With a flourish he inherited from Argentina’s legendarily populist political force, Peronism, Pope Francis from the beginning has been a vocal champion of labour and workers’ rights, backing measures such as equal pay for equal jobs between men and women, affordable housing and land, and living wages.
Just last week, during his daily morning Mass, he dramatically condemned employers who exploit workers through temporary contracts or by not offering health insurance.
“[These employers] are true bloodsuckers, and they live by spilling the blood of the people who they make slaves of labour,” he said. However, some of the Vatican’s own lay employees would like to ask him, “What about us?”
Most lay workers in the Vatican who spoke to me did so on background, because they’re not authorised to give interviews and also for fear of consequences on the job. “If it was up to Pope Francis, we’d all work for free,” one Vatican employee said.
“I’m not saying I want to become a millionaire working for the Church. I’m saying give me a salary that would allow me to buy a house 20 years from now, or that would allow me to tell my spouse not to work double shifts, six days a week,” the employee said.
The Vatican has a working force of roughly 4,600 employees, three quarters of whom are lay people. The overall annual budget is around $300 million (€268 million), with salaries and benefits being the largest single expense.
That’s not pocket money, but Harvard University, for instance, has a budget 10 times greater: $3.7 (€2.7 billion) billion. Bank of America has $2.16 trillion (€1.92 trillion) in assets. As a result, the Vatican has to economise, and often it’s lay employees who are asked to get by on relatively little.
A cardinal based in Rome, for example, gets a “cardinal’s check” of $5,600 (€5,000) a month, plus benefits that include access to a tax-free electronic store, supermarket, clothing shop and pharmacy, up to 475 gallons (1,800 litres) of gas a year and cigarettes at discounted prices, benefits that are applicable to all Vatican employees. A lay person, however, gets a salary that corresponds with Italian law.
Italy is among the few European countries that doesn’t have a minimum wage law, so salaries are set through collective bargaining agreements on a job-to-job basis. Around half of the employees in the country are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and the Vatican uses the same basic framework. The net result is that the average Vatican employee makes around $22,000 (€19,630) a year, tax free.
That may seem shockingly low, but for those already in the system it’s at least a secure source of employment: odds are, the Vatican is never going out of business.
Under the Vatican’s labour law, it’s also virtually impossible to get fired. One veteran Vatican official said that some years ago, a pontifical commission tried to fire a lay woman who, after taking the usual nine months of maternity leave, managed to get paid for an extra 10 by navigating the system.
After four years of trying to get rid of her, superiors at the commission simply gave up.
The Vatican has a 10-slot scale for employees, whose salaries are determined from within an established range for each slot.
Rank doesn’t depend on an employee’s religious status – it’s not as if a monsignor automatically makes more than a simple priest, for instance – but on a series of factors such as years of service, education and promotion.
Jobs covered by these slots range from cleaning and gardening to heading a Vatican office, and requirements go from having a high school degree to a theology baccalaureate of five or six years plus a master’s degree.
Those working with a full-time contract get a pension and health care, though anyone living in Italy for more than three months and who registers with the National Health Services is eligible for free or low-cost health care along with their families, university students and retirees.
Things have gotten considerably more difficult for many lay Vatican employees since February 2014, when the Vatican announced an immediate end to new hires and imposed a freeze on wage increases and overtime in an effort to cut costs and offset budget shortfalls.
Pope Francis, with input from the Vatican’s central accounting office, also determined that volunteers could be used to help provide the labour needed to make up for the hiring freeze and eventual attrition.
According to four Vatican lay employees, all of whom asked to remain unnamed, the freeze has created new ways in which laity face exploitation.
In truth, new lay people are still being hired to work in the Vatican, but under what are known as “religious contracts”. These contracts are supposed to be for religious men and women coming to Rome to fulfil a specific task, for a period ranging from 10 months to a year.
Since religious communities normally provide health insurance, pension and benefits, the Vatican doesn’t have to cover them, and doesn’t do so for a lay employee hired under these contracts.
This is the case of many people working today at Vatican Radio, for instance, or the Vatican Museums.
In most cases, the employees add, people under these contracts end up working for many years, with no benefits, no guaranteed vacation days or no health insurance, hoping to eventually see their situation regularised.
At least two of the employees consulted by Crux argued that such policies are not only ironic in light of Pope Francis’ repeated calls for both just wages and lay empowerment, but they’re also self-defeating, because lay staff free priests up to perform their core spiritual roles.
“You don’t need a priest to translate a speech, you do need one to say Mass,” one argued.
Another employee said that at the end of the day, the Church is no longer run solely by religious workers, and it’s time the Vatican – and, for that matter, the dioceses – begin acknowledging that reality.
Current working conditions, the employees say, also make it more difficult for the Vatican to attract expertise it really needs.
For instance, since the Vatican processes information sent out to literally every country in the world, having a multi-ethnic, polyglot staff is key to handling translations in several dozen languages.
A third negative consequence of the hiring freeze, insiders say, is that it’s hard to find lay people, particularly those coming from abroad, willing to work long-term as volunteers, so the pool from which to choose new personnel is increasingly small.
A fourth issue raised by the employees was a “general sense of fear” regarding their positions, since a large share of lay employees in the Vatican have had “temporary contracts” for years. They worry that when Pope Francis’ much-discussed reform of the Roman Curia — the term for the government of the universal Church — is finally executed, positions will be vacated and contracts not renewed.
This fear is exacerbated by the fact that in 2014, when the freeze was set into place, employees were told they could write to Francis to share their concerns, but that they had to leave their letter unsealed – “to make sure,” as one jokingly put it, “the grovelling was proper grovelling”.
Vatican officials consulted for this article say that in fact, the Church is still a long way from best practices in terms of its personnel policies, and that, in many cases, the situation of each employee depends “on who you know higher up” in the food chain.
However, measures are reportedly being considered to ensure that when a reform of the Roman Curia is eventually finalised, these issues will at least partially be addressed.
*Ines San Martin is Vatican correspondent for Crux