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Feb 27, 2014

A 'faithful and wise' 2IC: George Pell now rules the Catholic world

Australian Cardinal George Pell is among the three most powerful people in the Catholic world. Could Pope be next? Vaticanologist Michael Hewitt-Gleeson examines the new power structures in Rome.

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The oldest multinational in the world, and in many ways the biggest, is the Vatican.

Google is the most valuable multinational in the world today and can trace its history back to 1998. Australia’s BHP was originally founded over a hundred years ago. But the oldest multinational in the world, and in many ways the biggest, is the Vatican: 2000 years of history back to the Roman Empire. And it’s still front-page news — in every subject from economics and education to healthcare and geopolitics, the Vatican is engaged.

The new CEO, Pope Francis, has had the job for less than a year and is currently transforming his global organisation from the top down and the bottom up. From today, the Vatican will be led by a triumvirate: the Pope, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Economy. And the third of those, George Pell, is an Australian. Only the Pope himself is more powerful.

In creating Pell’s appointment as the founding cardinal-prefect of the new Secretariat of the Economy, Francis issued his motu proprio (personal decree) under the Latin title “fidelis dispensator et prudens” — a faithful and wise manager.

Who is this faithful and wise manager  put in charge of all the Vatican finances? What is he likely to do? Is he likely to succeed at all? Is he even likely to survive? Could he become the next Pope? All of that is being deeply discussed in cafes and chatrooms, boardrooms and palaces around the world. We can start here with a few observations and a speculation or two.

There are, in fact, two George Pells: the Australian view and the international view. I spent a couple of hours last night reviewing the Australian media on Pell, and it seems very monotonous, predictable and repetitive. There’s a lot of “cut-and-paste” commentary (my own comments in Crikey included). When you trawl through the last decade you are left with the view of an unpopular cleric who has never captured the hearts and minds of Australians and who overwhelmingly carries the responsibility of the Church’s monumental and culpable failure regarding the widespread abuse of children under its care.

Overseas it’s different. He speaks fluent Italian and is well-regarded in Rome. He is seen as an approachable Aussie sports fan who is also an Oxford PhD. As cardinals go, he is articulate and urbane but neither pompous nor effete. Although Australia has only 5% of the world’s Catholics they run a significant number of education and healthcare institutions, and Pell enjoys an enviable record of successful financial management compared to many countries in the Catholic world. From the Vatican’s viewpoint, Pell’s World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 was regarded as one of the best ever.

So after his duties at the royal commission in March, Pell will leave Australia and go to Rome to take up his new role as the Vatican’s financial tsar. It’s a big one:

“… which will have authority over all economic and administrative activities within the Holy See and the Vatican City State. The Secretariat will be responsible, among other things, for preparing an annual budget for the Holy See and Vatican City State as well as financial planning and various support functions such as human resources and procurement. The Secretariat will also be required to prepare detailed financial statements of the Holy See and Vatican State.”

Will Pell succeed? Pope Francis thinks he will; that’s not a bad start. Francis has certainly created the mega-position that gives him all the authority and power he will need to get the job done. Pell has both the experience and the confidence to take it on.

Will he survive? Well, depending on what you believe about the fate of Pope Luciani 40 years ago that’s either a silly question or a genuine question of security. David Yallop’s book In God’s Name tells the story of a pope who set out to clean up the Vatican Bank and was dead within a month amid rumours of cover-ups and secret societies, Mafia, Opus Dei and the murder of dodgy bankers. Tales of corruption and money laundering have continued over the years. Currently, there is the trial of Monsignor Nunzio Scarano and two others for money laundering $27 million for friends and contacts in Naples. It is difficult from where we are in Australia to know how seriously to take these issues of security.

My speculation is that Pell will also try to upgrade and revamp the Vatican media operation in Rome. Pell’s experience with Australian media has been a big learning curve. He knows how effective the Australian media is. He understands the strategic role that media now plays in geopolitics. The Vatican has a number of media assets, including a 150-year-old newspaper and a global radio network, but these are under-used and lack strategic vision. My bet is that Pell can supply the vision and the strategy to turn Vatican media into a real strategic player. Stay tuned.

Lastly, the discussion has already begun about Francis’ successor. Who are the papabili, as they’re called, the possible favourites for the next election? Francis is 76, energetic and in good health — the discussion is relevant but not imminent. The Secretary of State has always been popeable; Cardinal Ratzinger was elected from that position. Now that we have a Secretary of the Economy on a par with the Secretary of State, I think we can say that Pell is now popeable. A few years ago Australia had its first saint (much due to Cardinal Pell) — the first Australian Pope could be next.

*Michael Hewitt-Gleeson is a Melbourne writer at Vaticanology.net and has been a Vaticanologist for 30 years

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