Pope Francis takes on the might of the curia
He makes an unlikely superhero. Mild-mannered and bespectacled, like a septuagenarian Clark Kent, but when he puts on his white cape he is fearless. Not yet two years into his term (reign seems an inappropriate word) Jorge Mario Bergoglio has confronted the rich and powerful.
He has taken on the Mafia, governments and dictators, condemning their excesses in no uncertain terms, and denouncing their indifference to the poor, the weak and the hungry.
But now he has taken on his most fearsome enemy yet – and the confrontation will shape the future of his papacy, and the Catholic Church.
This pope nailed his colours to the mast when he chose Francis as his papal name. It was a declaration of intent.
The rule of St Francis is simple: “To follow the teachings of our lord Jesus Christ, and to walk in his footsteps.” It was radical in the 13th century. It is a revolutionary idea today, particularly for a Church that has lost touch with its purpose and its people.
The pope has used Francis’s rule as the standard by which he measures people, leaders, institutions – and the decisions they make. Many have been found wanting – some shockingly close to the See of Peter.
Last week he turned the spotlight on one of the most entrenched, self-aggrandising and self-absorbed power blocks in the world today. And he did not miss and hit the Sistine Chapel wall.
The curia is the Catholic Church’s equivalent of the Soviet Politburo or the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. It shares with them the distinction of being dominated by conservative old men who quash non-conformity and embrace change with reluctance. Some, no doubt, still believe the Church was hasty apologising to Galileo in 1992 for insisting the earth revolved around the sun.
Since his election, the curia has been blocking the pope’s change agenda. Every time he opens a window, a cardinal jumps up to shut it again. If there are feet to be dragged, the curia will drag them.
Its most brazen move was thwarting reform at the Bishops’ Synod on the Family. Other popes might have played for time, manoeuvred behind the scenes, and tried another tack. But this pope – 78 years old – does not have time on his side, and he knows it.
Deciding attack is the best form of defence, he has laid into the curia and its wicked ways, in a speech both shocking and audacious.
The Church has not been short of critics, and it has denounced them. But when the pope joins the critics, you know something is seriously wrong.
His words were somewhat overshadowed by the shopping, partying and unbridled hedonism that marked last week’s festival of Saturnalia (the revival of an ancient Roman feast that now replaces Christmas).
It’s worth revisiting what he said.
The pope listed 15 “ailments” – enough to suggest the curia should be on life support. Perhaps the most devastating was that it was suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.
He said: “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias; in those who build walls around themselves, and become enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”
“Spiritually and mentally hardened,” he accused the curia of lacking coordination and trying to thwart “the freedom of the Holy Spirit”.
The pope sees clerics who are boastful and jockeying for position: men (yes they are all men) worrying over their appearance, the colour of their vestments and their titles.
He attacks the sickness of “those who live a double life… losing contact with reality.” And he condemns the “terrorism of gossip”, and the sickness of sycophancy. Hoping for advancement, clerics “honour people who are not God”. And he talks of a Church whose leaders are indifferent to others, and who take “joy in seeing another fall”.
The curia promotes a Church of “theatrical severity and sterile pessimism”, forming a closed circle that seeks to be stronger than the Church itself, men who “insatiably try to multiply their powers”. This the pope described as “a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body”.
It had to be said: tough love and all that.
The risk for Pope Francis is that the old guard – the enemy within – will bide their time and wait for regime change. The danger for the Church is that they will succeed.
- This article appeared in The Irish News on December 30 2014