A short fantasy in the hermeneutic of conspiracy

What follows is pure, groundless speculation. The merest fantasy in the hermeneutic of conspiracy. So, it’s worth at most what you paid for it. But the question we pose has been on our mind for some time. 

As the whole world knows, on July 5, Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, gave a speech at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London calling for, among other things, a return to ad orientem (versus apsidem) worship. This drew a quick, pointed correction from the Holy See Press Office, no doubt distracting them from the festive-if-bittersweet preparations for Fr. Federico Lombardi’s imminent retirement. Father John Hunwicke suggests that Vincent Cardinal Nichols, archbishop of Westminster and a long-time supporter of the Holy Father’s cause (even before the Conclave, if some are to be believed), was perhaps the prime mover in obtaining an unusual rebuke of a Curial cardinal. All this is, of course, well known among Catholics of all liturgical stripes now.

We were struck, however, by the unusual nature of the very public rebuke to Cardinal Sarah. Certainly he is likely seen by many as a potential leader for next time, in opposition to some candidates more simpatico to the Holy Father’s program, such as Cardinal Tagle. But that was not exactly it. Consider all the things that have not drawn rebukes. Cardinal Müller has criticized at length the liberal interpretation of Amoris laetitia at length. Cardinal Burke called it non-magisterial. And Archbishop Gänswein gave an extraordinary talk that, for a time, called into question just what Benedict thought he was doing when he abdicated. Yet, to our knowledge, none of these comments drew quick, decisive rebukes from official quarters (to say nothing of the rebukes from the Pope’s friends, including dear Father Spadaro). Curious.

But something else was happening at about this time: the Holy Father was handing down his Apostolic Letter motu proprio data on the competences of the Vatican financial organs, I bene temporali. As is now customary for Vatican documents of significant importance, I bene temporali is available in only Italian and Portuguese; however, the Holy See Press Office has provided a capsule summary:

The document published today responds to the need to define further the relationship between the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See and the Secretariat for the Economy. The fundamental principle at the base of the reforms in this area, and in particular at the base of this Motu Proprio, is that of ensuring the clear and unequivocal distinction between control and vigilance, on the one hand, and administration of assets, on the other. Therefore, the Motu Proprio specifies the competencies pertaining to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See and better delineates the Secretariat for the Economy’s fundamental role of control and vigilance.

(Emphasis supplied.) In short, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA, in Vatican lingo) recovered significant responsibility for the day-to-day financial administration of the Holy See, I beni temporali § 3, from George Cardinal Pell’s Secretariat for the Economy.

Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen was blunt about what this means:

There are many ways of analyzing the fault lines in the Vatican, but perhaps the most time-honored (if also often exaggerated) is the tension between an Italian old guard and pretty much everybody else. By conventional political logic, anyway, Saturday saw the Italians notch a fairly big win.

It could turn out, however, to be a Pyrrhic victory – because by taking back control over a range of financial powers, the old guard has also reclaimed the blame the next time something goes wrong.

On Saturday, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio, meaning a legal edict, delineating the division of responsibility between the Vatican’s Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) and the Secretariat of the Economy (SPE). The former is headed by Italian Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, the latter by Australian Cardinal George Pell.

In effect, the motu proprio restores several important functions to APSA that had been given to Pell’s department in 2014. One local news agency bottom-lined the result this way in its headline: “The Italians win!”

(Emphasis supplied.) The Vatican line is more or less that the Holy Father has delineated clearly oversight and management by this action and he has solved the problem of letting the financial watchdog also have control over administration.

And perhaps the Vatican line would be believable, if Pell’s oversight functions hadn’t been undercut recently by Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the secretary of state, when the Secretariat of State, apparently with the Holy Father’s permission, suspended an audit that Cardinal Pell had ordered. In other words, over the last few months, the independent authority of the Secretariat for the Economy and Cardinal Pell have been undermined significantly, always in favor of the Vatican old guard—generally Italian—that had been in charge prior to 2013. And we know what the finances at the Vatican looked like at about the same time.

