Pope Francis' Address to the Curia

by Michael Sean Winters

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Pope Francis, in his annual Christmas address to the Curia, set forth fifteen – count ‘em, fifteen - spiritual maladies that he believes have invaded the upper echelons of the Vatican’s leadership. The speech illustrates again how differently Pope Francis conceives of his role as pope and how differently he grasps the problems facing the Church from the way his two immediate predecessors viewed these matters.

The list is stunning – you can find the full enumeration in this report at Vatican Insider. A few highlights:

The disease of feeling 'immortal' or 'essential'

'A curia that does not practice self-criticism, does not keep up to date, does not try to better itself, is an infirm Body'. The Pope mentions that a visit to cemeteries could help us see the names of many who 'maybe thought they were immortal, exempt and essential!'. It is the disease of those who 'turn into masters and feel superior to everyone rather than in the service of all people. It often comes from the pathology of power, the "Messiah complex" and narcissism'. 

The diseases of mental and spiritual 'petrification'

It is the disease of those who 'lose their internal peace, their vivacity and audacity, to hide under papers and become "procedural machines" instead of men of God', unable to 'weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice!'.

The disease of existential schizophrenia

It is the disease of those who live 'a double life, a result of the hypocrisy typical of mediocre people and of advancing spiritual emptiness, which degrees or academic titles cannot fill'. It often strikes us that some 'abandon the pastoral service and limit their activities to bureaucracy, losing touch with reality and real people. They thus create their own parallel world, where they set aside all that the others harshly teach' and live a 'hidden' and often 'dissolute' life. 

The disease of deifying the leaders

It is the disease of those who 'court their superiors', becoming victims of 'careerism and opportunism' and 'live their vocation thinking only of what they must gain and not of what they must give'. It might also affects the superiors 'when they court some of their collaborators in order to gain their submission, loyalty and psychological dependence, but the final result is real complicity'.

None of this is particularly new, although seeing the list all at once is startling. Pope Francis’ morning homilies touch on these different spiritual maladies all the time, picking up on their manifestation in the Scriptures and applying the lesson of the Gospel to the Church today. As noted before in this blog, those sermons and today’s speech are a window into Pope Francis’ daily experience. He faces intense opposition within the curia, not just on this issue or that appointment. The resistance is not mainly to a reconfiguration of curial structures, although all bureaucracies tend to engage in turf battles. No, Pope Francis is calling the curia – and all leaders in the Church and all the Catholic faithful – to re-imagine their role and consider anew what it means to be a Catholic, what it means to be a leader in the Church. As he said this morning, ministry in the Church must be understood and practiced as service.

Those who complain about the pope, especially those on the left, have much to ponder in the pope’s address. Some say he has not moved quickly enough on clergy sex abuse. Others complain that he speaks about women in an out-dated and paternalistic way, which conveniently allows them to ignore what he is trying to say and focus on his use of metaphors. The complaints all have a common characteristic: the pope should be more like me, they suggest. The right gets credit for at least wrestling with the pope’s words, even the ones they find difficult. The left applauds what they like and whines about what they do not. There is little sense that we have anything to learn. It is a shame.

In a talk at Catholic University in November, Cardinal Walter Kasper said the pope is not a liberal nor a conservative but a radical. He is exactly right. Trying to pigeonhole the pope into an overarching ideological construct missed the point. The core mission of the Church, in fidelity to the mission of Jesus Christ, is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. (More on this tomorrow.) Hence, the prominence of his image of the Church as a field hospital and the frequency with which he challenges the clergy and warns against the dangers of clericalism. The curia, most of all, is in danger of becoming self-referential, of thinking that it and it alone represents the one, true Church, of conflating its attitudes and its power with the action of the Holy Spirit. The radicalness of Pope Francis’ vision is the claim that the real work of the Church is done in the world, ministering to those who are bruised and hurting, and challenging those who have lost the sense that they, too, rely ultimately on the mercy of God. It is the radicalness of the Gospel, the radicalness of Jesus reaching out to the woman at the well and upbraiding the teachers of the Law.

We cannot fail to compare the Holy Father’s address this morning with the most famous curia address of Pope Benedict’s. In 2005, Benedict used this occasion to denounce a “hermeneutic of discontinuity” in interpreting the Second Vatican Council and, instead, adopt a “hermeneutic of reform” which contains elements of both continuity and discontinuity. (Some of my conservative friends mistakenly claim that Benedict advocated for a “hermeneutic of continuity” but that is not what he said.) The concern was a theological one, an important theological concern to be sure. And, no one, least of all Pope Francis, would deny that he benefits greatly from Benedict’s theological spadework. But, Pope Francis sees a pastor’s role as wider and deeper than merely teaching the faith, important though that is. He wants to remind us all that the object of faith, and the source of faith, is Jesus Christ, who comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. Benedict, in his different way, emphasized this too. “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction,” he wrote in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est. But, Francis has the gift of plain speaking, a gift that so many of us have lost in our age of specialized knowledge.

More importantly, Francis is making the point that, in reconfiguring our understanding of the Church’s mission today, and of what it means to be a leader in the Church, what it means to be an apostle, we must remember that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. In the past 35 years, for a variety of reasons, the emphasis from Rome has been on Jesus as the truth. Pope Francis, it seems to me, is insisting that we remember that Jesus is the way, as well as the truth, or that we will not find life in Him but end up with a kind of ecclesiastical debating society, comparing syllogisms, worrying about what does not matter and neglecting the thing that does matter: The hurting world needs a savior as much today as it did two thousand years ago, and the savior comes today, as He came then, to the poor and the marginalized, and the Church is the place where, following in His way, we can best grasp the depth of his truth and just so encounter eternal life. If we stray from His way of service and consolation, our truths turn into judgments against us and we become like the Pharisees. If, instead, we heed the pope’s plain speaking call to conversion, to conformity to the Master, if we enslave ourselves to His grace, then we will find the freedom of the children of God. It is not a lefty thing or a rightwing thing. It is radical. And, this morning, the curia received the call. It is meant for us all.

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