Wednesday, June 26, 2013

With His Own Hand, Francis Targets The Bank

While much of the beat waits with bated breath for this morning's expected Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, back in Rome, the Pope's launched a salvo on what's become one of his favorite punchlines, naming a five-member commission "in the general atmosphere of reform" to advise him on the Vatican Bank.

Like the old line goes, it's becoming ever clearer that Francis "never more serious than when [he's] joking." And to underscore his intent here, the boom was lowered in a rare "chirograph" letter – that is, a legal text drawn up by the Pope in his own handwriting. (The bank's roundhouse headquarters are seen above.)

While four senior Vatican prelates form the "guts" of the effort, the pontiff rounded out the group by naming Mary Ann Glendon – the Harvard Law professor and former US ambassador to the Holy See – to its membership. 

A veteran Roman hand and conservative favorite on both sides of the Atlantic, Glendon – the first woman named to lead the Holy See's delegation to a UN conference, who famously declined Notre Dame's Laetare Medal instead of sharing the stage with President Obama at the university's 2009 commencement – was one of two Americans tapped, alongside the Curia's "deputy chief of staff," the Assessore of the Secretariat of State, Oklahoma's own Msgr Peter Wells.

Joining them will be a trio of in-house heavyweights: the church's archivist-emeritus, Cardinal Raffaele Farina (notably, a Salesian confrere of the lame-duck Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone), the veteran diplomat and now Cardinal Proto-deacon Jean Louis Tauran, and the #2 of the Vatican's de facto legal office – the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Archbishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, a Spaniard designated as the group's "coordinator."

Formally dubbed the "Pontifical Advisory Commission on the Institute for the Works of Religion [IOR]" – the bank's official name – this morning's announcement said the move was born from "the Holy Father's desire to better grasp the juridical position and the activities of the Institute, [thus] to enable a better harmonizing of it with the mission of the universal church and the Apostolic See, in the more general context of the reforms that are opportune to be realized on the part of [all] the institutions that aid the Apostolic See."

Shortly after Francis' election, a flurry of speculation broke out that Papa Bergoglio was intent on closing the bank, whose decades of travails and links with scandal have arguably made it the Vatican's easiest whipping-boy of all. Already, the IOR is formally overseen by two entities: a commission of five cardinals and a separate supervisory board, whose secretary, Carl Anderson, is best known as the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, the global church's largest lay fraternal organization. 

Amid the IOR's failure to fully clear scrutiny of its activities by Europe's financial watchdogs, the board unceremoniously dumped the bank's president, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, last year, and in one of his final acts as Pope, Benedict XVI named a German, Ernst von Freyberg, to its helm in the days before his 28 February resignation.

Even if it's merely coincidental, it's nonetheless worth noting that the move on the bank coincides with the annual Peter's Pence collection, which is taken up worldwide on the weekend closest to Saturday's feast of Saints Peter and Paul to enable the pontiff's aid both for charitable works and humanitarian crises.

Given the remarkable response Francis has received over just more than 100 days in office, it wouldn't be surprising if this year's piatto shaped up as one for the record books. 
Then again, in just another of the off-the-cuff lines that've wrought horror behind the walls, the Pope threw a bucket of water on his own collection earlier this month, wryly observing in one of his morning homilies that "St Peter did not have a bank account."