If there’s ever been a pope who has behaved like the present one, I’m quite sure we have no evidence of it. To call up a notorious atheist newspaper publisher and have him over for a friendly discussion about what’s wrong with the Vatican and how the world would be a better place if we all just did what we think is right — well, it feels like we’ve entered an alternative universe.
The closest parallel I know to the exchange between Francis and Eugenio Scalfari, published today in La Repubblica, is the conversation the ecclesiastical bureaucrat John of Salisbury reports having with Pope Adrian IV some time in the late 1150s. Adrian, the only Englishman ever to become pope, asks his countryman to tell him what people really think of him and the papacy. Reports John:
For it was said by many that the Roman Church, which is the mother of all the churches, shows herself to be not so much a mother to the rest as a very stepmother. Scribes and Pharisees sit in her seats, and place on the shoulders of men unbearable burdens which they themselves do not deign to touch with even the tip of their finger. They lord it over the clergy instead of making their own lives an example to lead the flock to life by the straight and narrow path; they pile up costly furniture, they load their tables with gold and silver, sparing themselves overmuch even out of their own avarice. A poor man is seldom or never admitted to their number, and then rather as a result of his own vainglorious ambition than for the love of Christ. They oppress the churches with extortion, stir up strife, bring the clergy and people into conflict, never take compassion on the sufferings and misery of the afflicted, rejoice in the spoils of churches, and count all gain as godliness. They give judgment not for the truth but for money…
“These are the things, father, which the people are saying,” I told him, “since you wish me to bring their opinions to your knowledge.”
Adrian then asks John for his own opinion, which he tenders circumspectly but clearly enough to indicate that he thinks that the people have a point. “The pontiff laughed and congratulated me upon having spoken with such frankness, enjoining me as often as anything unfavorable concerning him came to my ears, to inform him thereof without delay. And, after urging many things in his favor as well as much against himself by way of reply, he finally put before me an apology.”
Now here’s Pope Francis, as reported by Scalfari:
“I don’t like the word narcissism”, the Pope said, “it indicates an excessive love for oneself and this is not good, it can produce serious damage not only to the soul of those affected but also in relationship with others, with the society in which one lives. The real trouble is that those most affected by this — which is actually a kind of mental disorder — are people who have a lot of power. Often bosses are narcissists”.
Many church leaders have been.
“You know what I think about this? Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”
The leprosy of the papacy, those were his exact words. But what is the court? Perhaps he is alluding to the curia?
“No, there are sometimes courtiers in the curia, but the curia as a whole is another thing. It is what in an army is called the quartermaster’s office, it manages the services that serve the Holy See. But it has one defect: it is Vatican-centric. It sees and looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part, temporal interests. This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it.
The pope did not exactly make clear how he distinguished “the court” (la corta) from “the curia” (la curia), given that curia means court in Latin. But what he clearly has no use for are courtiers…cortigiani, curiales. As he told Scalfari, the eight cardinal-advisers who are now in Rome advising him on how to reform the curia are “not courtiers but wise people who share my own feelings.”
Somewhere, John of Salisbury is smiling. Courtiers, beware.