Letter from the Vatican
A determined Pope Francis moves to reform a recalcitrant Curia.
When you walk in the back entrance to Vatican City, you quickly realize what a small world the center of the Catholic Church is. The hundred-and-nine-acre complex, built largely during the Renaissance, is the spiritual and administrative headquarters of a global institution with 1.2 billion followers. The first building you see is the Santa Marta guesthouse, where Pope Francis lives and works, in a three-room space of some seven hundred square feet, rather than in the traditional, and grander, papal apartments, in the Apostolic Palace.
As you turn a corner, there is a yellow building that houses several cardinals. On one floor is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was Secretary of State under Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Paolo Sardi, considered to be one of Bertone’s political adversaries within the Curia, occupies the floor just below. A short stroll through the Vatican gardens takes you to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery, where Benedict XVI now lives. When he resigned, in 2013, he flew off in a helicopter to begin a life of retreat and prayer, and many might have thought that he had retired to a monastery somewhere in his native Germany. But he is right here. Just outside the Vatican walls, in Piazza della Città Leonina, there is another apartment building filled with cardinals. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Benedict’s successor as the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, lives in the apartment occupied by Benedict when he was merely Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and above him is Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri.
The neighbors have been feuding: Müller is a defender of doctrinal orthodoxy, while the reform-minded Baldisseri has presided over the Synod on the Family, a council meeting initiated by Francis last year, at which Church progressives have advocated greater flexibility on such matters as the treatment of divorced couples and homosexuals. There has been an ongoing dispute—now, apparently, resolved—over the noise level in the building: Baldisseri, an accomplished pianist, likes to practice after lunch, when Müller takes a nap.
In this compacted world, close friendships, intense rivalries, clashing ambitions, and personal enmities all flourish. Perhaps because members of the Church rarely criticize the Pope publicly, personal differences often take the form of backbiting, corridor gossip, and behind-the-scenes intrigue. It is in this peculiar setting that Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, finds himself attempting to “shake up” the Catholic Church, as he likes to say. Unlike most of his predecessors, he had spent little time in Rome before his election, on March 13, 2013.
The first Jesuit Pope in history, Bergoglio spent virtually his entire career in Latin America. At thirty-six, he became head of the Jesuit order in Argentina. During the Dirty War carried out by the country’s right-wing junta, he was accused of handing over to the military two priests, but the evidence is ambiguous, and he has argued that he worked to free the priests and other victims of the regime. (Some political dissidents have testified that Bergoglio helped hide them during the persecutions.) After he was named Archbishop of Buenos Aires, in 1998, Bergoglio began to dedicate himself to the poor, travelling by bus through Buenos Aires and spending time in the city’s shantytowns.
When Cardinal Bergoglio came to Rome in 2013, for the gathering that would choose Benedict’s successor, he addressed a group of cardinals before the conclave got under way. He briskly criticized the Rome-centered Church’s “self-referential” tendency toward “theological narcissism” when it should be reaching out to the periphery of the world, and to the most marginal members of society. Just before Christmas last year, Francis surprised an audience of cardinals and monsignors by denouncing the various “diseases” of the Curia—its “pathology of power,” its “rivalry and vainglory,” its “gossiping, grumbling, and backbiting,” its “idolizing of superiors,” its “careerism and opportunism.” Although he has introduced some new people into the Vatican government to carry out his vision for the Church, for the most part he must work with the singular community that he inherited.
I got a glimpse of how difficult that might be when I attended a gathering of high-level Vatican officials in Rome earlier this year and overheard a cardinal talking about how L’Espresso, an Italian news magazine, would soon be publishing a damaging exposé of the free-spending ways of Cardinal George Pell, the Australian whom Francis brought in to clean up the Vatican’s finances. The article was based on leaked documents, and the cardinal was clearly pleased with its imminent publication. “When Francis came in, the attitude was that everything that the Italians did was bad and corrupt—now it is a little more complicated,” he said. He felt that it was important to settle accounts with those he viewed as “pseudo-reformers.”
Toward late afternoon, the Swiss Guards who stand sentinel at the Vatican clear out any straggling visitors in the gardens for the moment when the Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, takes his daily stroll. Benedict uses a walker to move around but by all accounts is in good mental health. Now that he can no longer be blamed for everything that goes wrong in the Catholic world, his papacy is undergoing something of a reassessment.
Benedict does not give press interviews; most news about his life is filtered through his personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gänswein, a German theologian who began working with him in 1996 and became his secretary in 2003. Gänswein also lives at the Mater Ecclesiae. He is frequently referred to as Gorgeous George, or as the George Clooney of the Vatican. A dashing man of fifty-nine, he has graying blond hair, chiselled features, and penetrating blue eyes. He has been an avid tennis player and skier. Dressed in an elegant black cassock, he received me in a frescoed room in the Apostolic Palace. Shortly before Benedict resigned, he elevated Gänswein to the rank of archbishop and made him Prefect of the Papal Household, a position that he has retained under Francis.
Some of Francis’s first moves—his decision not to live in the Apostolic Palace, and not to wear some of the regal papal vestments—were viewed in certain quarters as subtle rebukes of Benedict, a scrupulous observer of papal traditions and dress. In a slightly irritated tone, Monsignor Gänswein explained to the German newspaper Die Zeit that Pope Benedict did not live in the Apostolic Palace out of egotism, and that he had very modest, sober habits. Gänswein seemed to bristle at the wave of Francis-mania that swept the world after his election. The Pope, he said, cannot be “everybody’s darling,” and the media infatuation with him would fade. He told me that the Pope was like a finger pointing to the moon, the moon being God. “Sometimes this gets turned upside down, and all people see is the finger—they don’t see the moon,” he said. “Not that this is what the Pope wants—the Pope is not a pop star—and not that Francis is trying to draw attention to himself, but the mass media have their own dynamic.”
Benedict’s relations with the media were less charmed. At first, many reporters explored his life during the Second World War and his reputation for theological rigidity and conservatism. He never quite shook the reputation that he acquired as John Paul II’s enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy, a reputation that had earned him the nicknames the Pope’s Rottweiler and the Panzer Cardinal (after the tank used by the Wehrmacht). Some who worked with him closely describe a man of great courtesy and personal tenderness, shy and reserved but kind, of high moral rectitude and exceptional intelligence.
No other Pope has resigned and continued to live at the Vatican. The most famous earlier Pope to have freely abdicated was Celestine V, a monk and a hermit, who stepped down in 1294, in the hope of returning to his previous life. Instead, he was imprisoned by his successor, Boniface VIII, whom Dante placed in one of the lower circles of Hell. (Dante was not particularly kind to Celestine, either, referring to him as “he who out of cowardice made the great refusal.”)
Benedict and Francis certainly get along better than Celestine and Boniface did. Father Federico Lombardi, who has been a press spokesman for both Popes, told me, “I am not at all surprised, knowing Benedict, that he would handle himself with unimpeachable tact, discretion, and delicacy.” He added, “His public appearances have not been frequent, but they are always welcome and generally occur at the invitation of Pope Francis.” Francis has gone out of his way to treat Benedict with consideration, waiting to make his initial public appearance as Pope until he could reach Benedict by phone. When he gave an extended interview to the Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica, he asked Benedict to review the text and share any comments. Benedict responded with four pages of notes. Francis likens the presence of Benedict to that of a respected and beloved grandfather at home who can be relied on for wise counsel.
Many of those close to Benedict insist that he and Francis have far more in common than is generally supposed. One of the chief exponents of this view is Cardinal Bertone, who worked as Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then served as his Secretary of State, in effect the Prime Minister of the Vatican, during most of Benedict’s eight-year pontificate.
I met Bertone several times at his apartment in the Palazzo San Carlo, across the street from Francis’s guesthouse residence. He is a tall and imposing man, with a large rectangular head on a thin but substantial frame. He dresses in a simple black cassock, the same clothes he wore at the beginning of his career, as a Salesian father. Only a red skullcap indicates his rank of cardinal. He wears glasses that appear to be slightly tinted, and they make his dark eyes look like deep black pits. One person I met described him as “impenetrable.” He is generally very guarded, but is friendly and congenial when he begins to relax. He asked me to submit a series of questions by e-mail before our interview, and when I arrived he presented me with thirty-three pages of answers, with dates, numbers, and citations. It was as if Bertone didn’t trust himself in a freewheeling discussion, and it seemed to symbolize the troubles Benedict’s papacy had in communicating with the press.
