Pope Francis imposed new financial accountability regulations on the Vatican’s multimillion-dollar saint-making machine Thursday after uncovering gross abuses that were subsequently revealed in two books.
The rules require external vigilance over individual Vatican bank accounts created for beatification and canonization causes, as well as regular budgeting and accounting to make sure the donations from the faithful are being used as intended.
The reforms were imposed after Francis tasked a fact-finding commission to investigate Vatican finances, including at the Vatican’s saints office. Two books by Italian journalists, based on the commission’s confidential findings, revealed that the Vatican’s secretive saint-making process brought in hundreds of thousands of euros in donations for each saintly candidate but had virtually no financial oversight as to how the money was spent.
The books estimated the average cost for each beatification at around 500,000 euros ($550,000), with much of the proceeds going to a few lucky people with contracts to do the often time-consuming investigations into the candidates’ lives. The family of one well-known investigator, for example, also had the Vatican monopoly on printing the documentation for each saintly cause, studies that often amount to dozens of volumes.
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While candidates who inspire wealthy donors would sprint ahead, those with less wealthy fans would languish. American saints often cost the most precisely because the most money was donated, and the postulator could spend it on the best researchers to get the cause through, according to the book “Avarice” by journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi.
The new rules call for an administrator to be named for each saintly cause who must “scrupulously respect” the intention of each donation. The administrator must keep a running tab on expenditures and donations, prepare an annual budget and be subject to the oversight of the local bishop or religious superior.
That person must approve the annual budget and send it to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican office responsible for reviewing saintly candidates, investigating miracles and preparing the cases for the pope’s ultimate decision.
The rules also set out the mechanism by which each cause pays the congregation for its services finalizing the beatification or canonization, though it doesn’t specify how much is given. Once the candidate is made a saint, the congregation decides what to do with any leftover funds, including sending them to a special solidarity account for less-well funded candidates.
The Catholic Church makes saints to give the faithful role models. The process is cloaked in secrecy and open to criticism, given that it deals with science-defying miracles and notoriously politicized choices. Pope John Paul II — himself canonized in near-record time in 2014 — declared 482 saints in his quarter-century papacy, more than all of his predecessors combined.
In the early church, saints were often made by papal decree or popular acclaim. Over the centuries, the process has become far more detailed, legalistic, time-consuming and costly.
It usually starts in the diocese where the candidate lived or died. A postulator — essentially the cheerleader spearheading the project — gathers testimony and documentation to build the case and presents the report to the congregation. If the Vatican’s experts agree the candidate lived a virtuous life, the case is forwarded to the pope, who signs a decree attesting to the candidate’s “heroic virtues.”
During the investigation, the postulator may come across information that someone was miraculously healed by praying for God’s intercession through the candidate. If the cure cannot be medically explained, the case is presented to the congregation as the possible miracle needed for beatification, the first major step in the sainthood process.
Panels of doctors, theologians, bishops and cardinals must certify that the cure was instantaneous, complete and lasting — and was due to the intercession of the candidate. If convinced, the congregation sends the case to the pope, who signs a decree saying the candidate can be beatified. A second miracle is needed for canonization.
Martyrs, or people who were killed for their faith, get a free pass and can be beatified without a miracle. A miracle is needed, however, for martyrs to be canonized.
Given the steps involved, the costs associated with the process can vary widely. If the postulator needs to travel around the world to gather testimony and documentation for the investigation or miracle hunt, the costs will be greater than for a candidate whose life can be investigated closer to home. A big-name candidate, such as a modern-day pope, will likely require a far more in-depth and expensive investigation than a 5th-century hermit for whom there is limited documentation.
The book “Avarice,” for example, detailed the exorbitant fees spent on the beatification cause of Fulton John Sheen, an American bishop known for preaching on radio and television. Even though the beatification stalled, the cause had already spent more than 330,000 euros in five years for consultants, travel, conferences, translations (the full documentation must be presented to the Vatican in Latin) — and fees for the postulator.
Francis published the rules just days before he sets the official date for his next big canonization: Mother Teresa. She’s expected to be made a saint in the first week of September as part of Francis’ Holy Year of Mercy celebrations.
The two Italian journalists who revealed the saint-making abuses in their books go back on trial in a Vatican tribunal on Saturday for having published leaked information.