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The Vatican finance trial is shedding light on the Secretariat of State

A hearing in the Vatican finance trial on May 20, 2022. / Vatican Media.

Vatican City, May 25, 2022 / 05:20 am (CNA).

With 10 defendants, the Vatican finance trial might be better handled as three different trials. Yet there is a common thread: the role of the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s most powerful dicastery.

The trial’s three latest hearings took place last week. On May 18-19, Cardinal Angelo Becciu answered questions from the Vatican’s promoter of justice (prosecutor), civil parties, and other lawyers.

During the lengthy interrogation, in which moments of tension were not lacking, Becciu underlined at one point that he “strongly doubts that the [Vatican’s] auditor general could have known the accounts of the [Secretariat of State’s] office.”

It is worth remembering that the trial’s origins lie in a report by the auditor general, who is responsible for financial audits of Vatican entities.

Becciu argued that the auditor could not have known the situation in detail because “the Secretariat of State was completely autonomous from a financial point of view.”

“To violate its autonomy, a specific mandate from the pope was needed,” Becciu said, “but that never happened. Indeed, in 2016, there was a rescript delivered to us by Cardinal Parolin which reaffirmed this autonomy.”

The year 2016 was a critical one. There were growing tensions between the Secretariat of State and the Secretariat for the Economy, then led by Cardinal George Pell. A major flashpoint was the economy secretariat’s decision to enter into an auditing contract with PricewaterhouseCoopers, which allowed the company also to audit the Secretariat of State’s accounts.

The Secretariat of State is a governing body that enjoyed special financial autonomy and, above all, confidentiality in its financial statements. Therefore, tensions were very high until the Holy See renegotiated the terms of the auditing contract.

Later in 2016, Pope Francis issued the motu proprioI beni temporali” (“The temporal goods”). It sought to better separate supervisory and administrative functions within the Vatican, removing some of the Secretariat for the Economy’s responsibilities and returning them to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA).

“The Secretariat of State was a dicastery, but a sui generis [unique] dicastery,” Becciu explained. “The norms originated from it; therefore, it could not undergo the norms.”

Pope Francis effectively put an end to this peculiarity of the Secretariat of State in 2020, when he decided to transfer responsibility for the administration of funds and investments from the Secretariat of State to APSA. This move arguably weakened the governing body.

But the governing body also had a specific role in helping the Roman Curia. During previous interrogations, Becciu emphasized that the annual Peter’s Pence collection brought in around 50 million euros (about $54 million). But the Holy See’s deficit was higher. It was therefore necessary, he suggested, to make investments to give the Holy See greater liquidity.

The investments were overseen by the Secretariat of State’s administrative office, which had established a complex financial architecture over the years, using various current accounts, including some located abroad, and always seeking out investments of a particular type.

This was also the case for the investment in a luxury London property, at the center of the trial, which Becciu said was overseen by the administrative office. “If there were critical issues and [his deputy Monsignor Alberto] Perlasca did not tell me, he was guilty of a grave fault,” Becciu said.

Peter’s Pence was not the only source of funds used to fill holes in the Vatican budget. The Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), commonly known as the “Vatican bank,” makes an annual donation to the Holy See. For several years, the IOR’s check had been for 50 million euros, mainly intended to “cover the expenses of Vatican Radio and the nunciatures.”

But in 2012, when the IOR’s assets were 86.6 million euros (around $93 million), the contributions began to decline in line with a drop in profits, finally settling at around 30 million euros ($32 million).

The Secretariat of State, as the central body of the Holy See, was called on not only to manage itself economically and make investments, but also to help the Holy See survive financially. Yet, as later events showed, it was not equipped for this demanding task.

Tirabassi, an official who worked for more than 30 years in the Secretariat of State, shed further light on the dicastery’s workings when he was interrogated on May 20.

He also emphasized that the Secretariat of State had a budget separate from those of other dicasteries. But only in recent times was that budget discussed with the Secretariat for the Economy. The Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, which operated from 1967 to 2016, mainly had a budgetary control function.