In other words, reform of the Curia and the Vatican’s finances, one of the Holy Father’s signature initiatives—indeed, the St. Gallen group notwithstanding, one of the major reasons why he was elected in 2013, has apparently gone exactly nowhere. Certainly new organs have been established, but in the name of separation of powers, the new organs have been stripped of actual control, leaving them with policy and “oversight.” But, as we have seen from the audit kerfuffle, it is unclear that the Secretariat for the Economy will be permitted to exercise complete, independent discretion in pursuing its oversight functions. Certainly the Secretariat of State has shown a willingness to intervene in favor of, well, more traditional Vatican concerns. In other words, after three years and numerous provisions and amendments and restructuring, things have not changed much. Were the Holy Father a secular politician, one might call this part of his platform “not a success.”

And this brings us back to the kerfuffle over Cardinal Sarah’s speech. If we were to adopt the hermeneutic of conspiracy, we would wonder whether the timing of the rebuke of Cardinal Sarah’s speech had something to do with I bene temporali. What would be the best way to ensure that everyone focused on a relatively trivial matter, rather than the serious issue that the Holy Father’s reform of the Curia, including the Vatican’s finances, has not made huge progress, even now, three years after his election? Once upon a time, we were going to get a rewritten Pastor Bonus. Now, we’ll be lucky to get anything. Certainly, keeping the motu proprio locked in those hugely widely spoken languages, Italian and Portuguese, would help. But you would want to change the news cycle, wouldn’t you? And what drives page views—left and right—better than liturgy stuff?

As we say, this is rank speculation, mere fantasy, and a feverish indulgence in the hermeneutic of conspiracy. Sometimes it is helpful to clear the cobwebs with such thinking.

Fr. Lombardi defends the Vatican courts

Amid the Vatileaks 2 trial at the Vatican, Father Lombardi has issued a lengthy defense of the Vatican City State courts. It begins,

In recent weeks, since the opening of the trial for the dissemination of reserved documents commonly known as “Vatileaks 2”, many observations and evaluations have been written regarding the judicial system of Vatican City State and in particular on the Tribunal where this trial and its related procedures are taking place. Since many of these observations are inappropriate, or at times entirely unjustified, it would appear opportune to offer some considerations enabling a clearer view and a more just evaluation of this fundamental aspect of the situation.

Read the whole thing there.

We note merely that it is extraordinary—to our mind, anyway—that a press office would issue such a lengthy defense of a sovereign state’s courts. For example, if foreign defendants were haled into United States District Court for similar offenses under the Espionage Act of 1917, it would surprise us very much if the court’s public information officer issued a defense of the procedures employed by the court, including the rights of the accused and the qualifications of advocates.

Keeping all my secrets safe in Rome

Edward Pentin has a good summary of Vatileaks II at the Register. He spends a little time talking about the relationship of the scandal to George Cardinal Pell, the Holy Father’s prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy:

Sources have told the Register that Msgr. Vallejo promoted Cardinal Pell for the position of prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and that the Spanish priest hoped to become its secretary. Instead, due to an “incompatibility of functions,” that position went to Msgr. Alfred Xuereb, the former Maltese private secretary of Benedict XVI.

Some have seen this as a possible indirect attack on Cardinal Pell, whose financial reforms have drawn opposition, especially in parts of the Curia and the Italian media. But a spokesman for the cardinal insisted that was not the case. “The reforms are moving forward,” he told the Register, and the arrests are “the effect of the reforms that are being put in place.”

“The leaking of documents isn’t acceptable in any government, and it’s not acceptable here,” he said. “The Church is getting its house in order.”

(Emphasis added.) The question we have—and if anyone would like to leak anything to us, well, we’re flattered—is whether the leak of what appears to have been an early draft of the Cardinals’ letter to the Holy Father during the Synod has any connection to the Vallejo-Chaouqui situation.

The spy who prayed for me

We were pleased to see Andrea Tornielli connect the dots at Vatican Insider. Just as we predicted Chaouqui and Vallejo are probably going to advance the narrative that they are helping Francis implement “real” reforms:

The two individuals responsible for leaking the documents, claim they acted in order “to help the Pope”, to “win the war” against cliques that opposed change and transparency. But Francis can’t have been overjoyed by their generous help, given that he gave his personal approval for the arrests of this odd couple, whose involvement in the whole affair did not surprise many in the Vatican.

