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Analysis | John L. Allen Jr.

Financial reform shows crafty political side of pope

Pope Francis attended a Mass with newly appointed cardinals at St Peter's Basilica.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Francis attended a Mass with newly appointed cardinals at St Peter's Basilica.

ROME — Pope Francis may embrace simplicity, but he’s hardly a simple man. The Jesuit pontiff is also an extraordinarily crafty politician, and a financial reform announced by the Vatican yesterday proves the point.

In effect, Francis pulled off the equivalent in baseball of an unassisted triple play. It’s something fans know is theoretically possible, but still pretty breathtaking to actually witness.

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The pope has created a new finance ministry to oversee all Vatican departments, especially those that handle money. It will prepare an annual budget and oversee detailed financial statements, addressing a long-standing complaint by cardinals from around the world – to wit, that they could never get a straight answer from the Vatican about how much money it has or what’s happening to it.

The ministry, known as the Secretariat of the Economy, will report directly to the pope and will implement policies set by a new board of eight bishops and seven lay people with expertise in financial affairs. As his first “finance minister,” Francis tapped 72-year-old Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, who was already a member of the pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisors.

It’s the most significant reform of the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy of the Vatican, in a quarter-century. Calling the new department a “Secretariat” underlines its importance, since there’s only one other outfit in the Vatican with that name, the Secretariat of State, and by tradition it’s the big kid on the block in terms of wielding power.

Here’s what makes the move a triple play.

First, Francis has solved one chronic problem with money management in the Vatican, which is that heretofore it’s been entrusted at the leadership level almost entirely to clergy without any real formation in business management or finance. The new board including seven laity takes the place of a council created under Pope John Paul II composed of 15 cardinals.

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Yet at the same time, Francis also knows that in the status-conscious world of the Vatican, people won’t think he’s serious about something unless he puts a heavy-hitter cleric in charge of it. He certainly accomplished that with Pell, a former Australian Rules Football player who once seemed destined to go pro before entering the priesthood.

Pell, who stands almost 6’3”, still retains a good deal of that rugged mentality. For those who know him, he’s like a linebacker in a cassock – a tough, no-nonsense guy not likely to be cowed by Vatican mandarins who resent the intrusion on their prerogatives.

Second, Francis also addressed another chronic problem in Vatican finance by appointing a non-Italian.

Historically, the Vatican has been heavily conditioned by an Italian ethos in which many forms of corruption aren’t even perceived that way. Rigging competitive bidding procedures to benefit one’s friends, or lending a veneer of legitimacy to movements of money on behalf of fat-cat benefactors, are often seen as part of keeping things “in the family.”

That mentality was behind the affair that erupted over the summer in which a former Vatican accountant named Monsignor Nunzio Scarano was arrested for participating in a plot to smuggle millions in cash into Italy from Switzerland, on a private jet and with the assistance of a former agent of the Italian equivalent of the CIA, on behalf of a family of shipping magnates.

By making an Australian imbued with Anglo-Saxon notions of transparency and accountability his tip of the spear, Francis has communicated that a new day is dawning.

Third, Francis has also demonstrated a deft personnel touch by putting Pell in the one spot where the two men see completely eye-to-eye.

On doctrinal matters Pell has a reputation as a staunch conservative, putting him a bit to the right of the pontiff. A few years ago Pell was rumored to be in line to take over the Vatican’s all-important Congregation for Bishops, responsible for naming new bishops around the world, and had that happened, it’s entirely possible Francis might today be contemplating how to get rid of him. He recently removed an American prelate with something of the same profile, Cardinal Raymond Burke, as a member of that body.

When it comes to money management, however, Francis and Pell are entirely of one mind. Indeed, Pell was among the leaders of a guerilla insurrection against the Vatican old guard in the conclave a year ago that propelled Francis to the papacy.

In one fell swoop, Francis has both given himself a chance to name a new leader for the church in Australia, and also placed an extremely capable ally in a spot where he’s uniquely qualified to get things done.

For all those who wonder if change under Francis is all about tone and style, in other words, yesterday showed that there’s actually steak beneath the sizzle.

John L. Allen Jr. is the Globe’s associate editor, covering global Catholicism. Contact him at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook.

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