Tirabassi explained that when he arrived at the Secretariat of State, there was an Obolo Fund — Peter’s Pence is known in Italian as the “Obolo di San Pietro” — with an office in the dicastery dedicated to collecting donations.

The donations were managed by opening dedicated accounts in various banks and correspondent institutions (such as the IOR, APSA, Credito Artigiano, and Poste Italiana.) Within the IOR alone, “there were about 70 to 80 accounts outstanding.”

In the mid-1990s, this arrangement gave way to a more streamlined management of Vatican finances.

In light of the increasingly complicated requirements for financial transparency, managing all the accounts became too demanding. Thus, it was decided to make the resources converge in a single fund called the “Obolo Fund.” The Vatican’s promoter of justice described it as a “current account plan.”

“The Holy See was in difficulty,” recalled Tirabassi. “Moreover, the debt cost the Secretariat of State a lot. New accounting management was then suggested, dematerializing the existing accounts and enhancing the liquidity obtained from active assets.”

A new investment policy arose, increasingly focused on real estate assets, particularly acquiring buildings to house nunciatures, which are one of the highest costs.

The term “Obolo,” therefore, does not refer exclusively to Peter’s Pence, which the Secretariat of State has not managed for some time. In this instance, it refers to the fund managed by the Secretariat of State, which retained the name “Obolo” though it concerns the dicastery’s resources.

Becciu has repeatedly asserted that the Secretariat of State only used “its assets” for investments in the London property, rejecting suggestions that the annual sums raised by the Peter’s Pence collection were used.

Yet, even if the Peter’s Pence collections had been used, it would not have been illegal. The Obolo di San Pietro, an ancient institution, has been seen as a means of supporting the Holy See since at least the 19th century. Its primary purpose, therefore, is to support the institution, while also helping the poor.

Could it be possible that, in the incident that triggered the finance trial, the auditor general misunderstood the Vatican’s structures and their raison d’être? If that were the case, the whole process would have to be rethought.

Misunderstandings have been constant in these years of economic reform. A purely financial view tends to overlook the distinctive history and structures of the Holy See, which contain a series of checks and balances settled over time.

The Holy See has always tried to adhere to global standards without betraying its specificities. The risk now is that the Holy See is simply borrowing international norms without creating its own jurisprudence. If that is the case, then whatever the outcome of the trial, the Holy See will be institutionally weakened.

Pope Francis: ‘Ours is the age of fake news, collective superstitions, and pseudo-scientific truths’

Pope Francis’ general audience in St. Peter’s Square, May 25, 2022. / Vatican Media.

Vatican City, May 25, 2022 / 04:35 am (CNA).

Pope Francis said on Wednesday that Catholics today are living in an “age of fake news, collective superstitions, and pseudo-scientific truths.”

Reflecting on the Book of Ecclesiastes at his general audience on May 25, the pope suggested that the 21st century was marked not only by scientific knowledge but also what he called a “cultured witchcraft.”

“It is no coincidence that ours is the age of fake news, collective superstitions, and pseudo-scientific truths,” he said.

Speaking off the cuff, he went on: “It’s curious: in this culture of knowledge, of knowing everything, even of the precision of knowledge, a lot of witchcraft has spread, but cultured witchcraft.”

“It is witchcraft with a certain culture but that leads you to a life of superstition: on the one hand, to go forward with intelligence in knowing things down to the roots; on the other hand, the soul that needs something else and takes the path of superstitions, and ends up in witchcraft.”

The pope used the Italian word “stregoneria,” which can be translated as “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” or “black magic.”

Pope Francis’ general audience in St. Peter’s Square, May 25, 2022. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.
Pope Francis’ general audience in St. Peter’s Square, May 25, 2022. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

The pope’s live-streamed catechesis was the 11th in a cycle on old age that he began in February. He entered St. Peter’s Square in a white jeep, stopping to invite children in brightly colored clothes to join him for part of his journey among the pilgrims.

The jeep drove up to a raised platform in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, where the 85-year-old was helped to exit the vehicle and walk up to the white chair where he gave his address. The pope, who has made public appearances in a wheelchair since May 5 due to knee pain, used a cane.

In his reflection, Pope Francis focused on the famous refrain in Ecclesiastes — also known as the Book of Qoheleth — that “everything is vanity.”

“It is surprising to find in Holy Scripture these expressions that question the meaning of existence,” he said. “In reality, Qoheleth’s continuous vacillation between sense and non-sense is the ironic representation of an awareness of life that is detached from the passion for justice, of which God’s judgment is the guarantor.”

“And the book’s conclusion points the way out of the trial: ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man’ (12:13). This is the advice to resolve this problem.”

Pope Francis said that old age brought the challenge of “disenchantment,” which had to be resisted because of its “demoralizing effects.”

“If the elderly, who have seen it all by that time, keep intact their passion for justice, then there is hope for love, and also for faith,” he said.

“And for the contemporary world, the passage through this crisis, a healthy crisis, has become crucial. Why? Because a culture that presumes to measure everything and manipulate everything also ends up producing a collective demoralization of meaning, a demoralization of love, a demoralization of goodness.”

The pope said that collective demoralization sapped humanity’s will to act.

“In this form — cloaked in the trappings of science, but also very insensitive and very amoral — the modern quest for truth has been tempted to take leave of its passion for justice altogether. It no longer believes in its destiny, its promise, its redemption,” he commented.

“For our modern culture, which would like, in practice, to consign everything to the exact knowledge of things, the appearance of this new cynical reason — that combines knowledge and irresponsibility — is a harsh repercussion.”

“Indeed, the knowledge that exempts us from morality seems at first to be a source of freedom, of energy, but soon turns into a paralysis of the soul.”

Pope Francis said that the Book of Ecclesiastes captured this dynamic, in which “an omnipotence of knowledge” leads to “an impotence of the will.”

He noted that the early Church described this condition as “acedia,” which he said was not simply laziness or depression, but “the surrender to knowledge of the world devoid of any passion for justice and consequent action.”

He said: “The emptiness of meaning and lack of strength opened up by this knowledge, which rejects any ethical responsibility and any affection for the real good, is not harmless.”

“It not only takes away the strength for the desire for the good: by counterreaction, it opens the door to the aggressiveness of the forces of evil.”

“These are the forces of reason gone mad, made cynical by an excess of ideology.”

The pope noted that “weariness” was a hallmark of contemporary society.

“We were supposed to have produced widespread well-being and we tolerate a market that is scientifically selective with regard to health,” he said.

“We were supposed to have put an insuperable threshold for peace, and we see more and more ruthless wars against defenseless people.”

“Science advances, of course, and that is good. But the wisdom of life is something else entirely, and it seems to be stalled.”

Concluding his address, Pope Francis urged the elderly to help combat demoralization.

“They will be the ones to sow the hunger and thirst for justice in the young,” he said.

“Take courage, all of us older people! Take courage and go forward! We have a very great mission in the world.”

“But, please, we must not seek refuge in this somewhat non-concrete, unreal, rootless idealism — let us speak clearly — in the witchcraft of life.”

A summary of the pope’s catechesis was then read out in seven languages.

Addressing English-speaking Catholics, he said: “I greet the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors taking part in today’s Audience, especially those from Nigeria, Lebanon, and the United States of America.”

“In the joy of the Risen Christ, I invoke upon you and your families the loving mercy of God our Father. May the Lord bless you!”

In his closing remarks, Pope Francis lamented a school shooting in Texas.

A gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, southwest Texas, on May 24, killing at least 19 children and two adults.

The pope said: “My heart is broken for the massacre at the elementary school in Texas. I am praying for the children and the adults killed and their families.”

“It is time to say enough to the indiscriminate trafficking of weapons. Let us all work hard so that such tragedies can never happen again.”

His words were greeted with applause by pilgrims.

