VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis is opening the most critical week of his year-old papacy: Two commissions of inquiry on Vatican finance will report their recommendations for reform and preparations get under way for a summit on family issues that will deal with the widespread rejection by Catholics of church teaching on contraception, divorce and gay unions.
In between, Francis will preside over his first ceremony to formally welcome 19 new cardinals into the elite club of churchmen who will eventually elect his successor. In typical Francis style, the new cardinals hail from some of the poorest places on earth, including Haiti, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.
The first half of Francis' busy week will be devoted to the third meeting of his "Group of Eight" advisers, the senior cardinals representing every continent who Francis appointed to help him govern the church and overhaul the antiquated and inefficient Vatican bureaucracy. They are due to hear recommendations from two panels of experts on reforming the troubled Vatican bank and rationalizing the Holy See's overall financial and administrative structures.
Francis was elected with a mandate to reform the Roman Curia, as the Holy See administration is known, to make it more responsive to the needs of the 21st century Catholic Church. He wants to make the curia more of a support to bishops trying to spread the faith rather than an obstacle. He has made bureaucratic reform his first-year priority, paying special attention to the scandal-marred Vatican bank, long accused by Italian authorities as being an off-shore tax haven for well-connected Italians and, more recently, a place where money could be laundered.
On the eve of the G8 meeting, the head of the Vatican bank pleaded his case to Francis' hometown newspaper, telling Argentina's La Nacion daily that his process of reform hadn't yielded any "systematic violations" of the Vatican's anti-money laundering laws but just some "black sheep."
One of those black sheep is Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, an accountant in the Vatican's finance ministry who is currently on trial for allegedly trying to smuggle 20,000 euro ($26,000) from Switzerland to Italy, and is also accused in another case of using his Vatican bank accounts to launder money. The bank's top two managers resigned in July after Scarano was arrested.
"We're in a crucial moment," the bank president, Ernst Von Freyberg, told La Nacion. "The (bank) commission will hand in its report in the coming days, as will the commission on the economic affairs, and then the Holy Father will decide what to do."
While Von Freyberg said he didn't know if outright closure was an option, doing so would certainly deprive Francis of the 50 million euros a year the bank gives the pope for his works of charity.
Von Freyberg, Benedict XVI's last major appointment before resigning, outsourced his reform to the U.S. consulting firm Promontory Group. The other commission of inquiry, tasked with advising the Holy See on more structural reforms in its overall financial and administrative sphere, also brought in outside experts, tapping McKinsey & Co. to help modernize its communications operations and KPMG to bring its accounting up to international standards.
One of Francis' top advisers and a member of the G8, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, cautioned against any quick decisions being made by the pope after the commissions present their recommendations.
"Things of the Lord take time," Maradiaga told private TGCom24.
On a slightly more accelerated timetable are plans for the October meeting of bishops at the Vatican on family issues. A broader group of cardinals are expected to discuss the summit, or synod, in the second half of the week and then the main planning group gets down to work early next week.
Francis called the synod late last year and took the unusual step of commissioning surveys from ordinary Catholics about how they understand and practice church teaching relating to marriage, sex and other issues related to the family.
The results, at least those reported by bishops in Europe and the United States, have been an eye-opener: The church's core teachings on sexual morals, birth control, homosexuality, marriage and divorce were rejected as unrealistic and outdated by the vast majority of Catholics, who nevertheless said they were active in parish life and considered their faith vitally important.
Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida recently summarized the results of his survey, to which some 6,800 people responded. Most were older, married Catholics and regular churchgoers. But even they found church teaching out of synch with today's world.
"On the matter of artificial contraception the responses might be characterized by the saying, 'that train left the station long ago,'" he recently wrote. "Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) suggests the rejection of church teaching on this subject."
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