The appointment of a new secretary of state and a ‘V-8’ advisory board have coincided with a new foreign policy activism, but the long-term direction for Vatican governance remains unclear.

Francis I has caused considerable excitement in his first months as pope. Relaxed comments on homosexuality, contraception and the general ranking of sexual morality versus obligations to the poor have stirred hopes – and fears – of a more liberal, if not radical, new papacy.

Yet it may be Francis’s nomination of a new secretary of state for the Vatican – a role to be significantly rebranded as ‘papal secretary’ – that should be viewed as the true turning point of his pontificate. The appointment of Monsignor Pietro Parolin, who began his role as ‘prime minister’ on 15 October, transformed the image of the office and coincided with the Holy See’s return to the international scene after the inertia of Benedict XVI’s foreign policy. Francis has chosen a group of eight cardinals to advise him on global issues. All but one of these clerics are from outside Rome and Italy, and their meeting with the pontiff on 1–3 October was likely to be the first of many. It was a novel move that fed rumours of a new style of governance, and even a collegial future in which power would be shared at the very top of the Holy See. That remains to be seen. As Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s spokesman, has repeatedly pointed out, ‘it is the pope who decides. The eight cardinals just advise him.’

This distinction is telling because it points to the inevitable ambiguities that the pope’s so-called ‘revolution’ will encounter inside the Church. Francis is reducing and reshaping the structure of the Roman Curia and the papal bureaucracy, and replacing the heads of various departments. It is a reform from high office of which the eight cardinals will become the most apparent symbol. The new group has been jokingly nicknamed the ‘gang of eight’ by American Jesuit Thomas Reese. Others have labelled it the ‘Vatican 8’, or ‘V-8’. Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, who is from Honduras and acts as the coordinator of this advisory group, defined himself and his seven fellows as members of a ‘C-8’, or Cardinal 8.

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Massimo Franco is a political columnist for the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera. He is the author of Crisis in the Vatican Empire: Why the Catholic Church Has Become the New Global Accused, due to be published in the United States on 26 November by Open Road. In 2008, he wrote Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the United States – Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict (New York: Doubleday, 2008).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2013–January 2014

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