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The Francis Era
Pope Francis's Biggest Achievements Haven't Made Headlines

It’s official: Pope Francis is Time‘s person of the year, selected from a list of finalists including Miley Cyrus, Edward Snowden, and Bashar Assad. Howard Chua-Eoan and Elizabeth Dias wrote up the cover story on the choice, and beneath the breathlessness about Pope Francis’ style and “open-mindedness” we’ve come to expect from the media, they do a good job rounding up Francis’ actual, under-appreciated achievements to date:

Francis also moved early to tame the mess that is the Vatican Bank, an institution even U.S. Treasury officials privately say is corrupted. Soon after he was elected, he named a special commission to investigate the bank, which in turn handed the matter off to an independent firm for an audit. Francis also issued initiatives to counter money laundering and increase the monitoring of the Vatican’s finances. In October, the bank disclosed an annual report for the first time in its 125-year history.

And if personnel is policy, Francis has been particularly busy, shaking up the Curia with his preference for new faces over old ones. In a move that signifies he means business, he tossed Benedict’s Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, and named ambassador to Venezuela Archbishop ­Pietro Parolin, the youngest man to hold the post since Eugenio Pacelli, who went on to become Pope ­Pius XII in 1939.

The Secretary of State in the Vatican is often referred to as the Pope’s “Prime Minister,” so the position is deeply important. Bertone was at the heart of the “Vatileaks scandal” that occasionally filtered down to the MSM last year. Vatileaks brought revelations about corruption and petty internal squabbles in the Vatican bureaucracy, and culminated in the arrest and trial of Pope Benedict’s personal butler for stealing and leaking private documents. Bertone was a divisive figure and much of the intrigue seemed to center on the struggle between his supporters and his opponents.

Bertone’s original appointment to the office was a break from tradition: unlike his predecessors, Bertone had no prior experience in Vatican diplomacy. Archbishop Parolin, however, has extensive diplomatic experience, and wasn’t “in power” during the Bertone years (some think Bertone’s appointment of Parolin as Apostolic Nuncio to Venezula indicated that Parolin was “out of favor”). Francis’ choice for Parolin indicates a preference for tested competence over stylistic novelty. This is a fascinating choice by a Pope who is often viewed as an innovator or all style, no substance. Some might see a return to tradition after Bertone as a victory for the entrenched, corrupt interests who opposed Bertone because he was an outsider, but, as John L. Allen Jr. has argued, it’s more likely that Francis choose the experienced Parolin because he believes Bertone’s inexperience did him in. While we’ll want to keep a close watch on Parolin to see if he takes a firm stand against insider corruption, odds are good that we can expect renewed managerial competence in the Curia.

All of this may not be as world-historically impressive as, for example, Pope Emeritus Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture, which he delivered only 17 months into his Pontificate. But it is a crucial response to the urgent challenges the Vatican is facing. Leading up the conclave, Catholics across the spectrum consistently ranked cleaning up the Curia and the bank as a top priority for the next Pope, and Francis is delivering on that mandate.  Something not mentioned in the Time report is that tomorrow Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s committee on money laundering, will release a report that is optimistic about the progress the Vatican has made in cleaning up its bank.

Scandal after scandal—from the bank to the sex abuse crisis to the murky leaks and “rings” inside the Curia itself—has weakened the church over the last decades. Public opinion may be a poor metric by which to evaluate Francis’s achievements, fickle and ill-informed as it is, but Francis can be judged by his competence in addressing these scandals. And, so far, he seems to be succeeding.

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  • Pete

    The institutional Catholic Church might be the most corrupt international organization Earth except, of course, the United Nations which always leads the list.

  • David Funk

    Sorry Pete, but the race for the title ‘most corrupt international organization’ is pretty intense. Not that the Vatican Bank has been non-corrupt, and it probably is in the same league with the UN, but the competion is incredable.

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