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all things catholic | John L. Allen Jr.

Pope’s new financial fixer has instincts of linebacker

A new way of doing the Vatican’s business, and other topics in church life: Elder care, a field hospital in Ukraine, and . . . the end of history?

Australian Cardinal George Pell will head a new finance ministry created to oversee the Holy See’s economic affairs.

AFP/Getty Images/file 2010

Australian Cardinal George Pell will head a new finance ministry created to oversee the Holy See’s economic affairs.

ROME — If the Vatican were, say, Walmart or Microsoft, the practices its new financial czar is vowing to implement would hardly seem revolutionary.

For instance, Australian Cardinal George Pell says he wants “two sets of eyes on everything,” meaning the same people won’t be making budget decisions and policing them, and that he’ll impose quarterly reviews to ensure departments are living within their means.

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The thing is, the Vatican isn’t Walmart.

That’s certainly true in terms of financial footprint, because, despite the mythology of its vast wealth, the Vatican doesn’t have especially deep pockets. Its annual budget is just over $300 million, and its “patrimony,” what American colleges would call an endowment, is just over $1 billion. Its art is glorious but produces limited revenue, mostly the roughly $100 million earned by the Vatican museums in ticket sales and licensing fees.

What money the Vatican does have, however, often isn’t handled especially well. That’s an incubator for scandal, and the Vatican has seen more than its fair share.

Such meltdowns were part of the reason the cardinals chose an outsider as pope one year ago. Now Francis has put Pell, a former Australian Rules Football star who blends the mind of a theologian and bishop with the instincts of a linebacker, at the point of attack for reform.

Pell’s explicit ambition is to save “millions, if not tens of millions” of dollars each year by implementing rational accounting measures, turning the Vatican, as he put it, from an “embarrassment” into a “good model.”

Pell spoke in an exclusive interview with the Globe on Feb. 27 in the Santa Marta, the Vatican residence where Pope Francis lives. It was one of just three interviews Pell has granted since his Feb. 24 appointment, and the only one to an American news outlet.

Though previous efforts at reform have come and gone, Pell insisted this one is for real.

“Pope Francis is very different,” said Pell, who also serves on the pope’s “G-8” council of cardinal advisers. “Not only does he mean it, but he has the capacity to get it done.”

The pontiff announced last week a new “Secretariat for the Economy,” with responsibility for preparing an annual budget and overseeing detailed financial statements. It will be governed by a board made up of eight cardinals and seven lay people, mostly financial experts. Its staff will be composed of international professionals, and, in a nod to that internationalization, the working languages will include English as well as Italian.

Overseeing it all will be Pell, among the few senior churchmen viewed as having the strength of character to take on the Vatican’s deeply ingrained, and often deeply flawed, ways of doing business.

“There’s never been anything like this in the Vatican that’s explicitly designed to foster a system of checks and balances,” Pell said.

“It will be a change for some people who bring a different level of understanding and patterns of thought,” he said. “There will probably have to be formation courses to explain what’s needed.”

Pell grasps that as an Anglo-Saxon, he may face special resistance. In the Vatican, he laughingly acknowledged, English is still “the language of the enemy,” evoking memories of King Henry VIII and the rise of Protestantism.

He insisted that he enjoys the strong backing of Francis and other cardinals, and that with a governing council and staff it won’t be just “one isolated colonial barging around.”

Getting the financial house in order, Pell said, should free up resources that can be used for the poor, and it will also help ensure that fresh cycles of scandal don’t distract from, or derail, the pope’s expansive mission.

Though this is likely the last job he’ll ever have, the priestly side of Pell’s soul refuses to style it as his legacy.

“There are many things more important than money,” he said.

“I think what I’ve done with young priests, with World Youth Day [a global festival of Catholic youth held in Sydney in 2008], with religious education, are all examples,” Pell said. “In Sydney we’ve now got a thousand young indigenous people on full scholarships [in Catholic schools], while not long ago there were just a few hundred. Those are the things that matter.”

“If we can achieve the savings that we believe are realistically possible, it will enable the Holy Father and other groups to do precisely the things that are more important,” he said.

Pell said he spoke with Pope Francis for more than an hour about his new gig, and acknowledged that he wouldn’t have had the heart to take it on if he thought he’d be doing it for 20 years. He believes the essential work won’t take that long.

“There’s a lot of muddle and a considerable amount of imperfection,” he said, but insisted that reform is possible and “there’s no reason it can’t be done fairly quickly.”

The system, of course, may yet prove impervious to change. But given Pell’s reputation for bulldozing past obstacles, the smart money probably won’t be against him.

