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Pope gives Vatican leadership a withering critique

Pope Francis outlined problems he perceives at the Vatican, including a “Messiah complex.”Reuters/Pool

ROME — At the end of a tumultuous year for the Catholic Church, in which divisions among senior leadership over the direction being set by Pope Francis were at times glaringly apparent, the pontiff on Monday delivered a blistering critique of arrogance, careerism, gossip, and division in the Vatican.

Among other points, the pope denounced what he called “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” meaning “a progressive decline in spiritual faculties,” leading people to “build walls around themselves” and to make “idols” of their personal habits.

After the broadside, some observers wondered if the pontiff might risk alienating the very aides he needs to motivate in order to implement his reform agenda, especially ahead of challenges set for 2015 on which he may need the help.


The pope’s comments came in a traditional Christmas address to the cardinals and archbishops who make up the Vatican’s upper echelon, known as the Roman Curia. Francis ticked off 15 “spiritual diseases” to which he suggested such top-level Vatican officials are especially prone.

As part of that list, Francis complained of division and “poor coordination,” the “pathology of power,” and the temptation of “narcissism” and also the risk of becoming nothing more than “bureaucratic machines.”

He warned aides against being sealed off in “closed circles,” in which membership in a camp or movement is more important than belonging to the whole Church. He also criticized a “Messiah complex” and the illusion of being “indispensable.”

Some members of the pope’s Vatican team found the presentation demoralizing.

“I have to say, I didn’t feel great walking out of that room today,” one senior Vatican official said, who had been in the Vatican’s Sala Clementina for the speech and who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

“I understand that the pope wants us to live up to our ideals, but you wonder sometimes if he has anything positive to say about us at all,” the official said, who has been in Vatican service for two decades.


The body language among the cardinals and archbishops suggests that that reaction wasn’t isolated, as there were few smiles while the pope spoke and only mild applause.

In the address, Francis also said it is a kind of sickness to “divinize” one’s bosses, seeking favor through flattery and submission.

“Such people think only about what they can obtain,” the pope said, “and never about what they can give.”

Other items on his catalog of 15 illnesses included:

■   “Excessive planning,” not leaving room for spontaneity and surprise.

■   “Existential schizophrenia,” inducing people to “hypocrisy” and a “double life.”

■   Excessive “melancholy,” producing a “theatrical severity and pessimism” that the pope said are often “symptoms of fear and insecurity.” Officials should never forget, he said, “how much good is done by a healthy sense of humor.”

Traditionally, popes have used the year-end address to the Roman Curia as a sort of State of the Union speech, looking back over the year that’s ended and projecting forward to the one to come.

Francis, however, struck a different tone on Monday, perhaps reflecting the impact of what has been an eventful and sometimes divisive 12 months.

During October’s Synod of Bishops on the family, for instance, senior members of the Vatican bureaucracy were among the most outspoken figures at that summit, which treated hot-button issues such as the role of gays and lesbians in the Church and whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion.


In that context, Francis’ call to unity seemed clearly relevant, as well as his injunction against spreading “gossip.”

The pontiff sharply denounced those who “kill their colleagues’ reputation in cold blood,” saying, “they don’t have the courage to speak to people directly so they do it behind their backs.” He called such behavior “reprehensible.”

For many veteran Vatican-watchers, the question now is whether the pontiff’s sharp rhetoric risks demoralizing his Vatican team, especially looking ahead to 2015.

The pope’s “G9” council of cardinal advisers, a body that includes Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, is expected to make some long-awaited decisions early next year about streamlining the Vatican bureaucracy. The likely result of those moves will be that more work will have to be performed by fewer people.

Next year will also bring the first annual budgeting and accounting cycle under the pope’s new financial regime, meaning that Francis will be counting on departments of the Vatican to cooperate rather than trying to sabotage the process.

Also, a summit of Catholic bishops from around the world devoted to issues pertaining to the family is expected to prompt some tough decisions, and Francis will need key Vatican officials to help manage whatever tumult those decisions may generate.

In other words, this maverick pope may still need help from the system. The question is whether his critiques have served to clarify expectations and get aides on the same page, or if they will instead make his Vatican team reluctant to follow his lead.


Pope Francis arrived to lead a special audience for Vatican employees at the Paul VI's hall at the Vatican Monday.Alessandro Bianchi/REUTERS

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr,