A French-Spanish theologian has said that the Vatican financial scandals are signals of the “end of the pontifical monarchy”.

Driving the news

“We are witnessing a systemic crisis of the Catholic Church, not in its divine constitution, as understood by the Catholics, but in a historical modality which everyone realizes can no longer function. Money is a measure of this reality”, Dominican theologian Jean-Miguel Garrigues explained to Le Monde.

Garrigues, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, was referring specifically to the controversial Vatican purchase of luxury London real estate, which the theologian said had caught Pope Francis up in a “double dilemma”.

First, Pope Francis “wants to improve the financial situation of the Vatican and to do so needs international financial institutions, such as Moneyval [the committee of the Council of Europe responsible for assessing the efforts of members in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing] or the Egmont group [the directors of financial intelligence units around the world]”, Garrigues explained.

But, at the same time, Francis “is reluctant with regard to financial capitalism: he dreads letting himself be swallowed up by an international financial system which seems to him questionable”, the theologian continued.

The Pope “is therefore wary of these institutions [Moneyval and the Egmont Group] and wants to preserve the Vatican from their grip”, Garrigues said.

Go deeper

As if the place of the Vatican in the international financial scene were not difficult enough to navigate, Pope Francis has also found himself trapped by internal Vatican bureaucracy, Garrigues explained.

“From an institutional point of view, [the Pope] wants the Vatican justice system to be able to really act independently, including through searches“, the theologian said.

“But he is caught in a completely archaic Vatican power structure, where there is no separation of powers.

“We therefore end up in incredible situations where he himself instructs his prosecution to act and signs the searches against his own motu proprio creating an independent institution, the AIF [Financial Information Authority], to control the finances”, Garrigues clarified.

Why it matters

The pitfalls and drawbacks of the financial and ecclesiastical systems revealed by the Vatican London property deal led Garrigues to wonder “if… the Catholic Church is not experiencing the end of the pontifical monarchy”.

Not that that end to the absolute power of the Pope in the Vatican would necessarily be a bad thing, according to the theologian, since “it is after all only one of the possible ways, but not the only way – as the story of the first millennium shows – to exercise the primacy of Peter”.

“The current system was forged in the 11th century… by popes who had to stand up to the invasion of the religious sphere by the Germanic emperors”, Garrigues explained.

“It is true that, since John XXIII, the pontifical monarchy has been progressively stripped of its appearance of pomp, of court, but it has nevertheless retained many of its characteristics in its functioning”, the theologian recalled.

What’s next

Not that Pope Francis would mind much, either, if the current ecclesiastical theocracy came to an end, even if to get there the pontiff must take on considerable obstacles.

“Pope Francis is trying to promote a deeper synodality, but to achieve this he must face the Roman Curia. Hence a sometimes authoritarian way of doing things”, Garrigues commented.

And even if “the adaptation of the papal monarchy to the contemporary world seems impossible”, like “a squaring of a circle”, it does have something of a close historical precedent: the deprivation of Vatican sovereignty between the loss of the Papal States in 1870 and the Lateran Pacts of 1929.

The upshot, for Garrigues, is that Pope Francis’ biggest dilemma is how to eradicate the “opacity and corruption” that entered in when the Vatican came into great money with Mussolini’s economic restitutions of 1929.

To manage that money, the Vatican created a bank, but then began to run into debt after the expensive modernising Second Vatican Council – with the presence of bishops from all over the world – and also with Italian taxes and Pope John Paul II’s financing of the Polish ‘Solidarity’ movement.

“It was therefore necessary to find strong returns internationally”, Garrigues explained.

A necessity and a “great difficulty” the Vatican again finds itself in today, according to the theologian, “with the fall in donations, in particular from the United States and Germany, for antithetical – conservative or liberal – reasons”.

“Again a difficult dilemma to be resolved for the Pope”, Garrigues concluded.

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