Pope Francis and the Gang of Eight

Pope Francis and the Gang of Eight April 21, 2013

A recent episode of Salt + Light Television’s Vatican Connections offers a refreshingly balanced and informative report on Pope Francis’ recent creation of an advisory panel consisting of eight cardinals from around the world to advise him on church governance and particularly curial reform.


One easily overlooked point given mention here is that “the idea to put together an advisory panel was one of the topics that was discussed during the general congregation meetings just before the conclave.”  This panel, in other words, did not come out of nowhere and is not a radically unilateral creation of Pope Francis.  Indeed the creation and makeup of the panel highlight his general disinclination to act unilaterally.  As John Allen has observed,

This group could actually promote the more collegial vision of Church that people have been talking about.  Seven of the eight guys aren’t Vatican guys. They come from the local Church in various parts of the world. It is a way of saying that the Vatican has to be accountable to those local churches. Second, this is not a Pope who relies on people to make decisions for him. This is a Pope who does his own consultation. This is a Pope who picks up the phone himself and calls people and asks for advice. Clearly he’s created this group to be his primary sounding board…. These are not milquetoast, these are all strong personalities. It means you’ve got a Pope who wants real advice, not yes-men. What’s more, these guys don’t all think alike. Most people would see Cardinal Pell from Sydney as to the right and most people would see Cardinal Rodriguez from Honduras as fairly far to the left. This suggests that the Pope doesn’t want to just hear one opinion before he acts.

The ways this panel represents the diversity of the Church demonstrate that true collegiality must be more than a buzzword for the ecclesiology of the left, and Pope Francis appears to be aware of the need to listen to a full range of perspectives.  Contrary to how some would portray him, Pope Francis is not the poster child for the Catholic Left, nor is he a hardline defender of the Catholic Right’s truncated definition of orthodoxy.  He cannot fit these ideological boxes because he represents so well the fullness of Catholic orthodoxy, not to mention orthopraxy, which guarantees there will be something about him to appeal to, and also to challenge, each of us.

Michael Sean Winters recently made a similar point, expanding on his challenge to hear Pope Francis’ April 16 homily in praise of Vatican II primarily in terms of how it might challenge oneself:

I urged readers to read the Holy Father’s sermon and not think how it may or may not be interpreted as a slap to the traditional Latin Mass crowd or some other group within the church, but instead ask yourself if you have been faithful to the council. If you speak of the hierarchic structure of the church in dismissive tones, as some of my friends on the left do, are you being faithful to the council? If you minimize the call to justice and peace, as some of my friends on the right do, are you being faithful to the council? For everyone on all sides: Do you recognize that the Spirit will move where it wants, or can you only, grudgingly, allow the Spirit to move you in ways you have already decided to go? Who is following whom? There is an invitation to idolatry in discipleship whenever we make our own ideas and agenda the measure of others. It is a thing to resist. It is a sin.

I am guilty of this sin myself sometimes. I had a conversation with a good friend the day the conclave began. We were assessing different candidates and how this one or that would be accessible to us and our friends, how this one or that would focus on issues we care about, that sort of thing. Then my friend, who is possessed of graces I lack, said, “Of course, I will be happy if they select someone I do not know at all. Then we will have the excitement of getting to know someone new!” I am still excited to be getting to know Papa Francesco. So far, I like everything I have seen and heard. And when he does something I do not like, I hope I will have the grace to admit that perhaps he is right and it is I who need to reassess my opinion and not evaluate the new pope as to whether or not he is playing on “our team.”

We are all faced with a choice in how we relate to our Holy Father.  We can make him a pawn (or bishop, or king) in our ideological games, or we can allow him to call us into a broader and ultimately more unifying vision of what it means to be Catholic.  For the good of the Church, let us choose unity.

This of course does not mean we can never disagree, but it does mean that even our disagreements must be ruled by a spirit of Christian charity and by the reality of Eucharistic fellowship, rather than being poisoned by the toxic political atmosphere that surrounds us.  It is most especially in our disagreements that we have the greatest opportunity to inspire the world to say, “See how they love one another!”  It’s not easy – such is the nature of the gospel – but following the lead of Pope Francis by listening to multiple voices within our big tent of a Church is a good place to start.

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  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    I would put together an idea coming from this post, with a comment on MM’s previous one. Namely, that Pope Francis has called the American hierarchy’s shuffling of priest around in the abuse crisis “stupid”. Of course it is fun to here the Pope utter such a blunt ontological truth about the stupidity of human governance. Yet I wonder if this isn’t a worrisome bit of naivete on his part. For in a very complex sense, of we consider the actions of those Bishops as those of simply people who wanted to keep their jobs, their actions were the opposite of stupid, they were darkly ingenious. That is the problem. They were not “stupid”, they were Machiavellain, and everyone with half a brain knows it. This makes it no less revolting, or ultimately evil. For it is that as well.

    And hello, in this case which you raise here of the reform of the Roman Curia, we are dealing with no one less than the organization which literally invented Machiaveliian craftiness in Western culture. this is no exaggeration. Who do you think was some of Machiavelli’s inspiration??! So if Francis wants to really reform them, he is going to need a big helping of the proverbial “wise as serpents” vibe. And get it quick. Otherwise, fuggetaboutit. They are just going to say– you Popes come and go. The Curia is forever. We can always pack our bags and move back to Avignon!!

    • Julia Smucker

      Wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.

      The pope (and all of us) must be realistic and circumspect without himself (ourselves) resorting to political games and power trips.

      • What you are advocating, Julia, comes across as “stand-pat-ism” or acquiescence in the corruption of the last ten-fifteen years, of massive clerical cover-ups and abandonment of the victims the Church has made. I agree with Peter Paul: let the Supreme Pontiff issue a serious call to be different than what has gone on for quite some time, and I will definitely follow. It doesn’t have to be MY cup of tea–the “renewal” doesn’t have to be according to the plan of my favoured ideology–but it damned well better be something “different,” or I’m out of here! Half my family have already left. This pope is this Church’s last chance to “change in order to remain the same.”

        • Julia Smucker

          There is a necessary distinction here between the need to address the actual problems in the Church – reforming the curia, healing from the abuse crisis, etc. – and the advancement of vindictive ideological agendas. Perhaps you might agree, dismas, that we have a tendency in the United States to turn everything into a war (literally and figuratively), which often makes it hard to tell the difference.

          A major part of that difference, I think, is that true reform must be done out of love for the Church, and not in a spirit of hostility.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Julia and dismas,

    Thank you both for getting the basic thrust of what I was saying, without making it into schtick. Much appreciated. I see this as an issue far wider than the RC Church, but quite specific to them in that they are themselves the genesis of so much of the conceptual grid that we all in the West work on ineluctably. To wit, this is not the RC Church’s first time at this “reform” rodeo. It has been going on forever. The so-called “call for reform” is as much part of the tactic of the Curial bureaucracy as going out to pasta restaurants in the evening. It seems to have been the standard playbook for seeming to change while never really doing it. This has been bequeathed to virtually all Western governments as a default tactic. How do you de-fang and deep-six a dangerous “desire for change or revolution”, well, establish a committee, of course.

    Strangely, this tendency is capable of the most perverse mutations as well. By way of Marx, it later reached Mao, and his Great Leap Forward Campaign. I hope that no one will be offended if I notice that at least in general outline the “New Evangelization” bears a striking resemblance to all these matters.

    As I see it, what would really be good for the world, is if this organization which started all of this, made the dramatic move of actually coming to grips with its own history. And then growing out of that sane recognition. They have been sorta going in the opposite direction for the last few decades. But there are many smart people in the RC Church, and I am sure they would be willing. Because their faith is actually deeply meaningful to them, and that is a good motivation for getting it right. Btw, the converse is also indicated. Namely that to the extent that they fall back on all the old tactics and water-treadings, we can read what critics have always read. That for many it is just schtick, and a way to have a nice life. I saw a whole lot of that when I was in, and I did not kid myself about what I was seeing. Just remember this about existence, to be it grandly: Just because for you it is inconceivable that you would lie yourself and others for a whole lifetime, does not mean it is not easy for many others. And the inability to realize that about others, or again conversely the ability to realize that others will not want to believe that ability, is one of those ancient tactics mentioned above. Wise as serpents indeed, both up and down, as it were.

    • But Peter Paul, from what I’ve read and seen before, I conceive of the election of this pope as a sort of miracle. However, because I also believe in a lot of what you are saying as well, I actually fear for his very life–No kidding!

      • Julia Smucker

        I wouldn’t sell the cardinals short, though. The majority of them knew going into the conclave that curial reform is a pressing need. I have the strong impression that at least the non-curial cardinals were pretty solidly united in this regard.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs


      As much as I like watching The Borgias on HBO, which you probably don’t get in the subcontinent, I really do think the days of that sort of Curial skullduggery are quite over. And I don’t think JP I was murdered either. Really the world of bureaucracy these days fits less The Borgias, and more something to Woody Allen’s joke: “The world really isn’t “dog-eat-dog” anymore, it’s dog doesn’t return other dog’s phone call.”

      Anyways, Jesuits are pretty tough. As we used to joke in seminary, you have to be tough to wait till you are fifty till you’re ordained. And while having chinese food this afternoon, I watched Jesuit Fr. Mitch Pacwa on EWTN reviewing Nostra Aetate in front of him, and yet every time he pointed at the book on the table he used his middle finger, effectively giving Vatican II the “bird” or “the finger” for half an hour. Now that’s tough!

      • Peter Paul, I don’t know whether John Paul I was murdered or not, but a whole lot of people do, and certainly he wasn’t given proper medical attention before he died, because, if he had been given it, he wouldn’t have. I think there’s more than the reason of “humility” that Pope Francis hasn’t gone to live alone and unnoticed in the Papal apartments. Living where he does, if that one good lung gave out, somebody in the luxurious hostel where he’s residing would have the opportunity to call an ambulance.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs


          Well if appropriate “medical attention” is the issue, then you don’t need to go back to JP I, but can just consider JP II. While reactionary Catholics praised the sight of this hunched old man dragging through ceremonies barely able to utter a word, the rest of sane world saw a Church in love with ghoulish suffering for inexplicable purposes. If you forced the average grandpa to do what JP II had to do, by his own senile lights, you would be accused of elder abuse asap. Only in the Roman Church was it sign of holiness.

  • Francis Fuchs

    I think our faith should be centered on Jesus. The church is necessary (all the baptized) but it’s not the church we should be focused on, it’s Jesus. The Vatican is also necessary but it needs reforming and Pope Francis has already started to do this with his 8 advisors. Similar of what was in place for the first 1000 years of church history until the Pope wanted all the authority for himself.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Well, Francis and I may share a last name, but we apparently don’t share a fondness for reading Church history. As for the those first thousand years, he might start by just reading on Wikipedia about the Donation of Constantine, if that is not too much of a distraction from his hobby of tending rosy-scenarios.