Outtakes from the Pell interview

The Globe’s interview with Australian Cardinal George Pell, the new head of Pope Francis’s Secretariat for the Economy, was sufficiently rare and intriguing to warrant a fuller set of excerpts:

Q. What’s the purpose of the new secretariat?

A. The role is to modernize procedures to bring them up to appropriate contemporary standards, and to improve transparency. There’s never been anything like this in the Vatican that’s so explicitly designed to foster a system of checks and balances and shared responsibility.

Q. You and other cardinals have complained that it’s hard to get straight answers from the Vatican about how much money it has and what it’s doing with it. One year from now, will you have those answers?

A. I’m never confident about the future, but things are already much clearer than they were six or seven months ago, and I’m sure they will be clearer still in 12 months’ time. Whether we’ll have complete clarity time will tell, but already tremendous progress has been made.

Q. Will you make that information public?

A. We’ll make a good deal of it public. How much and how we do it will be decided by the council. Certainly the yearly accounts will be much more comprehensive than they are now.

Q. What challenges do you face as an English-speaker in an Italian-dominated environment?

A. Undoubtedly there will have to be a creative interaction between two different ways of thinking. The other thing is that, not only will the controlling board be international, but so will the staff. Initially we’ll put together the senior staff, and it’s important that the working languages will be both English and Italian precisely so we can access people from around the world for critical positions.

Q. Is part of you worried the old guard will see this as the Anglo-Saxons taking over?

A. Undoubtedly some people will see it that way, but the Holy Father has said this is the way he wants it. There’s also enormous backing from the cardinals around the world.

Q. When will the membership of the council be named?

A. I’d hope in the next few weeks, by the end of March.

Q. At the beginning, there was talk that the Vatican bank might be abolished. Is that now off the table?

A. That’s the way I would see it.

Q. What’s your view of the reform that’s been launched at the Vatican bank under president Ernst von Freyberg?

A. I think von Freyberg is doing an excellent job, and I think they’re making good progress. I think he’s got a good board around him.

Q. What’s your perception of the Financial Information Authority, or AIF, the Vatican’s anti-money laundering agency, under its director Rene Bruelhart?

A. Bruelhart has got my complete support. He’s a most impressive guy, and I think he’s doing a really good job.

Q. When AIF says it’s time for an inspection, your doors will be open?

A. They’ve got to be. That’s the way it will be.

Q. That hasn’t always been their experience.

A. I’m well aware of that. Going forward, the whole show will have an open-door policy, certainly to people like the auditor general and AIF. Nothing will be taken away from any congregation or council or other group, because what’s theirs is theirs. Nobody will be taking money from the Congregation for Worship or anything like that. But the council has to know how much is there, that it’s invested rationally, and that the money is spent wisely.

Pell’s possible successor in Sydney discusses elder care

Now that Pell is ensconced in Rome, speculation has begun to mount down under about who might be in line to take over in Sydney. One leading candidate is Bishop Anthony Fisher of Parramatta, a 53-year-old Dominican and something of a Pell protégé.

Like Pell, Fisher is often seen as being on the conservative side of many Catholic debates, though he doesn’t have his mentor’s reputation as a brawler. Soft-spoken and erudite, Fisher in some ways embodies the blend of pro-life and justice and peace concerns advocated by Pope Francis, having worked on immigrant and refugee issues earlier in his career before becoming one of English-speaking Catholicism’s leading experts on bioethics.

As fate would have it, Fisher was also in Rome last week for a meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Life, a pro-life think tank. The academy was pondering issues relating to the elderly, and Fisher sat down with the Globe to talk about it.

Elder care is an especially acute challenge given that demographers say a large part of the world is facing a future in which there will be more people in the last third of life than in the first.

Fisher says the issues for the church arise in part from discriminatory treatment of the elderly in some cultures, including in the health care system.

“In the United Kingdom, there are a lot of treatments you just won’t get if you’re over 60 or 65, such as renal dialysis or heart and antistroke medications,” he said. “People at that age respond very well to those treatments and can get extra years of life, but there’s a view in the air that you’ve had your fair share of resources.”

Fisher called on the Catholic church to help “reframe the discussion.”

“Most discussions in bioethics, health care, and public policy begin with the notion that the elderly are a problem, that old people are simply a series of diseases and a drain on resources,” he said.

“Through its preaching, the way it lives, and the services it provides, the church can propose a different wisdom,” he said.

At the moment, Fisher suggested, one way to pull that off is to piggyback on the popularity of the 77-year-old Pope Francis, whose advanced age hasn’t prevented him from becoming a global sensation.

With Francis, he said, “you don’t assume that being old means being no longer relevant, just a burden with nothing to offer.” Indeed, he said, he could envision a wildly successful PR campaign with a picture of the pope and the motto, “70 is the new 40!”

