**This post has been updated**
Last week a letter, signed by Archbishop Becciu of the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, was circulated to all the departments of the Vatican. It informed them that PricewaterhouseCoopers’ independent audit of the finances of the Curia had been “suspended”.
This was widely interpreted as a bold and public display of authority by the Secretariat of State over a process which is being directly overseen by Cardinal Pell and the Council and Secretariat for the Economy, which were created by Francis in 2014 to lead the process of financial reform and accountability across the Curia. The accepted narrative quickly became that this move was both a personal attack on the authority of Cardinal Pell, and an attempt to halt the process of reform and full transparency in its tracks.
While the simple fact of the suspension raises a host of questions about the future of curial reform, the manner in which it occurred is perhaps even more significant. When Pope Francis created the Council and the Secretariat for the Economy, he made it clear in their statutes that they answered directly and only to the Pope, they were answerable to no other curial department. Within a few days of the announcement of the suspension of PwC’s audit, the Secretariat of State was beginning to face questions not only about why the audit was suspended, but on whose authority.
There then followed a series of formal and informal briefings about the why and how of the suspension. It was variously suggested by “sources” at the Secretariat of State, and duly reported, that the contract with PwC was somehow flawed, that it had not been signed by the right people, or not originated in the correct department and, finally, that the C9 Council of cardinals needed to review it before the audit could proceed.
A subsequent clarification circulated by the Secretariat for the Economy, and in consultation with the Vatican Press Office, systematically dismissed each of these explanations. It reiterated that PwC’s contract is with the Council for the Economy which, as is clear in its Statutes, is the competent body for the appointment of external auditors not – and this was explicitly emphasised in the clarification – the Secretariat of State, and certainly not the C9, which is a purely advisory body for the Holy Father and has no formal role in the governance of the Holy See.
It also underlined that the contract was signed by the Chair of the Council’s Audit Committee, and co-signed by Cardinal Pell as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, following an unanimous resolution of the Council to appoint PwC and a direction to proceed.
In other words, according to the Secretariat for the Economy, not only were there no problems with the contract, even if there were the Secretariat of State has no power to intervene in the process or call a halt to the audit. The only possible way in which the announcement signed by Archbishop Becciu could have had legal force was if he were delegated to write it by the Pope himself. Given the timeline of events and the subsequent obfuscations from the Secretariat of State, it seems, for the moment, that he did not.
While the clarification from the Secretariat of the Economy brings welcome legal certainty to events, it also leaves us with some serious questions.
If the Secretariat of State deliberately exceeded their authority, it has to be asked: why? The rationale given for what they did so far does not stand up to scrutiny, so the real motives for the events of last week remain unexplained.
As of this morning, the Holy See Press Office has circulated a further clarification stating the following:
“The suspension of auditing activities is not due to considerations linked to the integrity or quality of the work initiated by PwC, let alone the intention of one or more entities of the Holy See to block the reforms in progress. However, issues have emerged regarding the meaning and scope of certain clauses of the contract and their methods of implementation. Such elements will undergo the necessary examination. The decision to proceed in this way was taken after suitable consultations between the competent bodies and experts in the field.”
Given the previous denials from the Secretariat for the Economy that they had been consulted about the suspension beforehand, in particular Cardinal Pell who expressed his surprise at the decision, the “competent” bodies mentioned above must, we can only reasonably presume, have included the Holy Father himself. If this is the case, it renders the letter signed by Archbishop Becciu perfectly legally appropriate, as was said in my original post above. Though we remain none the wiser about the purpose of the various competing “clarifications” released by the different departments in the last few days.
For those still following the story now that there does not seem to be a canonical question at its heart, I would recommend Andrea Tornielli’s excellent analysis of the most recent clarification over at La Stampa.