Heads Will Roll

04.15.13

Pope Francis’s Posse

These aren’t yes men. Francis has assembled an advisory team hell-bent on fixing the church. Barbie Latza Nadeau on why some Vatican officials are polishing up their résumés.

On the one-month anniversary of his election, Pope Francis appointed a diverse advisory group from around the world to help him cure all that ails the Catholic Church. But will heads roll, or is this just a game of holy smokes and mirrors?

The group of eight cardinals named by Francis represents all seven continents, sending a blaring message that the focus of the universal church may soon diverge from the myopic views from within the Roman Curia. Among the pope’s new posse is Seán O’Malley from Boston, who was seen as a top contender to become pope himself in the days leading up to the conclave. The group also includes notable representatives of developing nations like Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay.

There are a number of outspoken leaders who have been very vocal about the church’s troubles, including Cardinal George Pell of Australia and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany. There is only one Italian on the list, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, who is not part of the Roman curial inner circle. “These are not yes men,” a senior Vatican official tells The Daily Beast. “They are all independent thinkers who don’t feel beholden to anyone.”

The geographic makeup of the advisory group will give a voice to some of the largest and most ignored areas of the church’s massive flock. The appointment also hints at tough reforms Francis reportedly has in store, which could even lead to decentralization and will surely lead to tougher stances on everything from the child-sex-abuse scandal to allegations of financial corruption that have dogged the church for decades. The Vatican press office was quick to clarify that it is a group—not a commission, committee, or council. “The group has no legislative power and its main function is to advise the pope,” says Father Thomas Rosica of the Vatican press office. “The group will not in any way interfere in the normal functions of the Roman Curia.”

But their influence could still be substantial. Vatican expert and author John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter says the group’s impact could be dramatic. “Potentially it could be an earthquake if it means the Vatican will now be accountable to the local churches rather than the other way around,” he tells The Daily Beast. “In effect, it could be a way of implementing the call for decentralization of power in the church that goes all the way back to Vatican II.”

Prior to the conclave last month, the College of Cardinals held closed-door congregations to prioritize the biggest problems the church faces from dwindling membership to a series of salacious sex scandals. They listened to hundreds of cardinals address the group and, in doing so, created a character profile of the type of leader the church needed. In one of those meetings, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (before he was elected to become Pope Francis) reportedly scolded his peers that the Roman Curia had become too shortsighted and had been ignoring the larger mission of faith and focus on the poor, in what effectively became a campaign promise, even though Bergoglio did not actively seek the papacy. Still, the formation of this group makes good on that promise, and the unintentional promise for change was likely part of what got him elected.

The group members are already in informal contact with the pope, but they won’t officially meet until early October, when they are expected to come to Rome to discuss everything from the future of the Vatican’s troubled bank to how to effectively deal with the church sex-abuse scandal. But they won’t likely get a peak at the contents of a top-secret red-covered dossier investigation into the VatiLeaks scandal, which was commissioned by Pope Benedict XVI and delivered before his resignation. The dossier remains strictly under lock and key unless and until Francis decides to put any of its contents on the group’s agenda.

By the time the group officially meets, the pope will have likely already shaken up the Curia with new appointments for key roles. Vatican expert Allen believes that the group will also help the pope decide which Vatican departments are redundant, with an eye to streamlining and simplifying the structure of the Holy See itself.

“In terms of who’s vulnerable, the most obvious group that’s had its wings clipped is the secretariat of State. Up to now, that’s been the outfit that made most of the key governance decisions in the name of the pope. Potentially its role could now become a sort of support staff to this body of cardinals,” predicts Allen. “To be honest, there are probably more than just a few Vatican officials right now thinking about polishing their résumés.”