If Fisher does take over Pell’s old job, English-speaking Catholics around the world will be hearing more from him on this and many other topics.

Church as field hospital in Ukraine

Pope Francis has called the Catholic church to be a “field hospital” where the wounds of humanity are cured. That may seem a metaphor elsewhere, but in Ukraine it’s a decidedly literal description of the role played by religious leaders during the recent Maidan protests that swept President Viktor Yanukovich from power.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, leader of Ukraine’s Greek-Catholic church, told reporters in Rome Feb. 25 that the Latin Catholic cathedral of Kiev was converted into a makeshift field hospital during the recent uprising that saw at least 100 people killed by security forces and hundreds more injured.

At times, he said, emergency surgeries were performed on the church’s main altar.

The Greek Catholic church in Ukraine is the largest of the 22 Eastern churches in communion with the pope, with more than 3 million followers in Ukraine and around 5.5 million worldwide, and it knows something about persecution.

During the Soviet period it was the world’s largest illegal religious body, with scores of bishops, clergy and faithful ending up as martyrs. Pope John Paul II beatified more than two dozen victims during a trip to the country in 2001, and most experts believe the totals are in the thousands.

Shevchuk told reporters gathered at the Rome headquarters of Vatican Radio that the church was once again in the firing line during the recent uprisings, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other members of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, including Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim leaders.

He warned that although Yanukovich has fallen, the threats aren’t over.

“The danger that our neighbor (Russia) will provoke a civil war has not passed,” Shevchuk said, issuing what he called an urgent appeal for “international solidarity” to thwart this “imminent risk.”

The 43-year-old Shevchuk has emerged as one of the most forceful international advocates for the Maidan protestors, who he insisted are not “nationalist extremists” but rather supporters of a “free, democratic, and European” Ukraine.

He rejected the common way of framing the conflict as between pro-Western and pro-Russian elements.

“In Maidan, we spoke both Russian and Ukrainian,” he said. “This was a conflict between civil society and a corrupt and unjust government.”

Shevchuk also stressed that Ukraine’s Catholic leaders, typically seen as pro-Western, and their Orthodox counterparts, often seen as pro-Russian, were in lockstep.

“The situation was changing every hour, and everyone was making their own declarations on the fly,” he said. “Later when we compared notes, we had all said the same things.”

His bottom line was a blunt warning not to think the drama is finished.

“I want to ask the Europeans to wake up,” he said. The young Ukrainians who put their lives on the line in Maidan square did so to defend European values of freedom and human dignity, he said. If the West abandons them now, “it will provoke a huge loss of faith.”

The end of history?

Liberation theology was probably the most acclaimed, and most controversial, current in Catholic theology in the second half of the 20th century. Born in Latin America, it strove to place the church on the side of the poor in struggles for justice and social change. For fans it was a long-overdue recovery of the Gospel. Critics derided it as an attempt to sprinkle holy water over the rhetoric of Marxist class struggle.

The leading symbols of those reactions were, respectively, a German prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith named Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, and a mild-mannered Peruvian theologian named Gustavo Gutierrez, whose seminal 1971 book, “Teología de la liberación,” gave the movement its name.

Imagine the symbolism, then, when Gutierrez stood Tuesday night on a Vatican stage linked arm-in-arm with another German doctrinal czar, who for the occasion even sported a Peruvian poncho.

As one colleague in the media remarked that night, the spirit of détente almost felt like “the end of history.”

In truth, the scene of Gutierrez and Cardinal Gerhard Müller together really wasn’t all that surprising. The two men are close friends, and every year since 1998, Müller has traveled to Peru to take a course from Gutierrez and to spend time living with farmers in a rural parish near the border with Bolivia.

The two were joined Tuesday night by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, a churchman who’s long been sympathetic to the liberation theologians and who was appointed last April by Pope Francis as the coordinator of his “G8” council of cardinal advisors.

Among other things, Rodriguez Maradiaga told the story of a meeting involving himself, Gutierrez and Ratzinger when Ratzinger was still the doctrinal czar under Pope John Paul II, in which the air was cleared regarding charges that Gutierrez’s writings were heterodox.

Long before Tuesday night the old wounds over liberation theology largely had been healed, and a moderate consensus has now taken hold: Yes to the church’s preferential option for the poor, no to Marxism, class struggle, and violence.

Still, anyone with even a passing sense of history couldn’t help but be fairly dazzled. Perhaps it goes to how that if you wait long enough — and sometimes, to be sure, that wait ismeasured in eons — Catholicism’s default setting for compromise, for both/and solutions to thorny problems, generally will assert itself.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. Contact him at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook, www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr. Inés San Martín contributed reporting for this column.
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