By Andrea Tornielli
Father Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves was appointed just a few months ago as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. Pope Francis himself called on him to carry out a reform that aims at the economic transparency of the Holy See and an ever more efficient use of the goods and resources at the service of its evangelizing mission. Fr Alves now finds himself having to deal with the crisis caused by Covid-19. Not wanting to grant this interview, he explained that he thinks “there are other more important things in the Church. I would also have liked to wait longer before speaking. However, this moment is challenging for everyone – for us as well. It also requires clarity.”
Father Guerrero, there was an Interdicasterial meeting dedicated to the financial situation of the Vatican City State and the Holy See last week. Can you tell us what that situation is?
The entire world is going through a crisis characterized by two factors: we are in an exceptional circumstances and are uncertain how long it will last. What we are experiencing is a unique moment, a difficult moment that makes us face our responsibilities. We must find a way to ensure our mission. But we must also understand what is and what is not essential. At the same time, our economy cannot be completely measured merely in terms of deficit, or cost.
In what sense?
We are not a business, we are not a company. Our objective is not to make a profit. Every Dicastery, every Entitity performs a service. Every service has associated costs. Our approach must be the maximum sobriety and the maximum clarity. Our bottom line is in view of mission. That is, a balance sheet that puts numbers into relationship with the Holy See’s mission. This, which seems to be a premise, is the heart of the question. And it must never be lost sight of.
Can you give us some numbers?
Regarding numbers, they are smaller in respect to the Holy See than many people imagine: less than the average American university, for example. This too is a reality that is often ignored. In any case, the books tell us that between 2016 and 2020 both income and expenses have been constant: revenue, in the region of 270 million, expenses averaged around 320 million, depending on the year.
Revenue comes from contributions and donations, property returns and, to a lesser extent, from the financial management and activities of the Vatican offices. An important contribution comes from the Governorate of the Vatican City State. This incomes is dependent largely (but not exclusively) on the Vatican Museum, which is closed now, and will most likely remain in difficulty due to a slow recovery.
Looking solely at numbers and percentages, I could say that the expenses are distributed more or less as follows: 45% personnel, 45% general and administrative expenses, 7.5% donations; or I could say that the deficit (the difference between income and expenses) in recent years has fluctuated between 60 and 70 million. But solely on the basis of these numbers, some might think that the deficit is a hole, the result of poor administration, or that the Holy See’s finances prove it is an immobile bureaucracy. That's not the case. It has nothing to do with that. The Holy See’s and the Holy Father’s mission is behind these numbers, that is, the fullness of life and ecclesial service. It is not correct to say that the deficit is financed by the Peter’s Pence collection, as if it were stopping a gap. Even Peter’s Pence is a donation of the faithful: it finances the mission of the Holy See, this includes the Pope’s charitable donations, which does not have sufficient revenue.
Numbers always need to be interpreted. There is an goal behind these numbers. Behind the balance, sheet there is a mission, the service that these expenses make possible. Perhaps we need to better explain, tell the story better. We certainly need to be clearer.
What do you mean when you speak about “the bottom line is in view of mission”?
It’s a way to explain what's inside those numbers. For example: communicating what the Pope does in 36 languages, through radio, TV, the internet, social media, a newspaper, a printing house, a publishing house, the press room (and so on), is an undertaking without equal in the world. It has a cost, certainly. It also generates revenue. It absorbs about 15% of the budget. More than 500 people work there. I don't know if it can be better, although there’s always room for improvement. But in comparison, I don't think there is any other example of an entity who produces as much with so little.
Another 10% of the budget goes to the Nunciatures. Some people might think it's a big deal. They are small embassies of the Gospel, which defend the rights of the poor through international relations. They carry out a diplomacy of dialogue, of peace, of the care of the earth as our common home.
Another 10% is spent on the Oriental Churches, so often persecuted or in the “diaspora”. Another 8.5% is spent on the poorest Churches, on the missions, through the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Then there is the protection of the unity of doctrine, there are the causes of the Saints, there is the conservation of a heritage of humanity such as the Vatican Library and the Archives, there is necessary building maintenance – another ten percent. There are the taxes we pay to Italy amounting to about 6% of the budget (17 million). And so on...
This was the situation prior to Covid. What about now? Several hypotheses have been presented, one more optimistic and another more pessimistic: can you briefly illustrate both?
We have made some projections, some estimates. The most optimistic calculate a decrease in revenue of around 25%; the most pessimistic, around 45%. Today, we are unable to say whether there will be a decrease in donations to the Peter’s Pence collection, or a decrease in contributions from the Dioceses.
We do know, however, because we made the decision due to the difficulty some tenants have of paying their rent, that there will be a decrease in rent payments. We had already decided, when approving this year's budget, that expenses should be reduced in order to reduce the deficit. The post-Covid crisis forces us to do so more determinedly. Both the optimistic or pessimistic scenario depend partly on us (on how much we will be able to reduce costs) and partly on external factors, on how much the revenue will actually decrease (revenue does not depend on us). In any case, unless there is some extraordinary income, it is clear that the deficit will increase.
