Michael Kelly SJ. Pope Francis and the Curia.

The tongues are certainly waging worldwide over the Christmas message of Pope Francis to staff at the Vatican – the priests, monsignors, bishops and cardinals gathered for an end of year assessment by the pope of the year that has passed.

A few perfunctory words to round out a very busy year or a general expression for thanks for various contributions? Not at all! A full on, Gospel based account of the traps of bureaucracy, the hypocrisy that can beset professional Catholic administrators and an implied warning that more is to come when the anticipated plans to restructure the Vatican Curia are announced in the next couple of months.

“Where did this one come from and why at Christmas?” is the understandable question on many minds, not least those whose tenure in their jobs depends on the one making the damning assessment.

But there’s nothing new in what the pope said, observers of the Vatican and those who have worked closely with bishops and cardinals in Rome have told me.

“You could find any number of cardinals and bishops saying the same thing to my certain knowledge up to five decades ago,” one previously highly placed and now retired lay Church official in Rome told me.

So how and why did the Argentinian Pope come to say it now to the clergy among the Vatican’s staff, especially as he subsequently met with the Vatican’s lay staff to thank them for all the sacrifices they make in their service of the Vatican every day?

What drove the first Pope in history to “dump” so completely, publically and unceremoniously on his Curia and go to the heart of the Gospel to find a basis for his commentary?

Jesuits in Argentina I spoke to were not surprised at all by what the Pope had to say in Rome. This way of behaving was vary familiar in Fr. Bergoglio’s modus operandi with the Jesuits as Provincial and as Cardinal in Buenos Aires.

I asked one Jesuit who knows the pope well how he interpreted this declaration in Rome. He told me that such rhetorical flourishes from Bergoglio always come down to being directed against people, sometimes even just a single, though significant individual and what they represent or what he finds loathsome and intolerable. My Jesuit informant told me the pope understands power and uses it to devastating effect when there is someone or a group he believes to be guilty of behavior at complete odds with the Gospel.

To understand why the pope is such a no-nonsense individual on these matters, some appreciation of the context he comes from is needed. He began life, like many Argentinians of his age and generation, as a Peronist.

Peronism is a chaotic, at times self-contradictory, collection of populist, authoritarian and dysfunctional beliefs and political practices some of which have their foundation in the Catholic social teaching of the 1930s, particularly the corporatism of the Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of 1931.


In Argentina, Peronism created all manner of socially progressive laws but also left a legacy of corruption, political confusion, violence and the missing of economic opportunities. Politically and economically, the country has “underachieved”.

Economically, the ravages of international capitalism that exploited its resources and left little for the locals have not helped Argentina. And politically, the country has led a fractured life for over fifty years with the ghost of Juan Peron authorizing no end of varieties of mutually exclusive and contradictory political movements and parties.

In that political mess, violence has been the constant companion of public life, with the most outstanding moment being the “dirty war” from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s. It was something in which the Catholic Church was deeply involved – a significant part though not all of its leadership turned a blind eye to the killings, murders and torture carried out by the military dictatorship that operated in the name of restoring the Church and Catholic values to the center of Argentinian life.

The ultimately unproductive Peronism of his youth, the political chaos of the country that led to a military dictatorship, fighting a war with Argentinians, a Church where the Nuncio was the tennis partner of the military dictator and the President of the bishops’ conference was chaplain general to the armed forces and completely supportive of its “saving” role: this is the turbulence  that provided the shaping influences on a priest with a deep faith but also a keen sense of the Church’s public role. That was the world that forged Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

He developed a deep antagonism to ideologically driven solutions to anything and his recurrent return to “the people”, what they think/feel/believe. His remaining piece of Peronism is its populism, guided by rational reflection.

Bergoglio prized himself away from tribal allegiances and predictable beliefs and alliances that had been the Peronist way of operating. Then the Gospel kicked in and the parameters of his life became the Gospel and the poor. As well, a deep dose of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius as reinterpreted from the 1960s on, provided him with a Christ focused, institutionally unadorned approach to faith that could not be dismayed by evidence that the church and its leadership were not all they were expected to be.

These simple resources are the foundation of his radicalism. If you put yourself in his shoes in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, it may well be that these simple elements are the basis for his survival in the tumultuous events of those many years.

