The challenges ahead: the new Pope and the law

As the white smoke clears above the Vatican the new Pope faces a monumental task, especially if he is to rid the Catholic Church of the horrors of child abuse, says Peter Smith

Peter Smith
Peter Smith

Mid-evening on Wednesday an Argentine prelate, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected the head of the Roman Catholic Church. He took the name Francis, probably after St Francis Xavier, a missionary famous for spreading Christianity in India and Japan and from the same religious order – the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits – as Pope Francis I. Another famous Francis, of course, is the saint from Assisi who founded another religious order, the Franciscans, and is best known in the popular imagination for his love of nature and animals.

It is one thing for the new Pope to share the personal values of poverty and humility with his forebears; it is quite another when it comes to his new position.

The Catholic Church is a huge global organisation, with over 5,000 bishops, around 415,000 priests, some 750,000 women in religious orders and over 1.2 billion Catholic laity. Leading this organisation is a monumental task, and the Pope will have to choose wisely his key assistants in the Holy See’s civil service, the Curia, and the Vatican’s Diplomatic Corps.

One obvious, and much reported, matter the Pope will have to continue dealing with, building on the work of Benedict XVI and John Paul II before him, is in ridding the global church of the horrors of child abuse.

From a civil legal perspective, the church, with its unique status as a non-member observer at the United Nations and the European Union, is in a much happier and more productive position.

Catholics frequently make submissions to debates and committees concerning points of public international law. There will be little change here as Pope Francis’s focus on social justice in his home country will be reflected in the church’s interventions in international forums on the rights of the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed.

This concern will be manifest when the church takes official positions on the operation of the World Trade Organisation, including the negotiation of new international trade rules and intellectual property rights in pharmaceuticals like HIV retrovirals and new technologies that can benefit the very poorest people.

The biggest concern the Pope will have in respect of commercial law is the future of the Vatican Bank. Mirroring the church’s fundamental status as a charity, the bank is not actually a bank but rather the Institute for the Works of Religion (IWR). Its purpose is to support papal initiatives and the Papal Nuncios, the Holy See’s ambassadors, around the world. It also takes deposits, which currently sit at almost $7bn in total, makes investments and remits money internationally, between dioceses in different countries, for instance, but does not lend money in highly geared arrangements as investment banks would.

In the past the IWR has been somewhat amateur in its management and consequently has been caught up in scandal, often because of its proximity to Italian clients, some of whom have been involved in murky political shenanigans, corrupt practices and even linked to the mafia.

The bank has become considerably more professional in the past 20 years and in February a new president, German lawyer Ernst von Freyberg, was appointed. The Pope Emeritus Benedict started implementing changes in 2010 to improve the monitoring and diligence activities of the Vatican’s financial operations and to ensure compliance with international safeguards against the financing of terrorism.

In 2012 Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering body, found that – on standards developed by the G8’s Financial Action Task Force – the IWR was graded around the same as Germany and the Czech Republic.

The Vatican is certainly moving in the right direction, and I am confident it will continue to under Francis.

Peter Smith is an employed barrister working in commercial litigation in London