In a signal that major reform may be on the horizon, the Vatican announced April 13 that Pope Francis has formed a group of eight cardinals from around the world to "advise him on the government of the universal church" and "to study a project of revision" of Pastor Bonus, issued by John Paul II in 1988 on the Roman Curia.
The cardinals named to this new role are Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello of Italy, president of the government of the Vatican City State; Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, archbishop emeritus of Santiago, Chile; Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India; Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa, Congo; Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston; Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising: Cardinal George Pell of Sydney; and Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, Italy, was named the group's secretary.
Several of these cardinals have voiced criticisms over the years about various aspects of Vatican operations, while two, O'Malley and Mux, have played key roles in the church's response to the child sexual abuse crisis.
The group's first meeting is set for Oct. 1-3. Meanwhile, according to the Vatican statement, the pope will be in regular contact with the cardinals individually.
The Vatican did not explain how these cardinals were chosen or how long they will serve in these roles. The note said Francis had assembled the group in keeping with a suggestion that emerged during the general congregation meetings of cardinals in the run-up to the conclave that elected him to the papacy.
Five points seem most noteworthy about the cardinals who will likely be the new pope's most important sounding board.
Cabinet, not commission
In some early reporting, the mission of this body has been described as helping Francis reform the Roman Curia. Yet that's not what the April 13 announcement says. The key line states that Francis has assembled this group "to advise him in the government of the universal church," and only then "to study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, Pastor Bonus."
In other words, curial reform is only the second task. The first is to advise the pope on decisions about the universal church, meaning there's almost nothing that falls outside its purview.
To invoke parallels from secular governments, this isn't a blue-ribbon commission assembled to handle a single task, like reforming Social Security or recommending military base closings. This is more akin to a cabinet, a body to advise the chief executive on almost everything that comes across his desk.
Not yes men
The eight cardinals Francis picked are strong personalities, rather than yes men inclined to tell the pope what he wants to hear.
Pell may be a solid doctrinal conservative, but during the pre-conclave period, no one was more outspoken about dysfunction in Vatican management. He said of the Pope Benedict XVI years, "Governance is done by most of the people around the pope, and that wasn't always done brilliantly."
Rodriguez Maradiaga has crossed swords with Vatican potentates, including a standoff with fellow Salesian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state, regarding an overhaul of Caritas Internationalis. O'Malley joined Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna in 2010 in criticizing Bertone's predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, for referring to criticism of the church's record on sex abuse as "petty gossip."
Over the years, both Monsengwo and Gracias have argued for greater latitude for local churches and regional conferences of bishops.
This background suggests Francis has turned to prelates likely to give him real advice, not just a rubber stamp.
The decision to assemble this group of advisers comes off as an act of collegiality, meaning shared authority, …