A view of St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, and Rome from the top of Michelangelo's dome in St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo by David Iliff/Creative Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

With two swift moves, Pope Francis rekindles hope for financial reform

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Tranquil on its surface, as COVID-19 has shut down nearly all activity in its churches, museums and offices, the Vatican has nonetheless been quietly dealing with its troubled finances during the pandemic. 

The world’s smallest state relies for revenue on a mix of donations, the sale of souvenirs and tickets to see its sites, along with investments. With the Vatican museums closed and donations down as its faithful face fears of a global recession, news reports continue to bubble up describing the Vatican’s financial health as “opaque,” “murky,” “scandalous” and, more recently, “at risk of default.”

A large portion of donations are made through Peter’s Pence, a worldwide collection that sustains the Church’s charitable works as well as supporting the offices and departments that make up the bureaucracy known as the Curia. Normally collected at the end of June, contributions to Peter's Pence will be postponed until October this year.

But recession isn't the only threat to its charitable donations. For months Italian newspapers have been reporting a scandal concerning a dubious $200 million real estate investment in London that was paid for with funds from Peter’s Pence. Though it’s unclear how much the Vatican benefited from the investment, if at all, there is growing certainty that several middlemen pocketed significant proceeds from the deal with the knowledge of highly placed churchmen. Five lay Vatican employees have been suspended in the ongoing investigation. 

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The Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera reported on Tuesday (May 19) that the Vatican had dismantled a network of holding companies in Switzerland and concentrated the resulting real estate and liquid assets worth at least $50 million into a single company named Profima SA. 

Pope Francis is silhouetted during a private audience at the Vatican on Dec. 14, 2019. (Yara Nardi/Pool photo via AP)

The realignment, which eliminated almost a dozen companies, can be read as an attempt to streamline and increase transparency in the little-known network that, the Corriere said, has “survived, with its secrets and capital, seven popes.”

Two days later, on May 21, the Vatican announced that its accounting division, the Data Processing Center, would be separated from the Administration of the Patrimony for the Apostolic See, which administers the Vatican’s real estate holdings, including Profima, and be placed under the supervision of the Secretariat for the Economy. 

Cardinal George Pell was the first to propose this idea when he was the head of the Secretariat for Economy in order to increase efficiency with the support of the former Auditor General Libero Milone. Pell was brought to his native Australia to face historic charges of sexual abuse of minors in July 2017 and was absolved of all charges last April.

Of all the Vatican financial institutions, APSA is considered the least transparent and has been described by some Vatican observers as a “hub of corruption.” 

These moves point to a renewed commitment by Pope Francis to clean up financial systems with a long history of questionable practices and outright bad dealing. They also suggest that the power lines inside the walled city, which have contributed to the Vatican’s schizophrenic approach to cleaning up its finances, may be shifting.

It remains to be seen whether any reorganization can bring about the long-awaited Vatican financial reform that faithful religious laypeople have been demanding for decades.