There are signs that Francis shares their concern. He has publicly commented on the need to reform the Vatican bureaucracy and, more important, he has moved, albeit tentatively, from words to deeds. In April he created a special commission of eight cardinals to advise him on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy. Right before the June arrests, he established a commission to review the activities of the Vatican bank and, in July, one to investigate the accounting practices of various Vatican offices. In the latter group, seven of the eight members are laypeople, including one woman.
Whether Francis has an appetite for the hard and often unpleasant work required to fix an entrenched bureaucracy remains to be seen. Commissions, after all, are well-known gambits to deflect attention and postpone action. The bigger question is whether Francis will be able to balance his roles as pastor and manager when the former role is, in many ways, so much more attractive.
It’s clear that if Francis wants to meet challenges to morality and justice, he doesn’t need to go on the road to find them. He can stay put at the Vatican and have his hands full. But will the Holy Father be willing to forsake the big stage, adoring crowds and fawning media for the lonely desk, stacks of files and constant meetings that today, more than ever, are an integral part of his responsibilities? If he can’t, he may go down in history as one of the most popular but least effective popes of the 21st century.
David Alvarez is a professor of politics at St. Mary’s College of California. His latest book is “The Pope’s Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.