ROME – Pope Francis set a 40-euro ($48) gift cap for all Vatican employees Thursday and issued a new law requiring Vatican cardinals and managers to periodically report on their compliance with clean financial practices in one of his biggest efforts yet to crack down on corruption in the Holy See.
The law requires Vatican superiors to declare every two years that they aren't stashing money in tax havens and aren't under criminal investigation for tax evasion, money laundering or other crimes. They also must declare that any investments they hold are in funds consistent with Catholic doctrine.
The crackdown comes as Vatican prosecutors are nearly two years into a corruption investigation involving the Vatican’s investment in a London real estate venture. Francis has preached about cleaning up the Holy See's murky financial practices for eight years, but the new law marks his biggest step yet to ensure his own cardinals and managers are clean.
The most striking part of the law is a measure that, if broadly applied, would amount to a revolution in curial culture: It prohibits any Vatican employee from receiving work-related gifts with a value of over 40 euros ($48).
While “work-related” will likely be open to some interpretation, the prohibition is clearly aimed at cutting down on the sometimes lavish gifts that Vatican officials are accustomed to receiving from wealthy benefactors, friends and fellow clerics.
The practice was highlighted by the recent scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked in 2019 after the Vatican determined he sexually abused minors as well as adult seminarians. McCarrick was a successful fundraiser and was known for giving checks to Vatican officials, leading to speculation that his largesse helped him avoid punishment for his sexual misconduct, which was known in the Holy See as early as the 1990s.
The Vatican’s 2020 in-house investigation into McCarrick’s rise and fall said while his fundraising prowess weighed heavily in his advancement and nomination as archbishop of Washington, there was no evidence that his “customary gift-giving and donations impacted significant decisions made by the Holy See.”
In the preamble to the law, Francis wrote that the regulations were necessary “because corruption can manifest itself in different forms and ways.” Vatican superiors, he wrote, “have the particular responsibility of making concrete the fidelity of which the Gospel speaks, acting according to principles of transparency and the absence of any conflicts of interest.”
The Rev. Robert Gahl, vice chair of the Program of Church Management at Rome’s Pontifical Santa Croce University, said the pope is aiming to end conflicts of interest, patronage and corruption in the Holy See hierarchy and beyond.
“Most importantly, by limiting gifts to 40 euros, the pope is shutting down the main on-ramp for greed, corruption, and clericalism in the church," he said in an email, calling the law a “courageous" and “giant step" toward real financial reform in the church.
The pontiff decreed that any new hires must sign a declaration attesting that they have never been convicted of a crime and aren’t currently under investigation for offenses that include money laundering, corruption, fraud, exploitation of minors or tax evasion.
The declaration must be reaffirmed every two years, with possible firing foreseen as the penalty for lying.
Also included in the declaration is the pledge that neither the manager nor third parties hold investments in offshore tax havens and that all investments are in line with the Catholic Church’s social doctrine. Such ethical investments would, for example, exclude holdings in weapons manufacturers.
Pia de Solenni, president and executive director of the Global Institute of Church Management, which aims to spread best financial practices throughout the church, said she hoped the law's implementation plan would be made public so the church can be better served.
She welcomed the new law as “a step towards living the transparency and accountability that the Catholic Church should be modeling for the world."
The gift cap is perhaps the most significant reform, since cardinals and Vatican monsignors routinely receive financial gifts to supplement their relatively modest salaries and pay for the secretaries and domestic staff who help them.
It is not unusual, for example, for Vatican higher-ups to receive Christmastime checks from fellow clerics from wealthier dioceses, or for a new cardinal to have his red cassock paid for thanks to a donation from his flock or a benefactor. If the cardinal is a Vatican manager, presumably, such sartorial gifts must now be renounced.
There have long been stories of powerful Vatican cardinals receiving outrageous gifts from fellow prelates, most famously the money and gifts from the disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ to key Vatican cardinals, despite decades of documentation that he was a drug addict who sexually abused his seminarians.
The law was published the same day that the Holy See’s adherence to international standards to fight money laundering and terrorism financing was reviewed by the Council of Europe’s Moneyval committee. The report will be released in a few weeks.