Bertone has been blamed for much of what went wrong during Benedict’s papacy, and he comes across as a proud but wounded man. In the press, he was often depicted as a Vatican bureaucrat intent on blocking reform and covering up corruption. One headline from 2012 stated, “THE VATICAN BANK AND BERTONE PROVE THAT SATAN EXISTS.” Even after Francis replaced him, Bertone continued to be the target of criticism. Stories and TV news segments described the huge apartment he moved into upon retiring. When he celebrated his eightieth birthday, stories appeared about the extravagant party and the fine food and wines that were served. His habits were frequently compared unflatteringly to the spartan comportment of the new Pope. In response, Bertone has decided to write (with an Italian journalist) his own account of his time at the Vatican, to be called “Il Camerlengo” (“The Chamberlain”), one of the many titles that came with his former job.
Bertone’s apartment seems more fitting for a former head of state than for a priest. He told me that he had the apartment renovated at his own expense and that he shares the space with his personal secretary and three nuns. “Bertone isun uomo di potere”—a man of power—“but he is honest,” a member of his entourage told me confidingly. He is certainly a devout man, whose calendar and mental landscape are filled with religious feast days and ceremonies. In August, he travelled to Guatemala to participate in various celebrations honoring the founder of the Salesian order. But proximity to power is also clearly important to him. At the time we spoke, he was about to head off for a week of spiritual exercises. When I asked him about this, he was careful to add, “Col papa, col papa”—“with the Pope, with the Pope.” Sure enough, I saw a photograph in an Italian magazine of Bertone sharing a seat with Pope Francis at the front of a bus.
Benedict, Bertone insists, is far from a “rigid conservative” or a dry theologian lacking a human touch. “I recall many times walking through St. Peter’s Square when he was a cardinal and his engaging in conversation with young German visitors,” he told me. “He enjoyed eating out at certain trattorias in Rome.” He was beloved of the people in Borgo, the neighborhood right outside the Vatican walls, where both of them lived while working at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “Shopkeepers, barbers, waitresses would come out and greet him,” Bertone said. He would feed the neighborhood cats, speaking to them in his own language—“some variation of Bavarian German, which they seemed to understand.”
The longtime Vatican correspondent John Thavis tells a revealing story about Benedict in his recent book, “Vatican Diaries”: During a trip to Jordan, Benedict was taken to the spot along the Jordan River where Christ is supposed to have asked to be baptized by John the Baptist. Cameramen moved into place, expecting a wonderful photo op. Might the Pope baptize someone? Or at least go down near the river and scoop up a cupful of water? But Benedict remained in his car and the motorcade drove off.
The scandal of sexual abuse in the clergy, which had built up over decades under Benedict’s predecessors, reached its full force under his pontificate, creating the overwhelming impression of a Pope who had lost control of the machinery of government. The year 2010, remembered as the annus horribilis, was dominated by ghastly revelations of molestation and rape. And although Benedict had done far more than previous Popes to discipline priestly abuse, he nevertheless took most of the blame. Then, in 2012, the scandal known as VatiLeaks unfolded: reams of personal documents—letters to the Pope and other high officials at the Vatican—began appearing in the Italian press, revealing a world of financial corruption and vicious infighting. The leaker turned out to be the Pope’s personal attendant, Paolo Gabriele, who claimed that he wanted to sound an alarm and make the Pope aware of the festering problems around him.
As the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict had dealt with the sexual-abuse scandal by doing away with the system of piecemeal responses by individual bishops. In 2004, he pushed for an investigation of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the charismatic Mexican who headed the religious order Legionaries of Christ. There is incontrovertible evidence that Maciel abused numerous young seminarians in the course of several decades and fathered several children by women he maintained relationships with. According to an in-depth investigation by Jason Berry, in the National Catholic Reporter, Maciel was a wizard at raising money and recruiting seminarians; he was a favorite of John Paul II and of Angelo Sodano, his Secretary of State. Sodano allegedly deflected Ratzinger from completion of the Maciel investigation, and when the Legion was building a university campus in Rome one of Sodano’s nephews, an engineer, was hired to work on the project.
