The issue of the state of Vatican finances returned to the limelight during these months of the pandemic. With the Vatican Museums closed, and donations down, how can the Holy See pay salaries, keep up services and avoid bankruptcy?
On May 3rd, the heads of Vatican dicasteries discussed the issues and looked at three possible economic outlooks. However, Fr. Juan Antonio Guerrero, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, projected a cautious optimism in an interview granted to Vatican News. It is particularly significant that the Vatican “minister of finance” described the Vatican balance sheet as “a balance sheet of mission.”
This is not a minor issue. How, to whom and why to allocate resources has always been an object of discussion.
It is not about possible corruption. It is really about the mission. For example, the Holy See has always placed some of its resources on communications. The establishment of Vatican Radio, done by the very same inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi, had as its purpose spreading the message of Christ everywhere in the world.
The Christian mission brings on many initiatives. Speaking of a “balance sheet of mission” is not wrong. But what kind of mission?
The Holy See financial activities are just a means that the Holy See uses to carry forward its mission. The Holy See needs revenues to do her works. There is no doubt about that.
The Holy See also has to make profits under the criteria of transparency and honesty: this is also a mission. The mission, in the end, does not lie just in delivering money to the poor, but also in giving an example to the rich. The mission of the Church is showing that one can earn profits in an honest way and without creating a new kind of poverty.
Not by chance, the Holy See submitted herself to the Council of Europe’s Moneyval evaluation. At the end of the first Moneyval report, issued in 2012, the Holy See wanted to add some final observations. They read that “the Holy See, acting also on behalf of Vatican City State, and coherently with its nature and international personality, as well as its religious and moral mission, entered the mutual evaluation procedures of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism (MONEYVAL).”
With these words, the Holy See wanted to clearly state that the commitment for financial transparency was consistent with the Church’s mission.
Nowadays, the mission of the Holy See is mostly considered in practical terms. It is not about shaping the world according to the Church’s mission. It is instead about being a witness to the world.
This rationale marks an absolute discontinuity with the original ideal, according to which the Gospel had to feed the Church, and especially the “Church-institution,” so that it could be credible. For this reason, the Popes worked to have a modern State that fit the international standards and that would be well-regarded in the concert of nations. The Vatican City State had to be above any episode of corruption and was set to be an example despite the circumstances. The Vatican City State advances the mission of the Church, and so does the Holy See.
Nowadays, it seems that the institutional perspective has been set aside. Rather than building a frame where everyone will be naturally led to behave correctly, there is a trend to merely condemn those who allegedly made mistakes. It is a more secular and law enforcement State, which is undoubtedly convenient for a public opinion that looks for monsters to display on front pages.
The issue of Vatican finances, by the way, is not just about the Holy See’s balance sheet, often in the negative in the last years. The question of Vatican finances is about the way the funds are used.
When Fr. Guerrero speaks about a “balance sheet of mission,” he indicates that he means the finances for the poor. His words echoed Pope Francis’. During a recent Mass celebrated in the Domus Sanctae Martahe, where he resides, Pope Francis said that “humanitarian agencies that employ most of the donations to their own salaries steal money from the poor, that get the 40 percent.”
Pope Francis has often said that the Church must not be a merciful NGO and called on the Church to become less worldly. The decrease of worldliness does not mean cutting salaries or donations. It is mostly about the idea – again – of the mission of the Church, which must permeate her every project. It is mainly about integral human development, to be reached via professional work.
When speaking about a balance sheet of mission, Fr. Guerrero should also discuss a further professionalization of the Church activity. A balance sheet of mission implies that even businesses with no revenues, as cultural or media ones, are paid as professional activities. The difference is not between earning a salary and volunteering. The final goal, spreading and living the word of God, makes the difference.
Professionally doing charity work is coherent with the Church mission, as it is using funds correct and transparently.
Ethical finances, or even Catholic finances, are well-known concepts today. There is also a famous institute for credit establishing the so-called “Catholic funds.” By the way, the funds are ethic not because of the funds, but because their administrator does the job honest and transparently.
As the Vatican is going to face a highly critical financial situation, these reflections on mission are needed and thought-provoking. In the end, the “red” because of the coronavirus lockdown adds to the red from bad investments.
In the meantime, the Institute for Religious Works is trying to have a clean cut with the past by initiating lawsuits against former managers or previous operations. In the end, these lawsuits might reveal that these financial operations were perfectly fine, while the IOR administration itself is negligent.
The Holy See will have a real “balance sheet of mission” only when some internal contradictions are solved. These contradictions are not just about scandals, but also about how to manage things. It seems there is no other end than supporting the poor. Isn’t supporting the Church and her institutions the best support to the poor one can ever make?