A Pope with a plan? Francis's first 100 days

In his first 100 days in office, Pope Francis has largely kept his powder dry and focused on being more of a pastoral pontiff, David Perlich writes. But some recent casual comments make it clear he's holding a fuse for Vatican reform.

Recent asides reveal a Jesuitical strategy, and hint at Vatican reform

Pope Francis wades into a crowd of well-wishers during his weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square on Wednesday. (Stefano Rellandini / Reuters)

In these first 100 days of Francis's papacy, there have been few big announcements, few visible changes to church teaching or practice, few Curial government heads rolling through St. Peter's Square.

In short, the news from Rome has been sorta dull.

But that may be as should be. You can't revamp the world's largest, oldest and most diverse transnational organization in less time than it takes to plan your summer vacation.

In modern democracies we've become accustomed to the political notion that leaders have a narrow window of "good will" during which they can push a transformation agenda.

But, as with so much else, the Catholic Church has its own style, its own timetable.

During the conclave discussions before Francis's election, some cardinals talked openly about the pressing need for dramatic internal reform to the Vatican's Curial government, and the need for a powerful "manager pope."

And some recent off-the-cuff statements by Francis suggest that's what they got. Behind the scenes of blessings and baby kissing, a strategic and Jesuitical plan is already underway.

Since his selection on March 13, Francis has certainly set a new tone in the Vatican. Humility is the watchword — having replaced the rather sombre, yet vaguely ostentatious style (think ermine stoles and designer shoes) of Benedict XVI.

Francis has also yet to appoint a personal secretary (who traditionally acts as a powerful gatekeeper), and is therefore more accessible to outside influence. He mingles with (gasp!) average people after his daily masses, and he's gaining a reputation in Rome for being a bit "chatty."

Still, his parish priest-style messages of love and compassion have been largely ignored by non-Catholic media. Even though there was a little blip on the world's media radar when Francis said atheists — if they lead good lives — get to go to heaven.

Vatican City based headlines are scarce these days, which speaks to a larger problem facing the Catholic Church: the extent to which its moral messages (no matter who the messenger) are relevant to the lives of average people.

Still, there are many ways to be an effective Manager Pope, and Francis appears to be marshalling his forces for substantive internal change.

The 'gay lobby'

The greatest insight we've had into Francis' game plan came by the most random of routes — publication in a Chilean Catholic website called Reflexión y Liberación.

The website reported comments it said were made by the Pope to a visiting group of Catholic officials from Latin America on June 6. Comments in which, among other things, he appears to acknowledge the existence of a powerful gay subculture within the Vatican.

"The 'gay lobby' is mentioned," the Pope is reported to have said according to the notes these officials took during the meeting. "And it is true, it is there … We need to see what we can do."

Reflexión y Liberación has since apologized for publishing the Pope's private comments, and says they can't be treated as verbatim. But the Vatican hasn't denied them.

These statements were quickly tied back to rumours that Benedict XVI stepped down, at least in part, after receiving a document detailing the existence of a group of gay curial officials accused of political, financial and sexual malfeasance.

The Vatican says a document was commissioned on this matter in the wake of a 2012 scandal, in which Pope Benedict's butler stole private documents (the so-called Vatileaks scandal), but what that document says, is anyone's guess. Secret documents are just that, and this one was sealed by Benedict, only to be opened by his successor.

Reform of the Curia

Now there's no doubt there are homosexual clergy within the Vatican government. It's standard conversational fodder in Rome cafes, and Vatican watchers talk about it openly. Heck, go to the right drinks party and you'll see clergy who don't even hide it particularly well.

Basic sociology tells us that small groups with shared secrets tend to build reciprocal trust networks. So it's easy to imagine that within the Curia, as in all governments, such a network could exist. One where powerful figures protect their favourites. Where loyalty distorts meritocracy, and the power of caprice becomes a weapon.

To what extent a gay lobby actually exists in the Curia, we don't know. The presence of homosexuals in the Curia doesn't necessarily lead to collective action or organization. And whether this is the most serious issue facing the Vatican, or the most pressing issue for Pope Francis, is impossible to judge.

We just don't know enough about the true cause and extent of curial dysfunction behind the imposing stone walls of the Apostolic Palace. But Pope Francis seems determined to find out.

"The reform of the Roman Curia is something that almost all cardinals asked for in the congregations preceding the conclave," he's reported as saying in Reflexión y Liberación. "I also asked for it."

The group of eight

A good manager (say one trained in Jesuitical logic and social science who oversaw the Jesuit order back in his native Argentina) explores the extent of a problem before he tackles it.

In April, Francis appointed eight cardinals from around the globe to help him reform the church. And his comments about these cardinals, as reported in Reflexión y Liberación, gives us some insight into his managerial style, and limitations.

"I cannot promote the reform myself, these matters of administration ... I am very disorganized, I have never been good at this. But the cardinals of the commission will move it forward."

This comment shouldn't be undervalued.

It takes a truly insightful manager to admit his own weaknesses. It takes an even better manager to select the right people to make up for them.

Going this route, the 76-year-old Francis avoids his own deficiencies, the pitfalls of micro-managing, as well as the criticism leveled at his two predecessors — that of ignoring the problem.

He has been reported praising the organizational skills of each of the cardinals he has chosen for this task, in particular, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, a man who has been short-listed for the papacy a couple times.

Although the first formal meeting of the eight cardinals isn't until this fall, we can be sure they're already busy exploring the nooks and crannies of the Vatican's bureaucratic backwaters. (What wouldn't Vatican journalists give for just a glimpse into the appointments listed in their Day-Timers!)

It could take several years for the cardinals to investigate and fully puzzle out the almost universally acknowledged dysfunction in the Curia. They will then need to draw up a plan for detailed structural reform.

Given the size of the church, any proposal would necessarily be vast in scope. Intense public pressure and support from the various Cardinals of the church seems to demands substantive change.

When a reform document is set before him, it seems certain the strong-willed Francis will take decisive action.

In the meantime, while the heavy lifting is being done by his middle managers, Pope Francis has the liberty to function in the pastoral role he's obviously comfortable with, while avoiding the dangers of being consumed by internal politics.

"Pray for me," he's reported as saying, "that I make the least possible mistakes."