ROME – Pope Francis delivered a blistering criticism of the headquarters over which he presides on Monday, ticking off a catalogue of “spiritual diseases” to which he believes Vatican officials are susceptible, such as careerism, arrogance, and gossip, calling it all the “pathology of power.”
His annual Christmas speech to the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s central administrative bureaucracy, played around the world as a scathing indictment. To insiders, it threw a key question into sharp focus: Is Francis in danger of alienating the very people he will need, sooner or later, to actually get anything done?
“I have to say, I didn’t feel great walking out of that room today,” one senior Vatican official said, who had been in the Vatican’s Sala Clementina for the speech and who spoke on the condition he not be identified.
“I understand that the pope wants us to live up to our ideals, but you wonder sometimes if he has anything positive to say about us at all,” the official said, who’s been in Vatican service for more than two decades.
For the record, this was an official who describes himself as an “enthusiast” over the direction being set by Pope Francis.
The body language on Monday among the cardinals and archbishops who make up the Vatican’s power structure suggest that reaction wasn’t isolated. There were few smiles as the pope spoke and only mild applause; since Francis delivered the address in Italian, it wasn’t because his audience didn’t understand.
By tradition, the Christmastime speech to the Curia is the Vatican’s “State of the Union” address, when the pope looks back over the previous year and lays out a vision for the one to come. Last year, however, Francis upended that custom, delivering a warning that without a spirit of service, the Vatican risked turning into a “heavy bureaucratic customs house.”
As it turns out, that was simply an entrée ahead of the main course.
On Monday, Francis listed 15 “spiritual illnesses” to which he suggested senior Church officials may be especially prone, including “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” “excessive planning” that seeks to “domesticate the Holy Spirit” rather than leaving room for spontaneity and surprise, and “divinizing” one’s bosses and superiors.
The pope blasted a psychology focused exclusively on “what one can obtain” rather than “what one can give.”
Some of his sharpest language came in denouncing gossip and division, saying it’s “reprehensible” that people try to “kill someone’s reputation in cold blood.” The pope also warned against becoming part of “closed circles,” more focused on loyalty to a party rather than the whole Church.
Granted, none of this is really new from a pontiff who’s made a critique of clericalism and careerism one of his stock themes.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, recently described Francis as an “anti-clerical pope,” meaning one leery of the pretensions to power and privilege often associated with the Church’s clerical caste.
Granted, too, the rhetoric about division and partisanship seems only natural in the wake of the October Synod of Bishops on the family, which surfaced deep divisions in the Church’s senior leadership over issues such as the role of gays and lesbians in the Church and Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Also, Francis did begin on Monday by thanking Vatican officials for their hard work during the past year and also paid a tribute to priests in general, saying they “only make news when they fall” but that “so many priests are still flying.”
Still, a key challenge for outsiders elected on a reform mandate, as Francis was, is how to avoid being assimilated to the system they were chosen to shake up, while also not breeding resentment among the insiders needed to implement whatever reform they want to achieve.
Question marks about the pope’s relationship with his Vatican team aren’t new.
Immediately after his election, Francis disappointed many in the Vatican by announcing they would not be receiving the traditional bonuses paid out for overtime worked during a papal transition.
Since then, he’s repeatedly signaled skepticism about many aspects of the Vatican’s internal culture. In 2013, for instance, he pointedly called careerism a kind of “leprosy” in the priesthood during a speech to future Vatican diplomats, and in a celebrated interview complained that too many Vatican potentates seem to believe they’re still living in a “royal court.”
Even when Francis tries to go positive, his language sometimes comes off as a back-handed tribute. For instance, he often talks about “old-time curialists” he admires, who did their jobs competently and without fanfare, but by describing them as “old-time” he seems to suggest the current crop of Vatican officials isn’t up to the same standard.
Francis did offer a special tip of the cap to Vatican personnel on Monday by scheduling a separate session with the blue-collar personnel and their families in a large audience hall, something popes haven’t typically done in the past.
Also, Francis can take comfort from the fact that as time goes on, more and more of the officials he’s addressing are his own picks. By now, for instance, both the pope’s top diplomat and his financial czar are figures he’s appointed.
Finally, the Vatican is no different from any other environment in that people naturally love a winner, and the pope’s sky-high poll numbers and political capital have brought around even some Vatican personnel who may initially have been skeptical.
Still, 2015 promises to be a year in which Francis is going to be especially dependent on his Vatican team.
His “G9” council of cardinal advisors is expected to make some long-awaited decisions about streamlining the bureaucracy, the likely result of which will be that more work will have to be performed by fewer people.
Next year will also bring the first annual budgeting and accounting cycle under the pope’s new financial regime, meaning that Francis will be counting on departments of the Vatican to cooperate rather than trying to sabotage the process from within.
Next October’s Synod of Bishops on the family is also expected to bring some tough decisions on matters such as allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive communion, and Francis will need key Vatican officials to help him manage whatever tumult those decisions may generate.
In the end, in other words, this maverick pope will still need help from the system. The question is whether his sharp critiques have served to clarify his expectations and get his aides on the same page, or if they risk demoralizing the very people he most needs to motivate.
Next year will likely go a long way to providing an answer.