‘Curial ailments’

The Church may draw its authority from God, but it is a human institution no less. Thus, it is not exempted from the problems that all human organizations face in the world. It has to raise money to support its missions, and manage its properties and resources to ensure its long-term sustainability. It must entrust its powers to a group of people, and pray that they will make the right decisions in its name. It must recruit and form new members and leaders to maintain its institutional identity. In a rapidly changing world, it must review and adjust its relationship to the rest of society.

In all these, Church people may often find themselves performing their assigned roles no differently from those in business, in government, or any other secular organization. They may sometimes be making decisions that are not always easy to justify in the eyes of God. They are human, too; they sin like the rest of us. Their religious vocation does not insulate them from the lures of greed, power, ambition and pride.

It is to these issues that Pope Francis addressed himself in his recent meeting with the key officials of the Roman Curia, the papal government he heads. The problems have been there for a long time and have been acknowledged as urgent. But organizational inertia has kept them from being disturbed. Rome needed someone who has the boldness and the charisma to raise them.

Unlike his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who was too much of a reclusive scholar to concern himself with the practical affairs of Vatican administration, Francis has just the right temperament needed to jolt the oldest government on earth into self-reflection. His language is straightforward and simple. He has a great ability to deliver stinging messages in the most disarming tone, tempering the dour magisterial authority of the papacy with his signature Latin American humor. Best of all, he is not worried about the consequences of departing from routine.

Francis’ message to the Curia was greeted with “tepid” applause, says a report. That’s better than frigid silence. Although he did not name his targets, his observations clearly pertained to the Church bureaucrats who were right in front of him. He talked about the “curial ailments” that needed healing. If he were using social-science language, he could well have recited the dysfunctions found in most bureaucracies. But, in Francis’ unique vocabulary, they acquired a vividness that permits every human organization—not just the Church—to easily spot them. He named 15 of these, assigning to them colorful labels that mask the gravity of the indictment they express.

1. The sickness of considering oneself immortal, immune, or indispensable. I would call this the delusion of indispensability, which people often use as a shield from self-reflection and criticism.

2. Martha-ism, or excessive industriousness. This is an interesting affliction. Francis calls it “the sickness of those who immerse themselves in work, inevitably neglecting ‘the better part’ of sitting at Jesus’ feet.”

3. Mental or spiritual hardening. This is a kind of psychic sclerosis that manifests itself in the loss of spontaneity and “vivacity” in the performance of one’s role—in the inability, says Francis, “to weep and rejoice” because one has become a machine buried in paper work.

4. The ailment of excessive planning. This disease is a direct result of “static and unchanging positions,” and of the fear of deviating from routine and opening oneself to the surprises of “imagination and innovation.”

5. The sickness of poor coordination. This springs from the failure to collaborate or work in harmony with others in “a spirit of communion or as a team.”

6. Spiritual Alzheimer’s. This manifests itself as forgetfulness of one’s “first love”—one’s “encounter with the Lord”—a progressive decline in spirituality in the course of one’s work in the Church.

7. The ailment of rivalry and vainglory. This happens “when appearances, the color of one’s robes, insignia and honors become the most important aim in life.”

8. Existential schizophrenia. “This ailment particularly afflicts those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic matters, thus losing contact with reality and real people.”

9. Chatter, grumbling and gossip. This is “the sickness of the cowardly who, not having the courage to speak directly to the people involved, instead speak behind their backs.”

10. Careerism and opportunism. This is the sickness that afflicts those who, driven by “fatal selfishness,” endlessly court the favors of their superiors in the hope of furthering their ambitions.

11. The disease of indifference. This related ailment appears when people lose “the sincerity and warmth of personal relationships” because they think only of themselves, and even draw pleasure from seeing others fail.

12. The illness of the funereal face or theatrical severity. This afflicts those who think they have to be “gruff and grim” in order to be taken seriously by those they consider inferior to them.

13. The disease of accumulation. This is the addiction to material possessions, the inclination to acquire not out of necessity but to pacify a feeling of insecurity.

14. The ailment of closed circles. The common term for this is sectarianism or, within an organization, “cliquism.”

15. The disease of worldly profit and exhibitionism. This is related to the disease of forgetfulness of one’s spiritual vocation, a product of meanness, selfishness and ambition.

Merry Christmas to one and all!
* * *