What those elements now provide to the church and the world is a distinctive personality who displays many features of a genuinely post-modern personality. He has no respect for statuses and structures unless the people holding them are delivering what they’ve been put in place to provide. He never invokes tradition to justify his claims or assertions. He seeks to engage and persuade rather than declare and direct. He is a vividly autonomous actor operating from his own subjectivity rather a received set of institutionally generated maxims and boundaries.

Maybe that is why he has captured the imagination of a postmodern world.




Father Michael Kelly is an Australian Jesuit who directed the Catholic Church's news feature and commentary service, UCA News, 2008-2018. He is the publisher of the English editions of La Croix International and La Civilta Cattolica, the 170 year old Jesuit publication of the Italian Jesuits.

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3 Responses to Michael Kelly SJ. Pope Francis and the Curia.

  1. Lynne Newington says:

    It wouldn’t be any stretch of the imagination to connect the personal letter to Pope Benedict Nov.11 2011 [Critical of the Curia; http://www.churchauthority] to this less than original fanfare.
    Especially when his earlier comments in relation to the Curia “the governing body of the church”, seen as “giving a service that helps and serves him; sometimes with negative news coming out, often exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal. Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophillia and thus formenting coprophagia : which is a sin that taints all men and women, that is, the tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive”.
    Joining the dots, one can’t help but consider the Curia were already prept and knew what was coming.
    Maybe someone should be asking will the true Jorge Bergolio AKA Pope Francis please stand up.

  2. Kieran Tapsell says:

    Thank you for your piece on Pope Francis, but there is one thing about him that I still find puzzling. You say: “He developed a deep antagonism to ideologically driven solutions to anything and his recurrent return to “the people”, what they think/feel/believe.” In 1996, the Irish bishops wanted mandatory reporting to the police of all allegations of child sexual abuse. So did the Americans in 2002. The Vatican rejected it, but gave the Americans a dispensation from the pontifical secret where there was a domestic law requiring it in 2002. This was extended to the rest of the world in 2010. Most countries and jurisdictions don’t have those laws. That all happened before his election. But since his election, the United Nations Committees on the Rights of the Child and on Torture have twice now requested the same thing: mandatory reporting under canon law. In September Francis rejected it with the false argument that it would interfere with the national sovereignty of other countries. The Australian bishops want mandatory reporting, and have included that in the 2010 version of Towards Healing. It conflicts with canon law in those States and Territories (all except NSW and Victoria) that do not have comprehensive reporting laws. Professor Patrick Parkinson in his Smith lecture, speaking about the 2011 document issued by the CDF said: “There is no indication from the document that such cases ought to be dealt with by the police and criminal courts wherever possible, and only in the absence of a successful prosecution, by ecclesiastical law.” This is precisely the point made by the Irish bishops in 1996, the Americans in 2002, the Australians in 2010, and by the United Nations twice now. There is nothing doctrinal about this in terms of Scripture, tradition or natural law. This is pure human law which Francis can change by issuing an instruction forthwith to change canon law. Indeed, he would be acting in accordance with the Church tradition that lasted for some 1500 years from the time of Constantine to the 1917 Code of Canon Law that canonical punishments of dismissal are not adequate for child sexual abuse by clergy, and it needs to be handled first by the State. His response on this issue shows very little evidence of a “return to ‘the people’, what they think/feel/believe”, and more the clericalist ideology that has existence since at least 1917. To quote Thomas C Fox of the National Catholic Reporter after the Geneva meetings with the United Nations: “he does not understand the full magnitude of the related sex abuse issues, or, if he does, is yet unwilling or incapable of responding to it.”

  3. Michael D.Breen says:

    You say Mike that, “He seeks to engage and persuade rather than declare and direct.” Yet Francis’ Christmas staff party message is surely more direct than diplomatic. Though I found your Peronist exegesis enlightening. I wonder if a more parsimonious way would be to say that Francis believes in the centrality of the New Testament, as a Jesuit learned that reflectivity is essential and that an organization ought to do what its real job is.
    None the less he does have almost absolute power, which is unusual in any organization, even if there is a lot of bureaucratic curial lead in his saddle bag. Looking forward to the restructure you foretell in the next few months.
    Thanks for the piece.

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