Benedict, early in his papacy, removed Maciel from the Legion and imposed on him “a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry.” Although people at the Vatican are reluctant to criticize John Paul II, whose name was often followed by cries of Santo subito (“Sainthood now”), they quietly point out that during the final years of his papacy, when, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he was severely incapacitated, many things went wrong. Thus, some of the scandals that came to light during Benedict’s papacy were inherited from the previous administration.
Bertone and others close to Benedict argue that he should be seen as a transitional figure, who started many of the reforms that Francis is currently promoting: financial transparency, intolerance of priestly sexual abuse, the diplomatic opening between Cuba and the United States, reform of the Curia.
Breaking with a pattern of quietly transferring predator priests, the Vatican under Benedict and Bertone began removing significant numbers of them from the priesthood—defrocking some three hundred and eighty-four priests in 2011 and 2012, the last years of Benedict’s papacy. But the statistics were not publicized by the Vatican press office; the Associated Press compiled them by picking through annual Vatican statistics. In none of his conversations with me did Bertone mention the defrockings, which seemed another sign of his lack of public-relations skill.
In 2010, Benedict set up a financial regulatory agency, the Financial Intelligence Authority, within the Vatican and brought under control the Vatican bank, the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, or Institute for the Works of Religion. Because of its murky financial transactions, the I.O.R., which is outside Italian jurisdiction, has long been a source of embarrassment for the Vatican. In the early two-thousands, the Vatican was ranked among the top ten nations in the world that were considered “offshore” financial havens for tax evasion and money laundering.
In September, 2010, Italian authorities refused to allow some twenty-three million euros (about thirty million dollars) to be transferred by the I.O.R. after it refused to explain to whom the funds belonged or why they were being moved. In order to resolve the crisis, Benedict signed an anti-money-laundering law; among other things, it established the Financial Intelligence Authority, whose purpose is to flag suspicious transactions and exchange information with foreign banking authorities. In early 2011, Bertone applied for the Vatican to join Moneyval, an oversight agency set up by the Council of Europe to standardize banking-transparency norms among European countries, which included on-site visits.
A ferocious internal battle soon broke out over the speed and the nature of compliance. In the view of some people involved, including Francesco De Pasquale, who was appointed director of the F.I.A., the Vatican was creating merely an appearance of transparency. Before one meeting with the people from Moneyval, De Pasquale recalls, his Vatican counterpart, Monsignor Ettore Balestrero, asked him, “Do we really need to tell them the truth?” (Balestrero denied this, saying, “I have always coöperated completely and with absolute transparency in my dealings with the regulators from the Council of Europe.”)
The I.O.R. had more than thirty thousand accounts, and thousands of them were dormant or “irregular”: they belonged to nonreligious people or entities that may have engaged in tax evasion or money laundering. Neither the I.O.R.’s president, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, nor De Pasquale, the nominal head of the regulatory agency, had any idea what these accounts contained.
At another meeting, De Pasquale recalls, Gotti Tedeschi asked, “ ‘Why shouldn’t we share our records?’ As if to say, ‘We have nothing to hide, right?’ ” The managers of the I.O.R. and the representatives of the Secretariat of State responded, De Pasquale said, with “glacial silence.” In March of 2012, the Milan branch of JP Morgan closed the account that it held for the I.O.R., because of the institution’s failure to comply with transparency rules. Some of the documents flying back and forth found their way into the press.
After months of damaging revelations came VatiLeaks. An entire book of documents—“Sua Santità” (“His Holiness”)—was published by the Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi in May of 2012. Gotti Tedeschi was removed as president of the I.O.R. that week, and Paolo Gabriele was arrested. Although it was Gabriele who leaked almost all the documents, practically no one I spoke with at the Vatican thinks that he acted on his own.
VatiLeaks was partly the result of widespread dissatisfaction with Bertone’s management of the Vatican. Both he and the Vatican insist that there were sound legal reasons for not granting regulators access to the I.O.R.’s records—not least, the defense of Vatican sovereignty. It took two years for the I.O.R. to reach substantial compliance with international standards of transparency, and it has quietly closed around forty-six hundred accounts.
On more than one occasion, various cardinals urged Benedict to dismiss Bertone as Secretary of State, but he refused. Bertone was criticized for his widespread involvement in Italy’s affairs. He placed protégés on the boards of Church hospitals and Italian banks; one of his uomini di fiducia (“trusted men”) was given a key position at the Italian state broadcasting system. He pushed to have the Vatican bank invest in an Italian movie-production company that made religious films and TV series. He got involved in efforts to shore up Italian Catholic hospitals that were threatened by fraud and bankruptcy. He attended a dinner at the home of the Italian TV personality Bruno Vespa (in a building owned by the Vatican), with Silvio Berlusconi and others, to discuss the future of the Italian government. When I asked Bertone whether he regretted attending the dinner, he replied, “Of course, if I’d known what a fuss people would make of it, I wouldn’t have gone.” None of these actions were illegal or uncommon at the Vatican, but they suggest a conception of the Church that is more Italian than global.
Benedict appears to have decided to step down in the spring of 2012, as the VatiLeaks scandal was building. He was eighty-five, and during a trip to Mexico he fell and hit his head against a washbasin while getting up in the night. When he awoke the next morning, his head and pillow were covered with blood. He decided that he could not continue to make such long trips. He had already committed himself to a trip to Brazil in the summer of 2013 and evidently had that in mind as a kind of deadline. He began discussing the matter of his resignation with Gänswein and Bertone.
“I tried to talk him out of it, arguing that we could scale back his schedule, reduce or eliminate travel, but he was firm,” Gänswein told me. Although all parties deny that VatiLeaks was the catalyst, it was surely a factor.
Inevitably, Benedict will be remembered mainly for his decision to resign. That act made Francis’s papacy possible, and Benedict’s supporters argue that it helped to redefine the papacy for modern times, in ways that abetted Francis’s program of reforms. “It was a revolutionary act,” Gänswein said.
At the conclave to elect Benedict’s successor, there was a powerfully anti-Italian mood. The U.S. cardinals—fourteen of them—and the Latin Americans were adamant in their wish for a clear change of direction. The U.S. cardinals threw their weight behind the strongest South American candidate, the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII, the successor to the unfortunate Celestine, issued a papal bull that stated, “We declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” In 1870, Pius IX, with his declaration of papal infallibility, followed in this tradition, as did John Paul II, a century later, with his doctrinal orthodoxy and demands of strict obedience to the Pope. But there is an alternative tradition of Vatican governance. In the first centuries of Christianity, the Church was governed by a series of synods, or councils, attended by all the bishops who were able to travel to them. The new Pope Francis has gone out of his way to refer to himself as the Bishop of Rome, one of the Pope’s many titles, intending to hark back to a synodal tradition, in which the Church was run in a more democratic fashion and the Pope was the first bishop among equals. To combat the built-in insularity of a Rome-centered Church, Francis appointed nine cardinals to his advisory committee—one from every continent, plus his new Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. They function as a kind of global cabinet. He has an economic-oversight committee of fifteen people, including eight cardinals and seven laypeople, who possess equal voting rights. He has appointed an auditor general, who has the power to audit any Vatican entity, and who reports directly to the Pope.
If Francis seems to the general public a kindly avuncular figure, within the walls of the Vatican he has a reputation for toughness. In the interview with Civiltà Cattolica, he described himself as both “a little naïve” and “a little furbo”—shrewd, clever, even tricky. While he has distinguished himself for public gestures that point to a life of humility and selfless charity—paying his own hotel bill after his election as Pope, washing the feet of recovering drug addicts, and advocating a Church of the poor, for the poor—he has moved with equal assertiveness in his insistence on shaking up traditional forms of Vatican governance.
To get an idea of how this revolution is being carried out in practical terms, I arranged to visit the newly created Secretariat for the Economy, headed by the Australian Cardinal Pell. In the past, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the arbiter of doctrinal orthodoxy—was the most influential of the Vatican prefectures. Pell and the Secretariat for the Economy have been placed on the same level—or, arguably, a higher level. Pell is also part of Francis’s global cabinet.
