It's a long way from growing up in your father's pub in the Australian regional city of Ballarat to becoming someone who answers directly to the Successor of Saint Peter in Rome. That, however, is the path that's been followed by Pope Francis's inaugural appointment as Prefect of what's being officially called the "Secretariat for the Economy."
A tall, somewhat imposing figure with a lifetime of intellectual achievement, pastoral work, and a forceful engagement in the public square behind him, Cardinal George Pell doesn't fit most people's image of a financial administrator. The 72 year-old ecclesiastic has, however, been asked to undertake a major role in fixing what has become a major source of scandal for the Catholic Church in recent years.
It may well turn out to be the greatest challenge of his priestly life.
You don't need to watch the Godfather Part III to know that the Catholic Church has struggled for several decades to address some real problems in the management of the Holy See's finances. Just looking at an organizational chart of the various units involved in some way in administering the Holy See's resources is enough to make even devout Catholics think that maybe Dan Brown's novels are onto something.
What's often called "the Vatican Bank" -- it's more formal title is the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (IOR) -- is just one of several institutions that the Holy See has created over the years to manage various resources. In many ways, a far more important structure is the lesser-known "Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See" (APSA), which, as it stated under its governing document, serves "to administer the properties owned by the Holy See in order to provide the funds necessary for the Roman Curia to function."
Compared to the assets of even relatively small nation-states, the Holy See's resources are puny. In 2012, APSA was managing assets worth approximately 680 million euro. By international standards, that's small change. This, however, doesn't mean that such resources aren't a source of potential temptation for clerical and lay Vatican officials. And in recent years, things seem to have been getting out of hand -- way, way out of hand -- even by the extremely low bar of Italian standards. Accusations and formal charges ranging from money laundering and nepotism to a failure to follow rudimentary accounting procedures have abounded.
While several key organizational and personnel changes were set in motion by Benedict XVI, Pell's appointment indicates that Pope Francis wants someone to take full-time responsibility for exorcizing these problems. Fortunately, Pell is rather well-equipped for the job.
Though Pell is more widely known for his outspoken and articulate defense of Catholic orthodoxy and his willingness to critique the secular alternatives on offer (as anyone who has watched his demolition of Richard Dawkins can attest), much of Pell's time since returning from Oxford has involved shouldering some rather major pastoral and administrative responsibilities. Some of the more prominent include helping to set up a university, overseeing the main Catholic overseas aid organization, and, most importantly, serving as the archbishop of not one but two of the biggest archdioceses in Australia.
Success in such endeavors requires, as well as other abilities, a grasp of modern finance. In that regard, Pell has learnt a lot from some very able Catholic Australians who work in that world. It also helps that, alongside Munich's Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Pell has probably the best understanding of anyone in the College of Cardinals of how modern market economies actually function.
Even more specifically, Pell has had to address financial malfeasance in the past. As a young auxiliary bishop in the late-1980s, Pell led an investigation into possible diversions of aid money from Australian Catholic Relief towards some rather radical political causes in the Philippines. He pinpointed what was going on, identified who was and was not responsible, and resolved what had become a major point of contention within the Church in Australia at the time.
For the Church, matters of administration and finance are a means to an end -- i.e., bringing the Gospel to the world. More than one bishop, however, has fallen into the trap of thinking of themselves as managers whose prime responsibility is institutional maintenance. Pell has never succumbed to that folly. Somehow he has managed to keep up a steady output of popular and academic articles, regular preaching at St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, an endless round of parish visits, as well as administering the sacraments to young and old. Pell has also found himself in the eye of the storm of the sex-abuse crisis that has impacted the Church in Australia since the mid-1990s.
When we add to these responsibilities the regular long-haul flights that Pell takes from Sydney to Rome to participate in meetings of the considerable number of Vatican congregations and councils to which he has been appointed, it amounts to a workload that would crush most people. But though he sometimes looks tired, you never sense a diminishing of Pell's passion for evangelization. In fact, plenty of young Catholic Australian laity and clergy will tell you that he has done a great deal to revive the Church in Australia from the doldrums of that self-immolating dead-end, otherwise known as liberal Christianity.
So it's not as if Pope Francis has brought in an efficient but bloodless administrator to bring order to the Holy See's finances. And this matters, because however the precise responsibilities of his new position are fleshed out, Pell is going to have to promote significant attitudinal change in the Italian-dominated culture of the Holy See's financial institutions.
The Italian factor is important because, depending on where you draw the border, Italy was ranked by Transparency International in 2013 as the most corrupt country in Western Europe. In fact things have gotten worse in recent years. As papal biographer and Catholic commentator George Weigel has observed on several occasions, neither the Church in Italy nor the Holy See has remained immune from these ugly developments.
It's not enough to simply bring in non-Italians, even though Pell's appointment testifies to the need to do so. It is also a question of helping those who work in places like the IOR and APSA to understand that what might be considered acceptable behavior in downtown Naples or the seamy world of Italian politics is simply unthinkable for those charged with managing the Holy See's assets.
Among a laundry-list of other thou-shalt-nots, that means no more giving jobs to otherwise unqualified family members in preference to people who actually have the credentials and experience for the position; no more allocating of Vatican-owned Roman apartments full of beautiful art to yourself and your closest 35 friends from seminary days; and, even more seriously, no more shifting-around assets between the Holy See's financial institutions in order to avoid the scrutiny of auditors.
Cardinal Pell has often remarked that when you grow up in an Australian pub, you meet all of life's characters. Certainly you encounter the carefree, the happy-go-lucky, the lonely and the addicted. But you also run into the gossips, the shysters, those on the make, and the occasional thug. That helps because I suspect that, in his new role, Pell will quickly confront a wave of innuendo, targeted leaks, and Borgia-like maneuvering on the part of those desperate to maintain the status quo.
Just as, however, one of Pell's intellectual reference points, the founder of modern Anglosphere conservatism, Edmund Burke, named and shamed the corruption that marred successive governments of King George III, you can be absolutely sure that Pell won't be backing down in accomplishing this important and long-overdue reform. For such a difficult job, Pope Francis has made an impeccable choice.