When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis last year the renewed interest in the Catholic Church was almost immediate. While headlines told of a Pope who was shirking the extravagances of the position (and forcing those around him to do the same) he has gone much deeper in reforming the financials of the second largest religious organization in the world.
“The two great handicaps that the Vatican Bank was operating under was both that they were Italian [and] bureaucrats,” says Father Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. “So things were ‘my cousin Vinny has these things, we can get them cheaper,’ really this kind of stuff went on and I think it went on for so long that a kind of culture of cronyism, a culture of nepotism and a culture of corruption began.”
Pope Francis has acknowledged this and the Roman Curia (the Vatican’s collective administrative body) are taking the efforts to change that culture seriously, “changes not just in personnel,” notes Fr. Sirico, “but now there are going to be changes in structure, accountability, transparency and things like that.”
While many see the church as a complicated and wealthy organization Sirico says both assumptions are off-base. For starters the Vatican finances as a whole have been volatile over the past two years. They reported a $19 million deficit in 2001 and a surplus of less than $3 million in 2012. The figures for 2013 are due in July. Regardless they are not swimming in extra cash given the size of the organization.
In terms of structure Sirico notes that the Catholic hierarchy is actually quite simple. The Pope is at the top and under him are the bishops and under them parish leading priests or pastors. It’s those pastors who are responsible for the day-in and day-out finances of the local church. “In the United States there is a wave now of transparency and professional accounting procedures that didn’t exist [in the past],” Sirico says. Gone are the days of the parish priest counting the money from the collection plate himself every week.
It’s procedures like this, Sirico says, that are central to Pope Francis’ fiscal overhaul. The success of such changes remains to be seen but Sirico says the church leadership means business this time around.