The tide turns for Cardinal Parolin and curial reform

Analysis

Roman reform is, famously, a long game to play. 

The Vatican thinks in centuries, the adage goes, and not according to the frenetic pace of the modern news cycle. But every so often a milestone is reached, and then the true pace of change can be measured, with sometimes surprising results. 

Last week Pope Francis issued Una migliore organizzazione, a legal directive finally stripping the Vatican’s Secretariat of State of financial responsibility. 

In the immediate context of the rumbling Vatican financial scandals of the last several years, the move is a dramatic indication of how seriously the pope takes the reported problems. 

In the broad landscape of curial reform, the move caps off a dramatic reversal for the Secretariat of State - long held to be the real power center of Vatican affairs - and for its leader, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. 

Just 18 months ago, a draft for a new Vatican constitution was set to place Parolin’s department the epicenter of curial power, and to install the cardinal himself as effectively Chief Operating Officer of the Vatican and a virtual vice-pope. Now Parolin’s department has been stripped of its most jealously guarded portfolio, and the cardinal has seen his power and influence hobbled, and publicly.

Gone is the Secretariat’s status as the Vatican’s “third bank,” gone is its control of a massive asset and investment portfolio estimated to be worth (at least until recently) more than a billion euros. 

Gone is its control of Peter’s Pence, gone its custody of the pope’s private discretionary fund; both of which it has been accused of using to underwrite and shore up speculative and suspicious investments.

Gone is its financial independence. From now on, its budget will be overseen and approved by the Secretariat for the Economy.

Gone, too, is the ability of Vatican officials to sit as directors of companies meant to serve as Vatican investment vehicles; a pointed nod to the case of Fabrizio Tirabassi, the lay secretariat official who was made a director of Gutt SA even as the Italian businessman Gianluigi Torzi was allegedly using his control of the company to extort the Vatican. 

Control of the secretariat’s sprawling assets is now placed firmly under the control of APSA, the Vatican’s sovereign wealth fund and treasury department, and the Secretariat for the Economy, the department set up by Pope Francis nearly seven years ago to usher in a new kind of transparency and accountability, under the leadership of Cardinal Geroge Pell.

To understand the sea change which Una migliore organizzazione represents, it is worth recalling that it was the Secretariat of State, under Cardinal Parolin and then-Archbishop Angelo Becciu, who fought Pell’s early push for centralized accounting and auditing procedures to a standstill, successfully cancelling a planned external audit of all curial departments and pointedly resisting, under claims of the department’s sovereign prerogatives, efforts to account for the very assets of which it has now lost control.

The Roman curia is often compared, not always unreasonably, to a renaissance court in how it functions. And in any court, the power of the purse carries real weight; weight Cardinal Parolin - long touted as a leading contender in a future conclave - clearly no longer has.

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The extent to which Parolin’s influence and control over curial affairs has waned in the last year and a half seems hard to overestimate. 

In July of 2019, a revised draft of Praedicate Evangelium, the new governing constitution for the curia, was circulated. In that draft, which was meant to be given final approval by Franics in September last year, Parolin’s department - after being originally scheduled for downsizing or even breaking up - was placed at the center of a revised Vatican, with Parolin in charge of what decisions made it to the papal desk for approval. 

But, since that time, the Secretariat of State has come under continued scrutiny over a series of financial scandals, scandals which appear to have rapidly sapped Parolin’s credibility with the pope, and his sway in curial affairs. 

The first real sign of the extent to which a rumbling Vatican investigation into the secretariat’s finances has slowly eroded its credibility and Parolin’s crucial clout came in March of this year.

On March 6, the Vatican Press Office announced the creation of a new General Directorate of Personnel within the Secretariat of State. The new office was to take control of all personnel matters for every curial department, as well as institutions like the IOR (often called the Vatican Bank) and charitable foundations. 

The plan, formally proposed by Parolin’s two closest allies in the drafting of Praedicate Evangelium, Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, would have given the Secretariat of State enormous influence over Vatican appointments. Instead, it was hastily cancelled within 24 hours, with signs pointing to a failed attempt to bounce the pope into approving the plan after the fact - much the same way the secretariat cancelled the Pell audit in 2016.

Since then, Parolin has been removed from the oversight board of the IOR, the first time the Secretary of State has not had a seat, and watched as Francis created a special Commission for Reserved Matters to oversee and approve the sensitive sovereign expenditures he and Becciu used to justify shielding their department’s financial affairs from scrutiny. 

It remains to be seen if 2021 will bring the release of a final draft of Praedicate Evangelium and the ultimate arrival of Francis’s great project of curial reform. 

What does seem clear, for now at least, is that it is unlikely to deliver the kind of expanded role for Parolin and his department that once seemed sure. For all the supposed glacial pace of Vatican affairs, the last 18 months have seen the once papabile cardinal go from ascending admiral of the Vatican fleet to captain of a curial Titanic.

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