Vatican and Global Financial Contexts of Pope’s Resignation

Today the Vatican announced that its ability to process credit card transactions, interrupted since January 1 by a decision of the Bank of Italy, had been restored.

The renewed access to international financial networks comes one day after Pope Benedict announced that he will step down from his office as successor of Peter on February 28 at 8 p.m. in the evening.

Purchasers of tickets in the Vatican Museums had been unable to use credit cards since January 1. (I myself experienced this situation when I purchased museum tickets for pilgrims visiting the Sistine Chapel with me a few days ago, and I was asked to pay for the tickets in cash. The morning I purchased the tickets, there was not a single other person in the area where tickets are purchased — the most deserted I had ever seen the museum entrance area.)

Observers had estimated that the Vatican was losing about 30,000 euros per day in lost sales due to people not having enough cash with them to buy tickets, or other items, like guidebooks, or coffee-table books, on sale in the museums. From January 1 to February 11, then, a total of 42 days, the Vatican may have lost $1.26 million in sales.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., said Swiss card payment specialist Aduno had been contracted to provide the service, blocked for the last six weeks.

“Credit card payments in the state of the Vatican City are working again, and so pilgrims as well as tourists who visit the church of St. Peter’s every day can now use the ordinary payment service, including paying for the Vatican museums,” Lombardi told reporters.

The Italian central bank prevented the Vatican’s long-standing credit card transaction provider Deutsche Bank (DB), based in Germany, from continuing to offer payment services at the start of 2013.

But Bank of Italy said it was not required to approve the new arrangement because Aduno is not based in the European Union, but in Switzerland (not a member of the European Union).

In a statement explaining its decision last month, the Bank of Italy said EU law prevented EU banks from operating in non-EU states unless they had an adequate supervisory system or were deemed “equivalent” for anti-money laundering purposes. The Vatican failed on both counts, it said.

A spokeswoman for Aduno, which is owned by Switzerland’s banks, said the company had started to provide card payments services at Vatican museums Tuesday, and would offer online payments for the museum website in the coming days.

Pope Benedict has made cleaning up the Vatican’s reputation for murky finances one of his priorities, introducing new rules and hiring a top Swiss financial lawyer to raise standards to international levels. This effort has been controversial and has provoked opposition to the Pope.

It is now about 36 hours since Pope Benedict made his historic, unexpected announcement. I am trying to weigh the theological consequences of the decision. Does the Pope’s action change the Catholic understanding of the papal office? Does the decision to renounce the papacy allow the Orthodox to consider the papal office less of an impediement to Catholic-Orthodox communion? Is the Pope’s decision, which is clearly a prudential decision, a wise and good one, in the end? Or will the decision lead to uncertainties, difficulties, confusions, for the life of the Church, which a different decision — remaining in the papal office until the end of life, as has always been the tradition of the Church — might not have caused to arise?

It seems to me that we still are lacking some information about the Pope’s decision, which makes it difficult to judge what he did, and why. For example, one wonders whether the Pope, realizing that he is getting older, and more tired, might not have decided to announce that he would cancel all meetings, move to a convent in the Vatican (as he is doing), devote himself to prayer, and appear in public only very rarely. In this way, he would have remained Pope, but carried out the work of the office in a very different, and physically less demanding way. Would that not have been possible? Does every Pope have to be as physically active as was Pope John Paul II at the beginning of his pontificate?

This train of thought leads to the question of the context of this decision. Are there facts the Pope has weighed in making this decision that we simply don’t know about, or don’t know fully? The global economy, for example, remains fragile due (it seems) to high levels of debt, levels which have not declined but actually have increased since the 2008 financial crisis, which (it was claimed at the time) narrowly missed ending in the catastrophic crippling of the global financial system. Does the Pope have information about the possible course of events in the months ahead that led him to conclude that he needed to allow a younger, more energetic man to take over his office from him, so that the Church’s highest authority could take action quickly and decisively as events unfold?

Based on the information we have been given, the decision still seems a bit mysterious. Perhaps in coming days, the reasons for the Pope’s decision will become clearer.

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