Christmas Punch

Pope Francis Denounces the Vatican Elite’s 'Spiritual Alzheimer’s'

The pontiff blasts the selfishness, arrogance and detachment of the cardinals in Rome.


VATICAN CITY—Pope Francis may be known for his generosity when it comes to the needy, giving out 400 sleeping bags to Rome’s homeless and opening the doors of previously shuttered convents to Syrian refugees; but on Monday he made it absolutely clear he won’t be showing the same kindness to the Curia, the clerics who run—or think they run—the worldwide Catholic Church from their comfortable positions in Rome.

In language that left these officials stunned and silent, Francis denounced those among them who "create a parallel world of their own, where they set aside everything they teach with severity to others and live a hidden, often dissolute life.”

The pope didn’t just deliver a lump of coal to the Curia this Christmas; he set it ablaze, outlining what he called 15 ailments that he says are ruining the Catholic Church, ranging from “spiritual Alzheimer's” to “existential schizophrenia” which the pope described as “the sickness of those who live a double life, fruit of the hypocrisy typical of the mediocre.” They are afflicted with “progressive spiritual emptiness,” he said, which no amount of academic honors and degrees can fill.

The remarks about a “hidden, often dissolute life,” while not explicit, can easily be construed as alluding to the child sex abuse scandal or the reported gay lobby that runs rampant among Rome’s clerics. What’s clear is that Francis wants all that to stop. “This ailment particularly afflicts those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic matters, thus losing contact with reality and with real people,” he said.

Francis also spoke of what he called a “sickness of considering oneself immortal, immune or indispensable,” which many pope watchers in the press, the Vaticanisti, say could be directed at some of his greatest nemeses inside the Curia. Among these is former secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, whose recently renovated million-dollar digs tower above Francis’s meager accommodations inside Vatican City. “It is the sickness of the rich fool who thinks he will live for all eternity,” Francis said, according to the English translation given to the press. “And of those who transform themselves into masters and believe themselves superior to others, rather than at their service.”

Another ill that damages the Church is what Francis called “funereal face, or rather, that of the gruff and the grim, those who believe that in order to be serious it is necessary to paint their faces with melancholy and severity, and to treat others – especially those they consider inferior with rigidity, hardness and arrogance.” This could easily refer to Cardinal Raymond Burke, who became the anti-Francis face of the Synod on the Family in October. Grinch-faced Burke openly criticized the pope for watering down church teaching when it comes to gays and divorced and remarried Catholics. “In reality,” Francis said, “theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity.”

The pointiff also blasted the “disease of accumulation: when the apostle seeks to fill an existential emptiness of the heart by accumulating material goods, not out of necessity but simply to feel secure” which was seen as a not so-veiled stab at bishops like Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the German bishop of Bling who was removed from his post for his opulence.

But the pope didn’t stop at denouncing the powerful among the Vatican’s bureaucrats. He criticized “the ailment of excessive planning and functionalism” as ills that keep church leaders detached from the greater flock. “One falls prey to this sickness because it is easier and more convenient to settle into static and unchanging positions,” he said, no doubt aimed at those who have lost touch with preaching and are focused only on the doctrine. “Indeed, the Church shows herself to be faithful to the Holy Spirit to the extent that she does not seek to regulate or domesticate it.”

Among the most dangerous ailments that Francis would like eradicated from the Curia is the persistent backstabbing, much of which, we know, is aimed at him. “The sickness of chatter, grumbling and gossip: this is a serious illness that begins simply, often just in the form of having a chat, and takes people over, turning them into sowers of discord, like Satan, and in many cases cold-blooded murderers of the reputations of their colleagues and brethren,” he said. “It is the sickness of the cowardly who, not having the courage to speak directly to the people involved, instead speak behind their backs.”

But the greatest sin of all for Francis is perhaps that of careerism, chiding those who honor people rather than God. “The ailment of rivalry and vainglory: when appearances, the color of one's robes, insignia and honors become the most important aim in life,” must go, he said. “They are mean, unhappy and inspired only by their fatal selfishness.” (Whether the pope intended it or not, any Vatican watcher would think of his predecessor’s red Prada-like shoes.)

Francis’s comments were met with scorn, reportedly garnering scant applause or none and plenty of glances among the cardinals who expected the usual benight season’s greetings from the pope. Writing in the Boston Globe, Vatican expert John Allen calls the pope’s address “risky” because like a president lambasting congress, the pope does need his Curia to make the changes he so strongly desires: “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?”

The Vatican’s English language spokesman Father Thomas Rosica said that the pope’s words were prophetic. “Now and then in our religious history, prophets arise to call us back to our origins, our roots and also our intended mission,” Rosica wrote in a note to the press. “That is what Pope Francis is doing. His words apply not only to the Roman Curia at the Vatican but to the entire Church throughout the world. His words are also valid for many institutions in the world today that lose sight of their original mission.”

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Francis has proven time and again that he doesn’t really care whose toes he steps on to make the Church the kind of institution and inspiration he wants it to be, and to many Catholics who feel alienated from the Church as it was, Francis’s commitment to reform is the perfect Christmas present.