 2014./Juan L. Mercado