Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The Curia Strikes Back



You may think that Pope Francis is a simple man of the people, eschewing the fancy trappings of office out of devotion to the poor and a rejection of papal monarchism.

No way, says veteran vaticanista Sandro Magister in yesterday’s post on his blog, Chiesa.

His reticence in attributing to himself the name of pope and his preference for calling himself as bishop of Rome have made champions of the democratization of the Church rejoice.

But theirs is a blunder.

According to Magister, the man in white is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s Bergoglio the Jesuit, playing by the rules of his order, governing as if were superior general of the Society of Jesus, the autocratic “Black Pope.”

The evidence? To reform the Vatican bank Francis has brought in a manager from the “mysterious” McKinsey management consulting company. And instead of relying on the existing structures of church authority, he’s appointed his his own group of eight cardinals to reform the curia.

In early October the eight will be gathered around the pope. They will deliver to him a sheaf of proposals. He will be the one to decide. Alone.

I’m no Vaticanista, but I know a media hit when I see one. And this is how the curiales are fighting back.

It’s pretty clever to play the Jesuit card the way they have. For centuries, the Jesuits were emblems of Catholic deviousness — the elite operatives who grabbed the money, pulled the international strings, playing fast and loose with the rules of morality. Forget Dan Brown and Opus Dei. The Great Jesuit Conspiracy against truth, justice, and democracy is back!

But there’s another way Jesuits figure in the history of the Church, and one more relevant to the struggle at hand. In 17th-century France, it was them against the Jansenists, Augustinian puritans who believed in a Catholicism of the Chosen, zealots who in the name of opposing centralized Roman authority worked for a smaller, more rigid Church.

Thus, in the name of democracy, Magister gives voice to the neo-Jansenists in the Vatican, those eager to tighten the screws of orthodoxy and to bar the door against anyone who does not meet their standards of conduct. They are no friends of democracy in the Church, and they don’t like Francis’ traditional Jesuit message of inclusion and advance. They feel the levers of power slipping from their fingers. And they’re scared.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Mark–I have so appreciated your writings in Francis, particularly this week and even more so today with this dissection of the inevitable pushback against Francis. Thanks!

  • I wonder if Pope Francis really operates the way he did with the Latin American Bishops who had a meeting with him recently; that is, publicly accept the rebuke, but then ignore it?

  • I am not sure you are reading Magister correctly. He maybe a curialist but also among the foremost Papal apologists. My take on his article is that Pope Francis is very much the leader that a Pope is supposed to be – he listens to everyone but ultimately relies on his own counsel when making decisions. Specifically, he is trying to dispel earlier leaked reports that he is ceding the reins of reforming the Curia to the V8 (soon to be V9) by showing that Francis is very much on top of the situation, starting with the hiring of this German consultant. Magister may not be thrilled with the Bishop of Rome’s downplaying of Papal authority and overall pauverism but he is very much in awe of the leadership of this Sovereign of the Vatican City.

  • This comment reveals more about Mr. Silk’s prejudices than it does about the Curia. Mr. Silk believes that Sandro Magister’s description of Pope Francis’ leadership style as similar to a Jesuit Superior General is negative and therefore must reflect a conservative Curia’s agenda to besmirch the Pope’s efforts.

    Any one who reads Sandro Magister regularly knows that his analyses do not serve any power group in the Vatican. Over the past ten years I have seen him report on three popes, and he has proven to be a singularly unbiased reporter on the papacy.

    The objective facts of Pope Francis’ papacy thus far shows him to be combining the best parts of Franciscan and Jesuit traditions. When it comes to the trappings of office, the traditions of bureacracy, and pastoral ministry, he radically prefers the simple, going straight to the heart of the matter. So, papal titles and apartments, curial customs and power relationships, and liturgical limitations respecting whose feet are washed on Holy Thursday are suddenly and decisively mooted.

    On the other hand, before implementing reform, the decisive Pope is creatively seeking the counsel of proven administrators and secular consultants. Thus he is acting like both a conciliar pastor and a Jesuit general.

    Pope Francis’ style and method remind of advice given over the years by many sages, including the Dominicans’ Thomas Aquinas, on discernment. It comes down to something like “think long and hard; then act quickly.”

    Magister’s article alerts us to the happy fact that this Pope has the virtue of simplicity but not the vice of simple-mindedness.

  • With respect, Gemma and Gerald, I don’t see how you can read Magister’s discussion of the “Council of the Crown” option as anything but a criticism of Francis’ “Jesuit” governance style. And I’d add that the issue of democratization is a red herring. Francis has earned praise for his simplicity of living, his devotion to the poor, his pastoral style, his restraint in dealing with highly charged ideological issues, his anti-clericalism — but not, so far as I can see, for a commitment to democratize church governance. Calling him an autocrat is a curialist’s way of saying that he’s not letting himself be controlled by the existing ecclesiastical structure, i.e. the curia.

  • That sneaky Pope Francis. Imagine, him going to reform the curia and not having the curia tell him how to do the job? After reading the Sandro Magistger article, I was struck by how often he referred to the Jesuit *Bergoglio* when mentioning Machiavellian Jesuit cunning.
    A few points.
    1) The Pope IS an autocrat, if no one noticed. He is not answerable to the curia, to the College, only to God.
    2) By calling in essentially a group of outsiders, Pope Francis has a much better chance of finding the truth than if he depended on those who have profited by the old way of business.
    3) The last several Popes each have had a particular job: John XXIII kickstarted reform; Paul VI implemented the beginnings (good or bad, you decide); John Paul I set the stage for ; John Paul II, who as the first celebrity Pope was intent on carrying out Vatican II and working to prevent either world destruction or world tyranny; Bebedict XVI who worked on needed doctrinal clarifications, and now; Francis, who is taking on a 2000 year old bureaucracy with more experience and guile than the nomenklatura.
    And, yes, Magister’s article IS a *hit piece*.

  • Good observations, Mark. He may be too close to his sources and invested in the status quo.

  • With these historical contrasts what can be expected of Francis. He’s naturally wise, careful, and Catholic-slow in displaying his full hand at the start, but he was chosen by a conclave exclusively composed of conservatives, at least conservatives-in-hiding, who were placed there by John Paul and Benedict. You can’t get any more conservative than those last two popes who turned against everything they displayed at Vatican II and the council itself, especially Benedict.

    John Paul picked Ratzinger to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith precisely because he knew him well, knew of his conversion from Vatican II thinking. As for political finesse, John Paul stacked the 2005 conclave to ensure Ratzinger would be chosen as his successor. Graves do speak. Rather tombs, especially in St. Peter Basilica.

    Bergoglio was a rather unknown card, but who knew much about Karol Wojtyla before 1979. It was very different with Ratzinger-Benedict. With Ratzinger, it was almost as if William Levada, same age as Bergoglio, would have been picked to replace Benedict just as he replaced him at CDF, both in position and style.

    If there really are miracles, it’s going to take a good number of them for the People of God to see any change in the unchristian scheming, secrecy, and crimes of the curia so that the church may truly become followers of Jesus, “The Model of the Holy.”

  • Magister sees Bergoglio as a great enemy of liberation theology, and he thinks this is excellent. Bergoglio has given no signs of theological liberalism — downing Creation Spirituality as pantheism, and liberal nuns as old maids and careerists, for example.