Pope Francis’s Vatican: How the New Pontiff Is Shaking Things Up

The canonization of two recent pontiffs — John Paul II and John XXIII — is just the latest sign of how Pope Francis's reformist impulses are changing the Catholic Church

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Riccardo De Luca / AP

Pope Francis prays in front of the tomb of Pope John XXIII at the end of a mass on the 50th anniversary of his death, on June 3, 2013 in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

On Friday, Pope Francis fast-tracked approval for the sainthood of two recent pontiffs: Pope John Paul II, who presided over the Church at the end of the Cold War, and Pope John XXIII, who held the liberalizing Second Vatican Council half a century ago. To do so, Pope Francis undercut the Vatican’s traditional bureaucracy and its complex protocols regarding the proof of miracles required to canonize saints. For the Argentine cleric, who assumed the papacy’s top role earlier this year, the move is just the latest sign of his reformist impulses.

Far removed from the realms of saints and miracles, Pope Francis, it seems, has sought to shake up some of the Vatican’s more earthly institutions. The past two weeks have been filled with drama for the Vatican Bank, a tiny organization operating from within the Vatican walls that has been time and again a source of scandal and embarrassment for the Catholic Church. The latest intrigue began with the arrest on June 28 by Italian police of a senior monsignor, Nunzio Scarano, for allegedly planning to smuggle €20 million to Italy in a private jet. Pope Francis then ordered an unprecedented review of the bank by an independent commission. On July 1, came the surprise resignation of the bank’s two top managers. Director General Paolo Cipriani and his deputy, Massimo Tulli, who have led the bank for almost a decade, “have decided that this decision would be in the best interest of the Institute and the Holy See,” said a Vatican statement.

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While the Vatican presented their resignation as voluntary, Pope Francis’ move to create a review commission, handpicked by him, with full powers to request documents and question people on the activities of the bank, was clearly seen as a vote of no confidence towards the bank’s management. That is a major step toward establishing better financial transparency for the bank, which is formally known as the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR) and has long been criticized for its secrecy and lack of accountability. Vatican authorities “have come a long way in a very short period of time” according to Moneyval, a European financial watchdog based in Strasbourg, France. “Catholics around the world have felt Pope Francis’s warmth,” said a Vatican source, referring the simple, heartfelt style of the Argentine pontiff. “But also in the Vatican someone is starting to feel the heat.”

When Pope Francis was elected to the papacy in February, he did so with a clear mandate to eliminate what many Catholics see as mismanagement, and even corruption, within the Vatican central administration, the Curia. The IOR has quickly become the focal point of this criticism. The reform process began under the previous pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, who started putting into place the building blocks of a financial accountability policy by creating a Vatican financial watchdog in 2010.

(MORE: Francis’ New Papal Style: A Comparison with Benedict)

The recent shakeup is just the latest installment in the IOR’s long history of scandals and secrecy. Under the leadership of American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus in the 1970s and 80s, IOR was implicated in the collapse of a midsized Italian bank, Banco Ambrosiano, which had lent more than a billion dollars to Vatican-guaranteed dummy companies. The head of Banco Ambrosiano, Roberto Calvi, was found in 1982 hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London in an apparent suicide.

Rather than waiting for the next scandal to explode, Francis has decided to act preemptively. The new review commission could lead to a deeper restructuring of the IOR, or perhaps even even to its outright closing, according to Vatican observers. Critics of the bank say the Catholic Church today could rely on existing financial institution to reliably get its money to missionaries and priests, often operating even in the most remote corners of the earth. The need for further reform is clear. In its report, Moneyval warned that while the new regulations put in place by Benedict looked fine on paper, they still had to show they were effective in practice.

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In a different investigation from the one that led to his arrest, Monsignor Scarano was accused of attempting to launder money by taking 560,000 euros ($727,900) in cash out of his Vatican account and giving various amounts to friends in exchange for checks he could then deposit into his Italian account to pay a mortgage. He preferred to use 500-euro bills, earning his nickname “Don 500” in the Italian press. The operation didn’t sound any alarm bells within the compliance systems of the Vatican Bank, and the Vatican acted to suspend Scarano only after he was put under investigation by Italian prosecutors. Senior Vatican correspondent Andrea Tornielli wrote in the daily newspaper La Stampa that this indicates a rooted “cultural habit” within the IOR and the Vatican that needs to be addressed.

In a recent interview to the Italian newspaper Il Giornale, Cipriani, who just resigned as director general, dismissed any talk of closing of the Vatican Bank as nonsense, asserting that it is “essential” to the church’s mission. It’s a stark contrast to the leader of his church. In his homilies, Francis has often noted that Jesus and his apostles disdained material goods and certainly didn’t need bank accounts. Having set an example by choosing to live in the Vatican’s modern guesthouse rather than in the Renaissance-era papal apartments and eschewing much of the pomp and trappings of the papacy cherished by his predecessor, Francis has called for a humbler, simpler church that relies more on its message of faith than on worldly means. By forcing the Vatican Bank into a harsh spotlight, Francis is putting some real-world muscle behind that lofty sentiment.

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