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.

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 and has been a Vaticanologist for 30 years

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15 thoughts on “A ‘faithful and wise’ 2IC: George Pell now rules the Catholic world

  1. Steve777

    Interesting and informative article. Just one minor point – about 5 million Australians are Catholic, while there are about a billion Catholics worldwide, so Australia has about 0.5% of the world’s Catholics.

  2. mikeb

    The Catholic Church, like any behemoth, changes course slowly. Pope Francis seems to be pulling in the right direction but it remains to be seen how quickly change can happen. Here’s wishing Pell good luck because I think he needs it. Fiction writers will be inventing conspiracy theories about the new position as I type.

  3. angela pollard

    Well if Pell is papabile, then St Malachy’s prophesies must be true. The next pope will be the antichrist!

  4. zut alors

    I’m delighted Pell will be out of our sight in the luxurious confines of The Vatican. Better over there than here.


    Dr Steve Pieczenik a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under four US presidents claims that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a co-conspirator in Argentine Dirty Wars. Horatio Verbitsky has long maintained that Bergoglio likely endorsed the capture and torture of at least two members of his own order.

    The Argentine Church even provided the military with chaplains whose job it was to counsel the personnel who threw thousands of drugged subversives to their deaths over the ocean from aircraft.

    A charmer like this is probably hoping that Pell will be able to ring fence the corrupt IOR – the Institute for Works of Religion commonly known as the Vatican Bank with his own banker’s version of the Ellis Defence.

    Big George is going to find it a challenge. In 2012 the dubious banking giant JP Morgan Chase closed account no 1365 with the IOR over worries about unexplained money transfers. Even the crooks want to be at arms length from this crowd.

    The appointment raises the spectre of Archbishop Paul Markincus returning to his old haunt.

  6. Electric Lardyland

    Do we have an extradition treaty with the Vatican?

  7. Matt Hardin

    He’ll still be available to the Royal Commission, right? And to the courts if required?

  8. PaulM

    There’s an old Vatican saying. He who enters the conclave as Pope leaves as a Cardinal. That just about explains George Pell’s chances of being the next pope.

  9. AR

    men in dresses discussing Uganda.

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