New body will seek 'a more careful organisation' of Vatican economic activities

Pope Francis has created a new commission to investigate current accounting practices among all Vatican offices and bodies and to help devise new strategies for greater fiscal responsibility and transparency.

The new pontifical commission of business and legal experts will “offer technical support” and “develop strategic solutions” to help the Vatican simplify and better coordinate its scattered resources, budgets, properties and assets, and create “a more careful organisation of the economic activities of all Vatican administrative offices”.

The Vatican announced the creation of the new commission today, saying its eight members would “begin its work as soon as possible” with its first meeting scheduled right after the Pope returns from Brazil on July 29.

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The Pope authorised the creation of the Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See on July 18 with a document called a “chirograph”, a brief text on a very limited subject.

The Vatican said the goal of the commission is to find ways that help the Vatican “to avoid the misuse of economic resources; to improve transparency in the process of purchasing goods and services; to refine the administration of goods and real estate; to work with ever greater prudence in the financial sphere; to ensure correct application of accounting principles; and to guarantee health care and social security benefits to all those eligible”.

The commission will also “be able to collaborate, on request, with the working Group of Eight cardinals in drafting a plan for the reform” of the curia through revision of the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus”.

The new commission, which is made up of experts in the field of law, economics, business and finance, is the third independent body the Pope has created since his March election to help him in his efforts to reform the central offices of the church.

He created an international panel of cardinals, the so-called Group of Eight, in April to advise him on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, and he appointed a five-member papal commission in June to review the activities and mission of the Vatican bank. All three advisory bodies are charged with studying specific problems and concerns, drawing up concrete solutions, then relaying all of their studies and results directly to the pope.

The groups do not substitute or override the Vatican’s current supervising authorities. But they have wide powers in that no Vatican office’s policy of confidentiality or other legal restrictions will be allowed to limit or impede any of the groups’ right to access and investigate the “documents, data and information necessary to carry out the duties entrusted to it”, the papal documents have said.

Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters that the new commission will be covering “an extremely broad” array of Vatican offices, including the commission overseeing Vatican City State, the Vatican’s investment agency (APSA), the Vatican basilicas, as well as every individual office and organization within the Vatican.

The new commission is made up eight people. All but one are lay people. One is a woman and two already consult or provide financial oversight for the Vatican. All but one, a former government minister from Singapore, are from Europe.

Mgr Lucio Vallejo Balda, the commission’s secretary, is the group’s delegate charged with collecting the information and documents needed for its work. He is also secretary of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, the Vatican’s budget management office.

Maltese economist Joseph Zahra is the commission’s president and is already an auditor of the Vatican’s budget management office.

Some of the other members include: Francesca Chaouqui, an Italian who works in public relations and communications for Ernst and Young Italy, and George Yeo, a former government Cabinet minister in Singapore, who served at different times as minister of health, of information and the arts, of trade and industry, and of foreign affairs.

The papal document said the commission was formed after “reflections on the positive numbers,” that is, surpluses, in this year’s Vatican budget reports and after getting input from many of the world’s cardinals, bishops and consultants.

The Pope had discussed the idea of creating the new commission when he recently met the Council of Cardinals for the Study of the Organisational and Economic Problems of the Holy See, which regularly reviews the Vatican budgets.

South African Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Durban, a council member, said the Pope told the cardinals he wanted a study group to look at issues such as transparency and accountability and come up with ways the Vatican could better manage “what, why and how” monetary resources are being used by the different offices and entities.

Cardinal Napier told the US Catholic News Service on July 4 that the Pope said “certain things needed to be put right” after an external group of international auditors found that “quite a few things need attention.”

The South African cardinal said the biggest problem is the lack of a “unified finance controller and policy” in the Vatican. Some offices work together and some are independent when it comes to budgeting and oversight. The patchwork approach, he said, means “no one knows what’s going on” in the big picture.

He said that coming from an Anglo-Saxon culture meant that he is used to a budgeting approach that involves the allocation of a set amount of resources along with a review of how the resources were used and why.

But he said he found the method of accounting being used at the Vatican seemed to involve simply calculating annual profits and losses, and comparing those figures to past years.

“For us it’s a bit strange. It doesn’t seem normal,” he said, but until now no one at the Vatican seemed to understand why he and other cardinals found that odd.

But, he said, “it’s quite clear Pope Francis was listening very carefully” during the pre-conclave meetings in March during which the world’s cardinal made strong recommendations for greater reforms. The Pope “is going to make sure that something will happen”, the cardinal said.

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