Father Guerrero, does the Vatican really risk default, as someone has written?
No. I don't think so. The Vatican is not in danger of default. That doesn't mean that we are not naming the crisis for what it is. We're certainly facing difficult years. The Church carries out its mission through the help provided by the offerings of the faithful. And we don't know how much people will be able to give. Precisely for this reason we must be sober, rigorous. We must manage the finances with the passion and diligence of a good family man. There are three things that are not in question, not even in this moment of crisis: the remuneration of the employees, aid for people in difficulty and support for the Churches in need. No cut will affect those who are most vulnerable. We do not live to balance budgets. We trust in the generosity of the faithful. But we must show to those who donate part of their savings to us that their money is well spent. There are many Catholics in the world who are willing to donate to help the Holy Father and the Holy See fulfill their mission. It is to them that we must make an account. And it is to them that we can have recourse.
The Vatican situation is no different that that of many other nations called to deal with a grave economic crisis because of the pandemic. How are you concretely planning to deal with it?
It is true, the situation is no different. However, it is also true that we have neither the leverage of a monetary policy or fiscal policy. We can only count on the generosity of the faithful, on small donations, and the ability to spend less. Contrary to what many people think, no one earns huge salaries here.
The good news is that the Secretariat for the Economy (SPE), the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Council for the Economy and the Governorate are working together to deal with the crisis and reform what needs to be reformed. We have asked each Entity to do everything possible to reduce expenses while safeguarding the essential services of its specific mission. At a more structural level (since the deficit is structural), we will have to centralize financial investments, improve personnel management, improve procurement management. Guidelines for procurement are about to be approved which will certainly lead to savings. We are working in constant collaboration with all the dicasteries, combining centralisation with subsidiarity; autonomy with checks and balances; professionalism with vocation.
When you speak of the centralization of investment, when and how will it be implemented?
We have a working group on this, working together in a calm atmosphere. They need a few more months. The aim is not only to centralize but to go about it professionally, without conflict of interest according to ethical criteria. It is not only that unethical investments are to be avoided, but that those investments linked to a different vision of the economy, to integral ecology, to sustainability are to be promoted.
How will the Holy See guarantee the services it currently offers and the salaries of the people currently employed, despite the substantial reduction in income that will increase the amount of red ink on the books?
We are not a great power. You can talk about the difficulty of making it in the large European countries. Imagine us. We need to be humble. We are a family with a small patrimony and the generous help of many. We'll make it with our ability to manage well, with the help of God and the faithful. The whole Church is sustained in this way.
Sharing the truth of the economic situation is a start. The best we can do is to be diligent and transparent. We’ll depend on the money we can count on. We’ll build a zero base budget for 2021, beginning with the essentials for mission.
But how can the confidence of the faithful be increased after last year’s news regarding how some investments were made?
Trust is earned through rigour, clarity, sobriety, and also by humbly admitting past mistakes, so as not to repeat them, and current mistakes, if any. It happens sometimes, it happened to us too, for example, that we relied on people not deserving of trust. We are always vulnerable to this. Greater transparency, less secrecy: this is what makes it more difficult to make mistakes. That's precisely why, regarding investments, our aim is to have a serious committee of upper level people, with no conflicts of interest, to help us (as far as possible) not to make mistakes.
When will the next official balance sheet be published again?
I'd like it to be already this year to explain well how we spend money. To use the expression “cards in hand”, that we spend it to do good, and in the service of the Church. We need to communicate this, explain it well. The reality that I have seen in the Holy See in recent months speaks of this. It deserves trust. This mission is beautiful and is carried out with the generosity of so many anonymous people.
How does it feel to occupy the post of "Minister of the Economy"? Are you able to sleep at night in these difficult times?
I sleep, yes, I sleep well. So far, no difficulty has robbed me of sleep. I have faith in the Lord of Life, and I know that Life always ends up opening the way for us. And this thing about “minister”, the Curial minister, makes me smile a bit. I don't feel like the “Minister of the Economy”. I feel like a Jesuit and a priest who is carrying out a service to the Church, a rearguard service perhaps, and in collaboration with others. It consists in helping the Holy Father and the Holy See in carrying out their mission. I have a task. I continue on a path. I work with a team. I listen to advice. I learn. I'm looking for competent people. I know change doesn't happen overnight and it doesn’t happen alone. The goal is to work together. I felt very well received by the Pope and the Curia, not to mention the SPE staff, all of whom are excellent and valid professionals. We are walking together. We are very committed to the way of transparency, sobriety, diligence, austerity, in the exercise of what is and remains a mission.
This is a working translation of an Italian original.