Rev. Thomas Reese on Four Powers the Pope Needs to Grant the New Chief of Vatican Finances

The Rev. Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves in 2019. Photo by Robert Ballecer, courtesy of Society of Jesus

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


If you have to ask a Jesuit to straighten out your finances, you are in big trouble.

Yet that is what Pope Francis has done.

True, some of us can balance our checkbooks, but that is not our charism.

In the late 1980s, I was handed the books by the director of a Jesuit think tank where I worked, because he knew I had written a dissertation on the politics of taxation and worked for a tax reform lobby. He figured I was not afraid of numbers. I used Quicken to organize the accounts into various funds matching the center’s projects. It took me months to understand that a foundation grant had to be listed as a liability, not an asset.

When I arrived at America magazine in June 1998, the books were kept in a homemade DOS-based system that only two people at the company understood. It could not create intelligible reports or even print checks. I decreed that in the new fiscal year, a month after I took over, we would begin using QuickBooks. Everyone in the business office hated me. My biggest mistake was not forcing them to take classes in QuickBooks; they said they could learn it on their own. I ended up teaching it to them.

The point being that among Jesuits, I have been considered almost a genius when it comes to finances, when in fact I was just a glorified bookkeeper. That is why Jesuit institutions hire laypeople to take care of finances. Presidents of our high schools and universities must understand enough to know how to keep out of the red, but the details are left to lay finance officers. Finances and budgets are reviewed by lay boards of trustees.

So when Pope Francis asked Spanish Jesuit Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves to be the head of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, the job formerly held by Cardinal George Pell, who was convicted of child abuse by an Australian court, I had one reaction: Good luck, Juan, I will pray for you.

If you have to ask a Jesuit to straighten out your finances, you are in big trouble.

Yet that is what Pope Francis has done.

True, some of us can balance our checkbooks, but that is not our charism.

In the late 1980s, I was handed the books by the director of a Jesuit think tank where I worked, because he knew I had written a dissertation on the politics of taxation and worked for a tax reform lobby. He figured I was not afraid of numbers. I used Quicken to organize the accounts into various funds matching the center’s projects. It took me months to understand that a foundation grant had to be listed as a liability, not an asset.

When I arrived at America magazine in June 1998, the books were kept in a homemade DOS-based system that only two people at the company understood. It could not create intelligible reports or even print checks. I decreed that in the new fiscal year, a month after I took over, we would begin using QuickBooks. Everyone in the business office hated me. My biggest mistake was not forcing them to take classes in QuickBooks; they said they could learn it on their own. I ended up teaching it to them.

The point being that among Jesuits, I have been considered almost a genius when it comes to finances, when in fact I was just a glorified bookkeeper. That is why Jesuit institutions hire laypeople to take care of finances. Presidents of our high schools and universities must understand enough to know how to keep out of the red, but the details are left to lay finance officers. Finances and budgets are reviewed by lay boards of trustees.

So when Pope Francis asked Spanish Jesuit Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves to be the head of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, the job formerly held by Cardinal George Pell, who was convicted of child abuse by an Australian court, I had one reaction: Good luck, Juan, I will pray for you.

Vatican finances are complicated, but it is not rocket science. Many U.S. universities have larger operations.

As I explained in my book “Inside the Vatican,” there are multiple financial units in the Vatican. The biggest are the Vatican City State, the Holy See (Roman Curia and the Secretariat of State) and the Institute for the Works of Religion, known as the IOR, or Vatican bank. There are numerous other pockets of money, but these are the big ones.

The Vatican City State is analogous to the nonacademic entities at a university: buildings and grounds, security, stores, museums, etc. With more than 1,000 employees (mostly lay and Italian) and contracts for supplies and services, there is potential for corruption.

Within the Holy See itself, the Roman Curia is a glorified bureaucracy for dealing with internal church issues. There is limited opportunity for corruption here — the church no longer sells indulgences or annulments — although the Curia’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples has money, officially designated for the missions.

Including the Secretariat of State, the Holy See has more than 2,000 employees, both lay and clergy. Recently, the secretariat has been embroiled in controversy over real estate investments in London.

The Vatican bank takes deposits from religious entities and Vatican employees and invests the deposits.

The Vatican bank was the source of much bad publicity in 1982 with the Banco Ambrosiano scandal and accusations of money laundering. At the cost of millions of dollars for consultants, including forensic accountants, the IOR was cleaned up. Sadly, other parts of the Vatican were not.

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Source: Religion News Service