Who Is the Pope?

Pope Francis
Pope Francis; drawing by James Ferguson

On December 22, 2014, Pope Francis delivered the traditional papal Christmas speech to the assembled ranks of the Roman Curia. This annual meeting with the staff of the church’s central administration offers popes the opportunity for a stock-taking “state of the union” address. In 2005, his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI had used the occasion to deliver a momentous analysis of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” that he believed had distorted understanding of the Second Vatican Council by presenting it as a revolutionary event, and to which he attributed many of the ills of the modern church. The phrase “hermeneutic of rupture” was eagerly seized on by those seeking a “reform of the reform,” and became a weapon in the struggle to roll back some of the most distinctive developments in the church following the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965, which had been presided over first by John XXIII and then by Paul VI.

The scope of Pope Francis’s 2014 address, however, was far more local and specific. Having briefly thanked his hearers for their hard work during the previous year, the pope launched into an excruciating fifteen-point dissection of the spiritual ailments to which people in their position might be prone. It was a dismaying catalog of “curial diseases”—the spiritual “narcissism” that, as part of the “pathology of power,” encouraged some to behave like “lords and masters” (in Italian, padroni); the “Martha complex” of excessive activity, which squeezes out human sympathy and renders men incapable of “weeping with those who weep”; the “spiritual Alzheimer’s” that besets those “who build walls and routines around themselves” and forget the spirit of the Gospel.

The pope’s tally of curial sins also included cliquishness, acquisitiveness, careerism, competitiveness, and indifference to others; the “existential schizophrenia” and “progressive spiritual emptiness” of many who abandon pastoral service and “restrict themselves to bureaucratic matters”; the “theatrical severity and sterile pessimism,” the “funereal face” that often attend the exercise of power; and the “terrorism of gossip” by which the cowardly “are ready to slander, defame and discredit others, even in newspapers and magazines.”

Though presented by Francis as a pastoral aid to a seasonal examination of conscience, the speech was widely perceived, not least by many in his audience, as a scathing critique of the current papal administration. Such excoriation of the Curia by a pope is unprecedented in modern times, yet there was nothing in its substance that need have surprised. The conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope in March 2013 was beset by a sense of scandal and dysfunction at the heart of the church. The cardinals met in the wake of the startling resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and under a rain of revelations about corruption and money laundering in the Vatican bank, clerical sexual abuse, and the failure of the church authorities to confront it—all given lurid coloring by the “Vatileaks scandal,” the leaking to…


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