Pope Issues Blistering Rebuke of Vatican Bureaucracy
Denounces Living of Hypocritical Double Lives, Lusting for Power at All Costs

By Deborah Ball and Tamara Audi
Wall Street Journal
December 23, 2014
Click image at right to view PDF of front page.

Pope Francis launched his harshest criticism to date of the Vatican bureaucracy, likening it to an “ailing body,” and setting the stage for what is expected to be sweeping reform next year.

In his Christmas address on Monday to cardinals and senior officials attached to the Curia, the church’s Rome-based administrative apparatus, Pope Francis warned against “spiritual Alzheimer’s disease,” careerism and gossip.

The harsh critique grabbed wide attention, with the Religion News Service offering a headline that said, “Pope Francis to Curia: Merry Christmas, you power-hungry hypocrites.”

Pope Francis has broken new ground during his papacy in a range of areas, suggesting a more open approach to homosexuals, advocating a stronger role for women in the church, rebalancing the College of Cardinals to increase the weight of the emerging world, and helping support the reopening of relations between Cuba and the U.S.

In a similar vein, the address to the Curia seemed to serve notice that he aggressively plans to take on the problems that have developed in the Vatican bureaucracy during the past decade from infighting among cardinals to embarrassing leaks.

The detailed critique of the Curia suggested that reforms will aim for greater transparency, greater efficiency and a more positive model for the Catholic Church at large.

The pope publicly takes on the fiefdoms within the Vatican, and seeks to break “the closed circles of power,” said Chad Pecknold, associate professor at the Catholic University of America. “It’s a full-on broadside to the heads of the Curia, but also the 3,000 staff…who suffer from the same problems.”

The pontiff’s remarks presented a colorful 15-point list of “diseases” from which the Curia suffers.

Pope Francis, right, and members of the Roman Curia are shown in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican on Monday in a photograph released by the Vatican press office. OSSERVATORE ROMANO / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE / GETTY IMAGES ENLARGE

He warned against a “Curia that is not self-critical,” likening such a body to “the rich fool who thinks he will live for all eternity.” Some suffer from “the sickness of mental and spiritual hardening: that of those who, along the way, lose their inner serenity, vivacity and boldness,” he said.

The pope also blasted the “ailment of rivalry and vainglory: when appearances, the color of one’s robes, insignia and honors become the most important aim in life.”

The pope has made waves within the Vatican for his decision to repudiate the Apostolic apartments, where popes typically live, in favor of a two-room apartment inside a modest rooming house. He has also shunned expensive cars and elaborate robes, wearing a simple metal cross.

ANNUAL CHECKUP:Pope Francis, in his Christmas address to a gathering of cardinals and senior officials Monday, warned against ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s disease,’ careerism and gossip. The pope’s harsh critique suggests he plans to aggressively take on problems in the Vatican bureaucracy. ALESSANDRA BENEDETTI / VATICAN POOL / CORBIS ENLARGE

The 78-year-old pontiff pointedly said that the Curia should be a model for the entire church. “I once read that priests are like airplanes: They only make news when they crash, but there are many that fly,” he concluded, adding that “one priest who falls may cause” harm to the whole church.

The extraordinary address is the toughest criticism yet by a pope who has wasted few opportunities to denounce the scandal-ridden Curia since he was elected in March 2013. Before the conclave that elected Pope Francis, the cardinals issued a clear call for a pontiff who would shake up a bureaucracy that saw a stream of embarrassing revelations of corruption and infighting during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis issued a blistering attack on bureaucracy in the Vatican in his Christmas address on Monday. Photo: Reuters

Rev. Michael Barrett, who has spent five years in Rome, primarily studying theology, noted that the church has been trying to reform the Curia for at least two hundred years. But, he said, this pope has already started making important changes. “If you’re trying to reform the curia,” he said, “you have to be a very strong man.”

Pope Francis was chosen in part because, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was far from the intrigue in Rome.

The pope has begun to overhaul the Curia, starting largely with the financial management of the body, a task that is well under way. But next year, he is widely expected to begin streamlining the bureaucracy, collapsing some of the departments.

Many are also watching his choices of a new batch of cardinals, expected in January, for more signs of his plans. He has made little secret of his desire to rebalance the College of Cardinals to reflect the growth of Catholicism in the emerging world and to reduce the weight of cardinals—many Italian—in the Curia.

Terence McKiernan, President of, which tracks the sex-abuse scandal in the church, said the pope’s speech must be followed with real actions.

“This is a very capable man who is really making some remarkable changes. Rhetoric is part of the way you change things, but it needs to be accompanied by real and significant action,” he said.

“He’s opening up a dialogue that never existed before and I think that’s a very healthy thing,” said Raymond Flynn, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and a Catholic. “Some people will get their nose out of joint, but in the final analysis I think this makes the church stronger.”

Mr. Flynn said the frank talk will go over well with younger Catholics who will see “he’s inviting dialogue and a new way of looking at things.”Sometimes you have to be provocative to really get people’s attention.”

Write to Deborah Ball at and Tamara Audi at


















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