(Emphasis in original.) But Tornielli has a long passage that draws all the threads together. We’ll quote it in full:

There are two dates that point to the origin of this last ditch effort linked to the old Vatileaks scandal. Even back then, in a series of anonymous newspaper interviews, Francesca Chaouqui backed the “poison pen letter writers”, corroborating the importance of the letters leaked by the former Pope’s butler.

The first is 18 July 2013. Francis published a motu proprio for the establishment of the commission on economic and administrative problems of the Holy See (COSEA): Vallejo was appointed secretary and to the surprise of the team in charge of screening accounts and management problems in Vatican offices and dicasteries, Chaouqui was also nominated thanks to her friend, the monsignor. Her appointment was immediately seen as too convenient: the young woman wrote a series of insolent tweets against Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and former minister Tremonti (she would later deny having written hem, claiming hackers had got into her account, only to then delete them after they had been online for months). She made no attempt to keep her links with gossip website Dagospia a secret and made completely unfounded conjectures about Benedict XVI allegedly having “leukaemia”. In an interview published on the online version of Italian news magazine L’Espresso, she announced she had access to “confidential” Vatican “papers” and that she was a good friend of Nuzzi’s. But controversies soon died down and due to the nature of her role, Chaouqui was able to freely come and go from Saint Martha’s House.

The second date is 3 March 2014. On this day, having established the Secretariat for the Economy and nominated Australian cardinal George Pell as the new Prefect, Francis announced the name of the dicastery’s number two man. Instead of appointing Vallejo Balda, as Pell had requested and believed to be certain, right up until the last moment, the Pope surprised everyone by choosing Alfred Xuereb. This came as a big blow to the Vallejo-Chaouqui duo. The Spanish prelate was convinced the position was in the bag. He had even imprudently confirmed it on a Spanish radio programme. No appointments for “commissioner” Francesca Immacolata either: while five COSEA members took up their positions in a new Vatican body, the Council for the Economy, she was left empty-handed. From this moment on, the PR woman and her tunic-clad talent scout felt they were “at war” and identified Pell as their great enemy. The friction between the Secretariat for the Economy, the Secretariat of State and the other dicasteries of the Holy See was no figment of the imagination. Francis himself intervened on a number of occasions to cut back certain powers and clearly outline duties. But for this odd couple “at war”, this was not enough.

(Emphasis in original.) As we supposed, the narrative is going to be that Chaouqui and Vallejo, honked off at being frozen out of Cardinal Pell’s Secretariat for the Economy and Cardinal Marx’s Council for the Economy, and concerned that the entrenched forces in the Curia were thwarting Francis’s reforms, went to friendly journalists to get critical information public. And this narrative is pretty common. A lot of whistleblowers are both disgruntled at being passed over for internal promotion and concerned with what they’re seeing.

However, the difficult thing for this narrative is what Magister made clear all the way back in 2013: Chaouqui was right in the middle of the original Vatileaks scandal.

But like heaven above me

Today, the Vatican City State arrested, following an investigation by the Vatican City’s police, Msgr. Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda and Dr. Francesca Chaouqui for leaking financial documents. These arrests precede the publication of a couple of new books, which promise Vatileaks-style bombshells. Both Vallejo and Chaouqui were members of the Pope’s commission on financial reforms (COSEA, if you’re really into Vatican politics), which studied the Vatican’s finances closely and recommended reforms. One may remember, notwithstanding the Year of Divorce and Remarriage, that one of the important issues for Francis, at least in the Conclave talks, was the reform of the Curia and the Vatican’s finances. Vallejo and Chaouqui were in the middle of that, which is, presumably, why they had access to the financial information. What you may have missed was a piece, by Sandro Magister, which Rocco Palmo tweeted earlier today, as we were just learning about the Vallejo-Chaouqui arrests, and which is positive chock full of information about the Vallejo-Chaouqui connection in the context of Vatileaks:

it was maintained that Paolo Gabriele, the butler of Benedict XVI arrested and sentenced for stealing from the pope a an enormous number of confidential documents that were later given to the press, was not the only one in the curia to have acted in that way, but like him and after him there were others still in action, including a woman.

The “revelations” relative to this affair did not give the names of the protagonists. Including the latest and most spectacular anonymous interview, published in “la Repubblica” on March 7, 2013, a few days before the conclave that elected pope Bergoglio.

The interviewee, however, was a person so talkative as to swear up and down that she was the informant for the articles in “la Repubblica”: Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, 32, of a Moroccan father and Calabrian mother, residing in Rome, married, employed in public relations from 2007 to 2009 in the international law offices of Pavia & Ansaldo, then from 2010 in the offices of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, and finally since 2013 in the offices of Ernst & Young, with a vast network of real or boasted relationships with journalists, politicians, businessmen, prelates, cardinals.

When, during those days of conclave, the identity of the anonymous informer of “la Repubblica” also came to the attention of the substitute secretary of state, Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, he protested to the newspaper. Which in effect stopped publishing any more articles visibly traceable to the Chaouqui “source.”

(Emphasis added.) But how would a character like Chaouqui get into the Vatican, much less onto the pontifical commission considering the most sensitive matters? She had (has?) sharp elbows, which don’t serve anyone especially well in the Vatican, as near as we can tell. For example, John Allen, among others, report that she rubbed Francis the wrong way by hosting a sumptuous party on Vatican property for the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II. More than that, Chaouqui alleged that Benedict XVI had leukemia, and she picked a fight with Cardinal Bertone back in the days when Cardinal Bertone was not a man to pick fights with. (Ask Archbishop Viganò.) One may wonder, then, who Chaouqui’s patron was. After detailing some of Chaouqui’s connections to the Vatileaks butler, Magister goes on to report:

Supposing, then, that Francesco did not personally know Francesca Chaouqui, who convinced the pope to appoint her to a role of such high responsibility?

The most likely hypothesis leads back to Monsignor Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda, secretary of the prefecture for the economic affairs of the Holy See and since July 18 also secretary and factotum of the newly created commission of which Francesca Chaouqui is a member.

(Emphasis added.) But, how would Chaouqui and Vallejo know each other? Well, Magister tells us this, too:

It is said that Francesca Chaouqui belongs to Opus Dei, on a par with Monsignor Vallejo Balda. But it is not true.

It is certain, however, that she frequents Roman residences of Opus, including the one inhabited by the numerary Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the unforgotten spokesman of John Paul II.

Vallejo is an Opus Dei priest and Chaouqui runs in Opus Dei circles. As easy as pie. A piece of cake. You may have already clicked through to Magister’s piece. But if you haven’t, you have a surprise coming. It was published on August 26, 2013. Two years ago. More than two years ago. And Sandro Magister documented a connection between Vallejo and Chaouqui in the context of, you guessed it, Vatileaks.

Tornielli has alleged that Vallejo helped Chaouqui put together that canonization party that miffed the Holy Father. The Holy Father—as some folks have learned—is not a man to annoy, apparently. When it came time to implement the financial commission’s recommendations, both Chaouqui and Vallejo found themselves without chairs when the music stopped. When it came time to appoint officials of the Secretariat for the Economy (i.e., early March 2014), Vallejo found himself passed over in favor of Msgr. Alfred Xuereb, the Maltese secretary to the Pope and a holdover from Benedict’s household, even though everyone (including George Cardinal Pell) expected Vallejo to be appointed secretary. Likewise, Chaouqui didn’t make the cut for a seat on the Council for the Economy, which has a significant lay presence (and which is led by Reinhard Cardinal Marx). We suspect that it will be suggested that Chaouqui and Vallejo, honked off by being left out of the party, decided to start leaking the documents. Undoubtedly someone will say that they were motivated by their frustration at seeing the Curia thwart Francis’s financial reforms. Or something.

Magister’s piece, of course, hurts this narrative badly. If Magister is right—and he’s pretty right as it is—Chaouqui was a Vatileaks source well before Francis issued Fidelis Dispensator et Prudens (on February 24, 2014), established the new financial entities, and passed over Chaouqui and Vallejo for prominent positions everyone seemed to think they’d get. Chaouqui was a Vatileaks source before Francis was even elected. And Vallejo and Chaouqui were friendly well before that.