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Facing entrenched opposition, Pope Francis plows ahead on Vatican reform

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 22, 2014

The Pope’s Christmas address to the Roman Curia is traditionally the occasion when the Pontiff lets his closest associates know about his top priorities. In 2005, for example, Pope Benedict XVI used the occasion to give his famous talk against the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” in the interpretation of Vatican II—a message that would be the leitmotif of his pontificate.

So today, when Pope Francis jolted Vatican-watchers with his searing critique of “sicknesses” within the Curia, he eliminated any possible confusion about his pastoral priorities. Reform of the Roman Curia will be his #1 goal—for 2015 and probably for his entire pontificate.

Last year, when he met with the Curia for the traditional exchange of Christmas greetings, Pope Francis delivered a comparatively mild warning against gossip and in-house intrigues. This year he returned to the same topic, but left subtlety aside as tore into the familiar vices of a bureaucracy: an inward-looking and self-important approach, careerism, pettifoggery, factionalism, and a lack of a sense of humor. He spoke about the “existential schizophrenia” of Vatican officials who may be leading “a hidden, often dissolute life.” And he left very little doubt that he was not speaking in purely abstract terms—that he believed all these failings could be found in display within the corridors of the Vatican.

At the end of his address the Pope made a bow toward the faithful servants of the Church, mentioning that clerics, like airplanes, “only make the news when they crash.” But that quick word of praise came much too late to soften the overall message. Photos of the meeting show a room full of long-faced prelates. Reports indicate that the Pope received only sparse, tepid applause. The mood of the pre-Christmas meeting was anything but joyous.

”I have to say, I didn’t feel great walking out of that room today,” one Vatican official told John Allen of Crux. Allen remarked that the Pope’s confrontational approach might by a risky one. He may want to change the way the Vatican works, but he cannot afford to alienate his entire staff or destroy office morale. He needs someone to help him carry out his plans—even his plans for reform of the Roman Curia.

The fact that Pope Francis would risk the anger of his staff is noteworthy. The fact that he would return to the same topic that he discussed last year, and escalate the intensity of his rhetoric so dramatically, suggests that the iron has entered his soul: that he has encountered resistance and is determined to overcome it.

Just a few days before the Pope’s stunning speech, the French daily Le Figaro carried a prescient article entitled “Guerre secrete au Vatican: comment le pape Francois bouleverse l’Église” (“Secret war at the Vatican: how Pope Francis is shaking up the Church”). Correspondent Jean-Marie Guénois, a veteran of the Vatican press corps, portrays a struggle between a Pope determined to change the way the Vatican does business and entrenched officials determined to resist the changes. If that analysis is correct, it would help to explain the Pope’s remarkable speech today. In a sense the Holy Father was addressing not only the Vatican staff but the Church at large, explaining why it is so important to reform the Roman Curia.

He may face stiff resistance now, but Jorge Bergoglio was elected to the papacy with a very clear mandate to clean up the Curia. During the meetings of the College of Cardinals that preceded the 2013 conclave, the need for reform was by far the most prominent theme. In fact the Argentine prelate reportedly captured the attention of his colleagues, and thus became a likely candidate for the papacy, when he delivered a short, pointed talk about the importance of breaking down a “self-referential” attitude in Church institutions.

The need for reform at the Vatican is not a question that pits liberals against conservatives. Pope Benedict recognized the same need and, recognizing that he no longer had the strength to lead a major reform, stepped down to clear the way for someone more energetic. Pope Francis took office with this problem foremost in his mind.

Nearly two years into his pontificate, Pope Francis has formed a clear understanding of the task he has undertaken. He knows that the challenge will be formidable; he knows the resistance will be tough. And now we know that he is determined. If you want to know what this pontificate is all about, read today’s address.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Defender - Dec. 23, 2014 10:20 PM ET USA

    I thought I read somewhere that Cardinal Bergoglio finished second in the balloting in 2005, which would have put him at the top of the 2013 election. I would add that many of the things he pointed out to the curia also apply to the clergy he and other popes have made bishops and cardinals.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Dec. 23, 2014 9:32 PM ET USA

    I hope the grass roots clergy take the Pope's admonitions to heart. It applies to them also.

  • Posted by: a son of Mary - Dec. 23, 2014 3:37 PM ET USA

    Another comment: ”I have to say, I didn’t feel great walking out of that room today,” Great! A good leader gives straight up feedback on performance. He was soft last year. They didn't get it. So both barrels this year. So if you didn't feel great, what did or didn't you do last year that causes the pain? Maybe a little self awareness is good for the Curia Crowd. Thank God the Pope speaks so clearly on this. For too long we have needed needed translators to understand. No more!

  • Posted by: a son of Mary - Dec. 23, 2014 3:33 PM ET USA

    Bravo Pope Francis! I think it has been clear for a very long time that the machine looks after itself rather than the Church! If it had focused on faith and the Church, we would have never experienced the infinite pain of pedophilia running rampant through the Church. The Curia would not have allowed it nor would it have allowed lame, tepid priests to become bishops or higher. But no, it revealed its very frail and human side. It needs a good cleansing. Hail Mary!

  • Posted by: shrink - Dec. 22, 2014 7:27 PM ET USA

    If it is as bad as you suggest, one can wonder if Francis will live to see his own reform.