On the heels of one controversial Vatican article alleging an “ecumenism of hate” between conservative Evangelicals and Catholics in America, another potential eyebrow-raiser emerged Saturday claiming that the “main obstacle” to implementing Pope Francis’s vision is “closure, if not hostility” from “a good part of the clergy, at levels both high and low.”

The term “high and low” suggests the author had in mind clergy ranging from senior bishops to ordinary parish priests.

“The clergy is holding the people back, who should instead be accompanied in this extraordinary moment,” said the article by Italian Father Giulio Cirignano, a native of Florence and a longtime Scripture scholar at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy.

The piece appeared in the weekend edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, under the headline of “The Conversion Asked by Pope Francis: Habit is not Fidelity.”

It comes a little over a week after the publication of an essay by Italian Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Argentine Protestant Marcelo Figueroa, two close friends of Pope Francis, in the Jesuit-edited journal La Civilità Cattolica. In it, Spadaro and Figueroa described what they see was a “Manichean vision” underlying growing closeness in America between Evangelicals and “Catholic Integralists.”

Cirignano’s piece didn’t focus on the United States, and appeared to be more concerned with Italian realities, though he didn’t specify which country or region he was addressing.

“The main obstacle that stands in the way of the conversion that Pope Francis wants to bring to the Church is constituted, in some measure, by the attitude of a good part of the clergy, at levels high and low … an attitude, at times, of closure if not hostility,” Cirignano wrote.

“Most of the faithful have understood, despite everything, the favorable moment, the Kairos, which the Lord is giving to his community,” Cirignano said. “For the most part, they’re celebrating.”

“Despite that, the portion [of the community] closest to little-illuminated pastors is maintained behind an old horizon, the horizon of habitual practices, of language out of fashion, of repetitive thinking without vitality,” he said.

Cirignano offered several factors to explain what he sees as “closure” and “hostility” from the clergy towards Pope Francis.

  • The “modest cultural level on the part of clergy, both at high and low levels,” he said, saying that both theological and Biblical preparation is often “scarce.”
  • An antiquated image of the priesthood, which, according to Cirignano, sees the priest as “the boss and patron of the community,” who, because of his celibate condition, is compensated with “totally individual responsibility,” a sort of “solitary protagonist.”
  • An old theology, associated with the Counter-Reformation, “lacking the resources of the Word, without a soul, that transformed the impassioned and mysterious adventure of believing into religion,” arguing that “the God of religion … is, for the most part, a projection of man, while “faith” is not in the first place “Man reaching for God, but the opposite.”

“When the priest is too marked by a religious mentality, and too little by a limpid faith, then everything becomes more complicated,” Cirignano wrote. “He risks remaining the victim of many things invented by man about God and his will.”

God, according to Cirignano, “doesn’t tolerate being enclosed in rigid schemes typical of the human mind.”

Instead, he said, “God is love, and that’s all, love as gift of itself. Thus [God] corrects, in a plain way, the million involutions we’re used to putting in the way of love.”

Cirignano is the author of several books in Italian. Including the 2015 title Francis: Beauty and Courage, published by AIMC.

Though there’s no indication that Cirignano’s piece was encouraged by Pope Francis, or indeed that the pontiff was even aware of it, Francis himself has frequently taken recalcitrant bishops and clergy to task during the course of his papacy.

Famously, in his December 2014 address to the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s central administrative bureaucracy, Francis ticked off 15 “spiritual diseases” he saw, including “Spiritual Alzheimer’s,” “rivalry and vainglory,” gossip, and even an unhealthy lack of joy he dubbed “funeral face.”