To reach the offices, you walk through the enormous Belvedere Court, a Renaissance courtyard built by Michelangelo’s patron, Julius II. Julius II occasionally had the courtyard flooded, using it for mock naval battles and other papal entertainments. Somewhere under its cobblestones are the remains of an elephant, a pet of Pope Leo X. And so it is a bit of a surprise to take the elevator up to the third floor and come upon a group of M.B.A. types speaking English. Until now, Italian has been the language of the Vatican, even among its foreign officeholders. Pope Francis approved making the Secretariat for the Economy officially bilingual in Italian and English—the first department of the Vatican to be so—and English is decidedly favored. Danny Casey, a fellow-Australian and financial manager whom Cardinal Pell chose to handle the day-to-day operations of the secretariat, told me, “English is the international language of business, so we can hire people from all over the world.”
Pell and Casey, who worked together in Sydney, collaborated with major international consultants to get a grip on the Vatican’s tangled finances—standardizing accounting practices, identifying valuable assets, and bringing a number of small Vatican properties and institutions under direct management of the Holy See, the legal entity that controls the Vatican and certain institutions in and around Rome. Earlier this year, the new secretariat announced that it had identified some $1.2 billion in financial assets that were not previously on the Vatican balance sheet. No one asserted that they were hidden for any improper purposes. “When we started our work, we were told that the Holy See comprises some sixty-five different institutions,” Casey said. “We have determined that the correct number is a hundred and thirty-six.”
How would one discover ownership of $1.2 billion and seventy-one institutions? Casey explained that the management of Vatican properties has been extremely fragmented. The Catholic church is estimated to own twenty per cent of all real estate in Italy, and a quarter of all real estate in Rome. The hills of Rome hold scores of curious religious institutions, monasteries, convents, seminaries, foundations, confraternities, institutes: hidden treasures with beautiful gardens, frescoed palaces, gurgling fountains, and breathtaking views, many of them family properties—each with its own complex history—donated by some rich Roman to the Church centuries ago.
All the Vatican entities are now being asked to comply with international accounting standards and oversight, and the administrators of these institutions—priests and nuns, in many cases—are being trained in basic accounting practices. Each institution is required to fill out a form stating its objectives for the next year and how much money will be required to accomplish them. Casey and his team are working hard to distinguish between Vatican assets that are performing religious missions—caring for the elderly, say, or teaching the young—and assets that are “not within the mission.” Properties outside the mission should be considered commercial assets, from which the Vatican should try to gain the best possible monetary return.
Propaganda Fide, the Vatican entity that sponsors religious missions abroad, owns an estimated ten billion dollars in real estate, concentrated mainly in Rome, and including some of the city’s most beautiful historic palaces. About five years ago, news broke that Fide was allegedly offering deals on rentals to Italian politicians, journalists, and businessmen. Bertone told me that the designer Valentino was paying well below market rent for his flagship store, on the fashionable Via del Babuino, in one of Rome’s most expensive neighborhoods. (A Valentino spokesperson said that the store paid market-rate rent, and had never received any favors.)
In an article in the English-language Catholic Herald, Cardinal Pell recalled that a British acquaintance had asked him how the Vatican could have carried on for so long with such informal accounting. “I began by remarking that his question was one of the first that would come to our minds as English-speakers,” he said. But it would be “much lower on the list for people in another culture, such as the Italians.”
The observation did not sit well with many in the Vatican. Not long after Pell’s article appeared, L’Espresso published its exposé of his expenses. The article was based on a number of internal documents and receipts that had obviously been given to the magazine by Vatican officials eager to take Pell down.
The article reported that Pell and Casey had spent more than five hundred thousand euros on office expenses in a few months. Casey is paid a salary of fifteen thousand euros a month (tax-free), a colossal sum for a Vatican employee. Pell charged religious vestments—a few thousand euros—as an expense. Pell and Casey frequently flew business class and treated their business-adviser guests to champagne. All this would be normal in the business world but was out of tune with the modesty and simplicity practiced by Francis.
Although Francis has inveighed against the more savage forms of unfettered capitalism, in the management of Vatican finances he has relied on major companies from the capitalist world: McKinsey, Deloitte Consulting, EY (formerly Ernst & Young). He has given a much greater role to lay professionals and reduced the administrative duties of cardinals, who have little preparation for them. The new team has tried to institute the so-called “four eyes” principle, in which all important financial decisions must be carefully reviewed by two people, in order to cut back on the kind of internal fiefdoms that were until recently the norm at the Vatican—one cardinal in charge of billions of dollars of real estate, another in charge of a multibillion-dollar hospital system.
There is evidence that Francis and his team have had some impact. In the last two years of Benedict’s pontificate, the F.I.A. reported only seven instances of “suspicious activity.” In 2013, Francis’s first year, it made two hundred and two such reports; in 2014, it made a hundred and forty-seven. Italian police investigating corruption in Milan wiretapped a prominent politician (subsequently convicted of taking bribes) complaining of the new atmosphere at the Vatican. “There is no protection in the Vatican, because the new Pope . . . couldn’t give a crap about the Italian world, and then among the cardinals there is no one who can offer protection anymore.”
The abiding hope of the Secretariat of the Economy is, not surprisingly, to generate more income. “Make more money from our assets so that we do more good,” Casey says. The I.O.R., one of the main revenue sources, has only some six billion dollars in deposits and assets; the real-estate assets of the Catholic Church worldwide have been estimated at two trillion dollars, a sum comparable to the G.D.P. of Russia, India, or Brazil.
Some financial reformers are urging the creation of an umbrella organization, to be called Vatican Asset Management, which would assume management of the financial assets held by the Vatican City State and its various entities and, eventually, all its real-estate assets as well. The Vatican bank also proposed creating an investment fund, to be registered in Luxembourg, that would offer an attractive investment vehicle to I.O.R. account holders. Francis has rejected the Luxembourg proposal.
According to Piero Schiavazzi, a journalist who has written extensively about the Vatican, “There is a struggle going on within the Vatican, between the more capitalist-minded people, like Cardinal Pell, and those who want something different. The first group is for working within the capitalist system and making as much money as possible in order to do good works. The other group, which Francis may favor, thinks the Vatican should use its money to actually change the system, to invest in poor countries directly in order to change their structure.” In July, the Pope called for a new economic order, focussed on the poor, declaring, “Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change,” and decrying a system that “has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.” This critique of unfettered capitalism is also at the heart of his recent encyclical “Laudato Si’,” which promotes a worldwide effort to reduce global warming: “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. . . . Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods.”
The coalition that elected Francis, with its strong support from conservative American cardinals, may begin to fray this fall. He will visit the United States this month, ending up in Philadelphia, for the World Meeting of Families, a precursor of the Synod on the Family, whose next session will take place in October. At last year’s meeting, progressives among the attending bishops and cardinals and (nonvoting) lay people attempted to introduce changes that would make the Church more tolerant of cohabiting unmarried couples, divorced Catholics who have remarried, and gays. This year, the Pope will be expected to confront these matters in all their doctrinal complexity.
In his first two years, Francis, through the deployment of his modest personality and inclusive rhetoric, has skillfully created the impression of a much more open and tolerant Church without actually changing Church doctrine. Just last week, he announced that Catholics who had abortions could be forgiven their sin if they confessed sincerely during this special Jubilee year. In the past, abortion was a sin that provoked immediate excommunication. But Francis was building on a precedent: the Vatican had already allowed bishops to offer absolution under special circumstances.
Sometimes Francis sidesteps divisive issues by simply changing the subject, pointing out that the central missions of Christianity are love, charity, mercy, and caring for the poor. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said in the interview inCiviltà Cattolica. Even with the decision to hold a synod on the family, he was careful not to move without firm Church precedents: John Paul II held a synod on the family in 1980, but in a different spirit. “Most bishops spent an inordinate amount of time in their speeches quoting Pope John Paul II to himself,” Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and Vatican analyst, wrote recently. The one notable exception was the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop John R. Quinn, of San Francisco, who suggested opening a dialogue on possible exceptions to the contraception ban. “The negative reaction from the Vatican was fierce,” Reese went on. “Many felt that Quinn’s influence in the Church declined speedily after the synod.”
John Paul II, troubled that so many American Catholics disagreed with the Church on matters of sexual morality, took pains to appoint bishops who adhered to the orthodox line on moral and sexual issues. And so although American Catholics are among the world’s most liberal, some of the bishops who represent them will very likely oppose most reforms. Francis has carefully avoided taking sides in the debate but has appeared to tip his hand by, for example, referring to Communion as “not a reward for the perfect but a medicine for the sick.”
Before last year’s Synod on the Family session, Francis circulated a questionnaire to community parishes on topics that included contraception and divorce. The chasm between Church doctrine and the beliefs and the behavior of actual practicing Catholics has become dangerously wide. In America in recent decades, the Church has been losing ground. Some thirty-two million people who were brought up Catholic have left the Church—in part because they have found its hierarchy tone-deaf to the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people.
During discussions at the synod about divorce, cohabitation, and homosexuality, progressives brought up the concept of “graduality”—that sinners might be moving toward the truth without having arrived at it. Thus, unmarried couples should be encouraged to marry, not be condemned. “All these situations require a constructive response, seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to an actual marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel,” a preliminary draft noted, and it included language about homosexuals having “gifts and qualities” that need to be recognized. As the German cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of the leading progressives, explained at the synod, “Take the case of two homosexuals who have been living together for thirty-five years and taking care of each other, even in the last phases of their lives. How can I say that this has no value?” As for divorced Catholics who have remarried and wish to take Communion, the gradualists maintain that such Catholics have sinned, repented, and are trying in a second marriage to fulfill their family obligations.
At the synod, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis, and then head of the Vatican’s highest court, vehemently denounced the reform effort. Burke had once declared that he would deny Communion to the Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry, because of Kerry’s pro-choice position. After the synod, he implicitly criticized Francis, saying that the Pope was sowing “confusion,” and that the Church had become “a ship without a rudder.” Francis had him transferred to a less powerful post.
Conservative Catholic Web sites warn about “Catholicism lite.” Indeed, when the organizers of the synod published a midterm report that included many of the positions of the progressive camp, there was a minor uprising, with traditionalists feeling that those preparing the provisional draft had carried out a kind of coup d’état that did not reflect the consensus of the bishops. In a subsequent draft, approved by the bishops, some of the more controversial passages were modified or eliminated. The passage about the “gifts and qualities” of homosexuals was gone. When the Vatican’s final report was published, it revealed the votes in favor of and against each paragraph. The contested passages (about gay people and divorced Catholics who have remarried) were the only ones that failed to achieve the two-thirds majority that constitutes a consensus.
Whatever the outcome of the debate, it is ultimately the Pope who decides on the content of the synod’s final document. “The Church is a communion, not a democracy,” Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, the head of the Pontifical Council on the Family, said. Yet the Church prefers achieving large majorities, to avoid factions and ruptures. Francis has been working very hard to change the consensus within the Church rather than impose change.
“He is very Jesuitical in saying or doing something that seems to push discussion much further down the road than he actually intends to go,” Andrea Gagliarducci, a Catholic journalist and traditionalist who often writes pieces that are highly critical of Francis, said. “But that pushes everyone further down the road than they intended to go.”
For example, in the case of homosexual believers, even Cardinal Bertone agrees that the Church must do better in creating a welcoming and accepting atmosphere. He points out that Pope Benedict, as a cardinal in the eighties, made it clear that the Church opposed any efforts to denigrate homosexuals or discriminate against them. Bertone glides over the difference between Cardinal Ratzinger’s description of homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil” and Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” Even so, Bertone’s softening on the issue is evidence that Francis has changed the debate within the Church. It is the particular genius of Catholicism that it continues to change while insisting that it has never changed. In 1845, Cardinal Newman (who subsequently opposed the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council) wrote that, although there was no change in Heaven, “here below, to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
I thought of this ever-changing, never-changing Church as I visited an elderly cardinal in his palatial apartment near the Vatican. When I rang the doorbell, I was greeted by an unprepossessing man in his early eighties. In the entryway, there was a life-size, full-length portrait of him. Then I noticed another large painted portrait of him a few feet away.
He led me into the living room, where there were at least seven other portraits of him, a few of them large, life-size paintings. The main corridor was lined with photographs of the many world leaders the cardinal had met, some including him, others signed and dedicated to him. He did not display any awareness that a ferocious tongue-lashing that Francis gave the cardinals last Christmas about the narcissistic and vain nature of the Roman Curia might apply to him. He took the Vatican party line—that Francis’s papacy was not a revolution but a further elaboration of the legacy of his predecessors. The differences, he said, were of personality and of emphasis, and were attributable to Francis’s origins in South America. “Every Pope is different,” he said. “Every Pope reflects his own time and is the right Pope for that particular time. And so the Church adapts. This is the secret to its survival over two thousand years, with the help of the Holy Spirit.” ♦