When Pope Benedict XVI resigned last winter and the horse race began to find his replacement, a debate broke inside and outside the Vatican about the ideal qualities of any new leader of the world's one billion Catholics. Should he be a man of God and a brilliant theologian? Or a reformer who could clean up the sclerotic, scandal-prone Vatican bureaucracy; a sort of Jack Welch in a white cassock and zucchetto?
With Pope Francis, who was elected in March, it appears they are getting both – Jesus Christ with an MBA, to use a term favoured by the National Catholic Reporter's Father Thomas Reese.
The latest evidence of Francis's business-like approach to Vatican reform came Wednesday evening, when he took the broom to the Vatican bank, officially known as the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR). Out went four of the five cardinals who sat on the Commission of Cardinals, the body overseeing the bank whose duties include appointing the bank's president, approving strategy and acting as a link to the lay board of superintendence.
One of the five casualties was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was the Vatican's all-powerful secretary of state under Benedict. His mandate and the mandates of the three others who were shown the door were confirmed by Benedict only 11 months ago, an indication that Francis is prepared to move aggressively to fix what is broken and damn any deals made by his predecessor. Another victim was Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, who until last year employed Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, an accountant who is on trial for allegedly trying to smuggle almost €20-million in cash into Italy from Switzerland.
In came some younger cardinals and some older ones, each presumably chosen because he has no loyalty to the old regime and is prepared to clean up an institution that had been an eternal embarrassment to Benedict and threatened to do the same to Francis. Among the fresh faces at the bank is Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins, who is known to be financially astute. In a brief statement on Wednesday, he said that he was "honoured" to have been picked by Pope Francis to serve on the bank's commission even if he hinted that he wasn't exactly sure what the job would entail.
To be fair to Benedict, it was he who acknowledged that the bank wasn't working and got the reform machine into gear. In his waning months as pope, he appointed Ernst von Freyberg, a German manager and corporate finance expert, as the bank's president. Mr. Freyberg vowed to take a "zero tolerance" approach to suspicious transactions at the bank, which is under investigation by the Italian authorities for suspected money laundering.
Mr. Freyberg and his new team have closed suspicious accounts, some of which may have been linked to criminal activity, and hired Promontory Financial Group, an international risk management and regulatory compliance firm, to ensure the bank meets globally accepted transparency standards and is creating internal controls to ensure it does not become a money laundering front. The appointments of Cardinal Collins and the other four can be taken as evidence that Pope Francis doesn't think the bank overhaul is moving quickly enough; he has not ruled out closing the bank.
While the ouster of the five cardinals on Wednesday from the bank was dramatic, it was not out of character for Francis, who has put it on record that the entire Vatican bureaucracy is in for a shakeup. The changes are bound to make the Vatican's operating structure less Italian, less associated with former pope Benedict, more international (to reflect the slow-motion suicide of the bank in Italy and the rest of Europe and its growth in Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America) and more based on merit instead of classic Italian-style cronyism. Francis apparently knows well that a dysfunctional bureaucracy can only hamper the Church's evangelical mission.
In December at the Vatican, Pope Francis warned the cardinals that the church's leadership risked drifting "towards mediocrity." He said the Curia (also called the Roman Curia), the Vatican's governing body, was in danger of becoming "a ponderous, bureaucratic customhouse." He warned the prelates to become "conscientious objectors" to gossip.
Pope Francis's cleanup effort may move slowly, or may outright fail. He is an old man and may not have a lot of time to fix a governing apparatus that thinks in centuries, not months or years. But if Wednesday's shakeup at the Vatican bank if any indication, he is pope who is prepared to die trying to get the Vatican ship in order.