VATICAN CITY -- Seven months after ascending the throne of Saint Peter, Pope Francis is in the midst of a crusade against the sins of Vatican City.
Since succeeding Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has publicly sought to transform the tone of his office, extending surprise olive branches to everyone from gays and lesbians to professed atheists. But much more quietly, Vatican officials and observers say, the new pontiff has also begun to alter the atmosphere inside the Holy See, taking steps to shed light on the notoriously opaque Vatican Curia.
Before Pope Benedict stepped down, documents leaked to the Italian news media detailed a lurid opera of rivalries and corruption inside the sprawling bureaucracy of 2,900 clerics and lay functionaries operating in the shadow of St. Peter's Basilica. Overhaul is seen as key to restoring the faith of the world's 1 billion Catholics in the Vatican's administration.
Observers say it is too early to gauge the depth or success of the pope's internal overhaul effort. But even many longtime Vatican critics say the new pope has already begun to confront the problem head-on in a way his predecessor never did.
In a place where change is often measured in decades if not centuries, Pope Francis personally moved to oust top officials of the secretive Vatican bank only days after a fresh corruption scandal engulfed the institution, officials say. Pope Francis has also backed a push for greater financial transparency, while moving faster than many expected to replace Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone -- Pope Benedict's secretary of state, who once wielded the power of a vice pope. Cardinal Bertone, who allegedly stymied efforts to clean up Vatican City, was seen by many observers as a big part of the Holy See's problem.
More overhauls are coming. Two Vatican officials with direct knowledge of the situation said the pope is preparing to consolidate the Curia's myriad operations, with the aim of reducing the size of the bureaucracy. Pope Francis has recently suggested that clerics should focus on their home dioceses rather than angle for prestigious postings in the Holy See. His new advisory board of eight cardinals from around the globe is seen as a counterweight to the power of Vatican-based authorities.
"Is this going to mean real change? We do not yet know," said Massimo Teodori, a former Italian senator and longtime critic of the Holy See who penned a tome titled "The Greedy Vatican." "But something may be happening. There have been announcements and pronouncements, and under this pope, the power of the Curia around Cardinal Bertone is already no more."
Inside the Vatican, a sense of apprehension similar to that of company management after the arrival of a crusading new chief executive has taken root. Bishops who were once chatty with journalists have clammed up. And after Cardinal Bertone's exit, the question floating around the ancient walls of the city-state is: Whose dome-hatted head could roll next?
Pope Francis is also feeling the beginnings of a backlash. Last week, two leading Italian commentators from the same camp as conservative members of the Curia unleashed a front-page tirade in the Foglio newspaper under the headline: "We don't like the new pope." The outburst immediately led to the cancellation of both men's shows on the Italian Catholic radio station, Radio Maria.
Though their commentaries had largely targeted what they called the new pope's embrace of modernity and his Everyman approach to his lofty office, analysts here also read them as part of a pressure campaign against too much overhaul, too quickly.
"They know they can't openly attack his structural reforms, so they attack him for his doctrine, accusing him of relativism and hurting the stature of the office of the pope," said Carlo Marroni, the Vatican correspondent for the Milan-based financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.
First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM