Joseph Zahra, head of Vatican financial reform, explains new papal financial structures

Author: Eddie Zamstra

While many are aware of Pope Francis’ devotion to solving global problems, especially in regards to poverty, Joseph Zahra highlighted the pope’s sometimes overlooked commitment to amending the administrative and financial structure of the Vatican.

Zahra, the vice coordinator of the Council for the Economy for the Holy See, gave his lecture, titled “Inside the Financial and Administrative Changes in the Vatican: What Pope Francis is Doing and Why,” at the Eck Visitors Center Auditorium on Wednesday. The talk was sponsored by Mendoza College of Business and was open to the public. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington D.C. and CAPP-USA National Ecclesiastical Counselor, introduced Zahra to kick off the event.

Zahra began his lecture by clarifying the economic positions of Pope Francis. He said while many assume the pope promotes certain economic systems, the public’s speculations are not always true.

“Pope Francis’ words are either misinterpreted or else misunderstood by many, particularly in the business community,” Zahra said.

Zahra said the 1991 encyclical of Pope John Paul II, “Centesimus Annus,” emphasized the benefits of a free enterprise economy.

“The business economy has many positive aspects. It is based on human freedom, human freedom that is exercised in the economic field,” Zahra said. “Free culture, free markets and free policies create a free society.”

According to Zahra, the problem with the economy is the corrupt nature of mankind.

“The problem really is people and culture rather than the economic system,” he said. “The monstrosity of social decay, poverty and marginalization is the result of the human abuse of the market economy.

“Pope Francis says that this time of crisis is a human crisis. It is the human person that is in crisis. Man himself is in danger of being destroyed,” Zahra said.

According to Zahra, solutions can be found in reformed behavior.

“Us, as Catholics, are holistic beings. Our values should be reflected in our attitudes and our behaviors, wherever we are,” he said. “Our duty is to continue to insist that the human person and human dignity are not simply catch words but pillars of creating shared values and structures.”

Zahra said the significance of Pope Francis’ reform in the Vatican is deeper than the structures put in place.

“It is the spirit with which these structures come to life. These shared values, this attitude, is an essential element in making this change,” he said.

Zahra then proceeded to explain the specifics behind the new structures instilled in the Vatican. He said the three new structures are all based on “two underlying principles”: universality and technical expertise.

Universality, Zahra said, is important because it “reflects the global reach of the church.”

“There are cardinals from Hong Kong to South Africa involved,” he said.

Additionally, Zahra said the Vatican is so vastly complex that technical expertise is absolutely vital.

“We need to introduce experts into these structures,” he said.

The structures that contain these underlying principles are separate but unified in working towards the same goal — higher levels of efficiency.

The Council of the Economy, which consists of 15 members — eight cardinals and bishops and seven lay experts — “has oversight over all the administrative financial structures and activities of the various industries of the Holy See, as well as the Vatican City,” Zahra said.

“It is not simply a talking shop, but rather a decision making and policy making entity,” he said.

The second structure created by Pope Francis is the Secretariat for the Economy, a finance and accounting department responsible for the implementation of policies set by the Council of the Economy, Zahra said.

“It is like the executive arm to the Council of the Economy,” he said.

The third structure put in place by Pope Francis is the the Office of the Auditor General, a structure with investigative capabilities. This structure is “the most controversial in the eyes of administrative and lay people who work in the Vatican,” Zahra said, because it is the first time the office of an auditor general has been given investigative powers. The Office of the Auditor General is led by a senior lay expert.

To summarize his lecture, Zahra ran through the benefits of Pope Francis’ reforms in the Vatican.

“All three structures are operating effectively and efficiently,” he said. “There is professionalism, transparency and universal standards of accounting. Control mechanisms have been put in place.”

The motivation behind the reforms within the Vatican has always been the desire to conserve as much money and resources as possible for the impoverished, Zahra said.

“All this is being done with the improvement of programs and higher levels of efficiency to ensure better support for the poor and marginalized,” he said.

Zahra concluded the talk by addressing the leaking of confidential documents by Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi, both of whom are publishing books containing classified information regarding the process of Pope Francis’ Vatican reforms.

Zahra noted that Pope Francis has since expressed that there will be no delay in the instillation of his Vatican reforms.

“Even if these books created confusion and chaos rather than transparency, I would also say that they showed, with firmness and commitment on the part of the Holy Father, that these reforms must go on,” Zahra said.

Note: This article originally was published in The Observer, the student-run news outlet serving the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s community.