Before Francis was elected last month, many of the cardinals who went on to choose him expressed concern about the harm done to the Church’s image by three decades of scandals at the bank, which Italian magistrates are now investigating for money laundering.
A report last year by Moneyval, a European anti-money laundering body, found that the bank, officially the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), had failed to meet some of its standards on fighting financial crimes, and called for increased oversight.
In an impromptu sermon at a Mass for Vatican employees including staff from the bank, the pope said they should concentrate on the true mission of the Church and that Vatican departments were needed “only up to a certain point”.
“The Church is not an NGO (non-governmental organization). It is a story of love,” he said, according to a transcript published by Vatican Radio.
“I know that people from the IOR are here, so excuse me. Offices are necessary but they are necessary only up to a certain point.”
It was the first time Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, had mentioned the Vatican bank in public since his election.
The account of the sermon in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, omitted the mention, however. Italian media said this was a sign of conflict within the Vatican on how to deal with the bank.
Vatican sources have said the pope could restructure the IOR and has the power to close it if he wants to.
Italian media have reported that the bank, which currently answers to a commission of cardinals and enjoys great autonomy, could be placed under the control of another Vatican department to enable tighter control.
Famiglia Cristiana, Italy’s leading Catholic weekly, has called for the funds in the IOR, which manages money mostly for dioceses and religious institutions, to be administered by an independent “ethical bank” external to the Vatican.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said he was not aware of any imminent changes affecting the bank.