Pope Francis: ‘My heart is broken’ over Texas elementary school shooting

Pope Francis prays with journalists on the papal flight en route to South Korea on Aug. 14, 2014. / Alan Holdren/CNA.

Vatican City, May 25, 2022 / 03:08 am (CNA).

Pope Francis said on Wednesday that his heart was broken by the killing of at least 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Texas.

Speaking at the end of his general audience in St. Peter’s Square on May 25, he said: “My heart is broken for the massacre at the elementary school in Texas. I am praying for the children and the adults killed and their families.”

“It is time to say enough to the indiscriminate trafficking of weapons. Let us all work hard so that such tragedies can never happen again.”

His words were greeted with applause by pilgrims.

The pope was speaking after a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, southwest Texas, on May 24, killing 21 people.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that officers were believed to have killed the shooter, a local 18-year-old identified as Salvador Ramos.

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Joe Donnelly said on May 25: "We are witnessing a sickness, and the face of evil. We continue to pray for these blessed children and other wonderful people who were killed and their families. We are crushed by this loss."

Ambassador Chiara Porro, the Australian ambassador to the Holy See, responded: "Australia grieves with you. Our heartfelt condolences to all those affected by the horrific shootings."

”The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said on May 24 that the country was facing an “epidemic of evil and violence.”

“There have been too many school shootings, too much killing of the innocent,” said the USCCB’s public affairs director Chieko Noguchi in a statement.

“Our Catholic faith calls us to pray for those who have died and to bind the wounds of others, and we join our prayers along with the community in Uvalde and Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller.”

“As we do so, each of us also needs to search our souls for ways that we can do more to understand this epidemic of evil and violence and implore our elected officials to help us take action.”

Hours before the general audience, Archbishop Garcia-Siller appealed to Pope Francis to pray for the victims of the shooting in his San Antonio archdiocese.

He tweeted: “Holy Father Pope Francis, say some prayers for the souls of our little ones killed today and two teachers. Uvalde is in mourning. The families are having a very dark time. Your prayer will do good to them.”

He added in Spanish: “Gracias por ayudarnos. Queremos ser como Jesús. Cuente con nuestra oración” (“Thank you for helping us. We want to be like Jesus. Count on our prayers”).

Texas elementary school shooting: US Catholic bishops lament ‘epidemic of evil and violence’

State troopers stand outside of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022. - An 18-year-old gunman killed 14 children and a teacher at an elementary school in Texas on Tuesday, according to the state's governor, in the nation's deadliest school shooting in years. / Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 25, 2022 / 02:45 am (CNA).

The U.S. Catholic bishops said on Tuesday that the country was facing an “epidemic of evil and violence” after a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Texas.

In a statement issued on May 24, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) urged citizens to “implore our elected officials to help us take action.”

The USCCB issued the statement after a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, southwest Texas, killing 21 people.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that officers were believed to have killed the shooter, a local 18-year-old identified as Salvador Ramos.

The statement from the USCCB’s public affairs director Chieko Noguchi said: “There have been too many school shootings, too much killing of the innocent. Our Catholic faith calls us to pray for those who have died and to bind the wounds of others, and we join our prayers along with the community in Uvalde and Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller.”

“As we do so, each of us also needs to search our souls for ways that we can do more to understand this epidemic of evil and violence and implore our elected officials to help us take action.”

Responding to the shooting on May 24, San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller tweeted: “God have mercy on our children, their families, their communities. Darkness is dense with one more shooting in our country.”

“Let us help one another to spark light and warmth. May we keep each other in company. Prayers are needed.”

The U.S. bishops deplored mass shootings in New York State and California earlier this month.

In a May 16 statement, the USSCB said that it continued to “advocate for an end to violence,” citing the Church’s consistent appeals for “rational yet effective forms of regulation of dangerous weapons.”

The USCCB spoke out after a gunman killed 10 people and injured three others on May 14 at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and a shooter killed one person and wounded five others on May 15 at a church in Laguna Woods, California.

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