Jan. 12, 2016

Joseph F. X. Zahra speaks at The Catholic University of America on Feb. 4.

When it comes to reforming the Vatican's finances, simplicity and efficiency are important, but not as vital as an overall concern for the common good. That was the message of a recent talk given at The Catholic University of America by Joseph F. X. Zahra, a Maltese economist who has played a key role in putting the Vatican's financial house in order. Zahra's lecture, which was sponsored by the Office of the Provost and took place in Father O'Connell Hall, was titled, "Inside the Financial and Administrative Changes at the Vatican: What Pope Francis Wants and Why He is Doing It." During his talk, Zahra spoke about Pope Francis's attitudes on financial reform and the global economy, as well as some of the specific changes being implemented to update financial operations within the Vatican. "There has been a lot of misinterpretation of Pope Francis's thinking about the economy," Zahra said, adding that some people have unfairly portrayed the pope as an opponent of market economies who is biased toward particular classes. "This is all a misunderstanding, this representation," Zahra said. "The Catholic Church believes the business economy has many positive aspects and that its basis is in fact in human freedom, which is exercised in economic theory.'

Faculty, students, and other members of the University community listen to Zahra's remarks.
Though free markets are necessary for a free society, Zahra said they are "risky and they can be abused." One cause for abuse, he added, is the idea that finance and business are morally neutral. "You are the same person with the same values whether you are doing business or whether you are with your families and friends," he said. "The fact that we compartmentalize our business, our management, and then our values and the way we think when it comes to matters outside of business is in and of itself a destructive result." Financial abuses resulting from greed, dishonesty, or a lack of transparency can only be overcome with a new focus on solidarity, Zahra said. Economic systems should treat all persons with human dignity, enabling them to become "artisans of their destiny," he continued. At the Vatican, financial reforms aim to update pre-existing accounting systems to modern international standards with more transparency, as well as a new system of checks and balances, Zahra said. One way the Pope has worked to make these changes is by bringing in new structures, including the Council for the Economy, a "finance cabinet" of eight cardinals and seven lay experts. The Pope also established the position of Secretariat for the Economy, an office similar to a country's minister of finance; and the Office of Auditor General, an autonomous office that can conduct special investigations and internal audits. The overall goal of these changes, according to the Pope, is to "simplify and rationalize the existing structures," Zahra said. "With a more efficient system, with the elimination of waste, we would be able to release more funds, which can go for the poor and which can go for the marginalized to be able to build more hospitals, to build more educational facilities."Zahra was appointed to the International Audit Committee of the Holy See and the Vatican City State in 2011. Two years later, he was asked by Pope Francis to serve as president of the new Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See. Since 2014, Zahra has served on the Council for the Economy of the Holy See, the body charged with financial oversight of all Vatican-related entities, including the Roman curia. As vice coordinator of that council, he is the highest ranking lay member of the Pope's ad hoc cabinet on financial affairs. Zahra's trip to the U.S. was sponsored by CAPP-USA, the U.S. arm of Fondazione Centesimus Annus - Pro Pontifice , a lay-led Vatican foundation that promotes the implementation of principles of Catholic social teaching. The foundation was established shortly after Pope John Paul II wrote his 1991 Centisimus Annus encyclical, which looked back on 100 years of Catholic social teaching.