The report carried in Crikey on the significance of the appointment of Cardinal George Pell to his new role at the Vatican is full of so many inaccuracies and so much hype from an obvious devotee that it seemed to me more an exercise in public relations on behalf of His Eminence than anything else.

Firstly, the job. It is just fanciful to see this position as anything of the type your correspondent reports it as. Other devotees (such as Greg Craven of the Catholic University in Sydney) have suggested similar exaggerations: that the appointment is to be likened to that of a treasurer in the Westminster system of cabinet government.

Unless I missed something, I don’t see any evidence of participatory democracy or cabinet governance being exercised in a jurisdiction where a supreme monarch holds all powers.

Let’s get real. The Vatican is a jurisdiction of 12 square miles in central Rome. Its annual budget is about 120 million euros — a fraction of the budget of, say, Melbourne City Council or the Sydney County Council.

Even the archdioceses of Sydney and Melbourne would dwarf the Vatican for assets, turnover and salaried employees (there are only 2000 to 3000 at last count at the Vatican). It’s a small enterprise. It has a bank that acts as a credit union, most of whose depositors are the Roman headquarters of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of religious congregations of priests, brothers and nuns.

What is significant about Pell’s appointment is that he isn’t an Italian but one who studied there, like many Australian students for the priesthood, in the 1960s. He knows the place but is not of the place.

Vatican administration is notorious for its lack of co-ordination. It’s not so much the land of silos as of monstrous air traffic control towers, all working in the same space on different operating systems. And that is certainly the case with the Vatican’s finances, where, to everyone’s knowledge, business has been done for centuries in the usual Italian way.

The “mates’ network” in the NSW Catholic Right has nothing on the Vatican tenders, where someone who is related to someone else is told what price to charge and then gets the work; money laundering on behalf of “friendly” donors; asset sales at well below the book price to reward faithful and loyal advisers, benefactors or supporters; all these and more are well-documented practices.

What Pell will chair is a board of 15 members, seven of whom are financial management experts charged with bringing the financial operations to a standard of international best practice. It will be their job to implement what is currently a buzzword in Italy: trasparenza, transparency. There is no word in Italian for accountability. That will be the next challenge for Pell — not inventing the word but bringing in the reality.

Regarding your correspondent’s convenient but wrong view about the difference between the local and international reputation of Pell, I think he needs to look a little bit harder at the evidence. Word travels far and wide, and it did about Cardinal Pell a long time ago.

In fact the international view, and the tactical master stroke of the pope’s appointing Pell to the position, was reported in the Boston Globe by John Allen, one of the best-known Roman resident Vatican commentators. He characterised the pope’s appointment of Pell with a baseball term – a “triple play”: he gets a non-Italian to manage the Vatican’s housekeeping; he quarantines Cardinal Pell away from any influence over theology, bishops’ appointments, doctrine and discipline, the important posts at the Vatican that have world wide effect; and he removes a broadly unpopular leader, not of the Church in Australia but of the Archdiocese of Sydney.

Cardinal Ratzinger did not become pope after being secretary of state. Ratzinger’s arch-opponent, Cardinal Sodano, was secretary of state for most of the years pope John Paul II was in charge. And for most of the time the Polish pope was in Rome, Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, where he would identify heresies and excommunicate people. He became pope from that job but continued to oversee his old office.

As for the Vatican’s media agencies calling on Pell’s seasoned and mature experience with the media in Australia, has your correspondent seen His Eminence’s performance at a press conference he called soon after PM Gillard announced the Royal Commission into sex abuse? If not, he must be one of the few who hasn’t.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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