Are our bishops disinterested in the Francis tide?

Pope (now Saint) John XXIII was once asked how many people worked in the Vatican. He smiled his usual smile before replying, ‘I’d say, about half of them’.
The response was explained partly by his self-deprecating approach to the Vatican, and all things Roman; but partly too because, cute man that he was, he probably didn’t want to answer the question directly.
In fact, there are at present over 3,000 people working in the Vatican. What, I sometimes wonder, are they all doing? Despite the number of congregations, commissions, departments and bureaucrats, letters to Rome seem to fall into some great cavernous black hole and, it often seems, that only years later a response eventually emerges.
The Catholic Church is arguably the world’s most hierarchical organization and the impression is sometimes given that it’s a monumental, hyper-organised, well-oiled machine in total control of a global agenda; and that it keeps a sharp focus on tightly-monitored over-sight and stringent management with its finger on the relevant pulse in the dioceses that make up the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world.
The reality is very different. Despite the facade and the carefully choreographed public profile the business of managing the universal Church is a mish-mash of disorganisation and dysfunction, where cardinals and department heads behave like feudal lords. The Vatican is more a medieval village than corporate headquarters. In fact there’s a chronic disconnect between what happens in Vatican City and the Catholics of the world.
I’ve been reading a book by John Thavis, The Vatican Diaries (Penguin, 2013) which is a behind-the-scenes look at the power, personalities and politics at the heart of the Catholic Church. It’s an instructive read, opening a window not on a super-organised institution but a haphazard collection of what Thavis calls ‘a culture of miscommunication and miscues, of good intentions and flawed executions, of conflicting agendas and shifting alliances’.
It begs the obvious questions: How can so many officials, apparently beavering away in so many offices, produce so little of value for the Catholics of the world and get so much so wrong?
Pope Francis seems to have the answer. He’s forever complaining about the personal ambition, clerical careerism and the culture of gossip and innuendo that seems to prevail in the Vatican. And the word is that he’s anxious to repatriate to their home Churches hundreds if not thousands of cassocked clergy, swanning around the Vatican, impeccably dressed but surplus to requirements. The Vatican isn’t, in modern jargon, fit-for purpose and Francis and his group of eight trusted cardinal-advisors are trying to sort it out. Downsizing will be part of the answer.
They will have their work cut out for them. While reforms will be introduced, it will take a long time to turn the Vatican machine into an instrument at the service of the Church rather than a Church at the service of the Vatican. The difficult truth is that, while technically Pope Francis is all-powerful and can introduce any changes he wants the reality is, change will be blocked, is being blocked by those who see their power and influence placed at risk
Change can be blocked too by simply ignoring what’s happening. Pope John XXIII, at 77, was regarded as a temporary, stopgap Pope, whose daft ideas about reforming the Church would be scuppered on the icebergs of tradition and custom, as bishops like Archbishop John Charles McQuaid clearly believed.
Likewise, Pope Francis, at 77. While no cardinal or bishop would be so disloyal as to object publicly to the present reforms, the lack of engagement with or support for what Francis is attempting to do is palpable.
Is there any silence like the silence of the Irish bishops in response to Francis’ reforming agenda? Yes, of course, there are the usual formulaic expressions of generalized support – like football clubs expressing their support for a hapless manager about to be sacked – but no sympathy with or excitement about what could be a new dawn of hope for the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, USA, recently commented on how some American bishops were very discouraged by Pope Francis because he was ‘challenging’ them to be different. Translate that and what you get is that some (many?) American bishops are uncomfortable with and don’t want to respond to the reforming agenda of Pope Francis. And the same is true of bishops elsewhere, including Ireland.
When Francis decided to ask Catholics in parishes (in a worldwide survey) for their opinion about family issues, the reluctance of bishops, including Irish bishops, was obvious. While they went through the motions (what else could they do) they even found it difficult to tell the people who were surveyed what the outcome was!
The unease of bishops with Francis actually consulting people, actually asking people for their opinions (as distinct from the periodic mock consultations that take place to tick off another box on the ‘pretend agenda’) indicates their inability to trust their people. They would much prefer, thank you very much, to keep looking into their own hearts and deciding what’s best for the people; like the New Missal; or the way bishops are appointed.
The last thing bishops caught in the pre-Francis Church want is to ask the people for their opinions because they don’t want to hear what they know the people would tell them. Is it any wonder that so many priests and people are fed up with being disrespected and patronised by being asked for their opinions when they know that their opinions will be disregarded anyway?
Can you think of even one Irish bishop who seems even mildly excited by the Francis tide? Is there even one Joseph Tobin among the Irish bishops who can articulate their obvious discomfort with the challenges Francis is placing before them?
In a masterful understatement, Tobin said, ‘I think there is some resistance (among American bishops) to a different way of doing the Gospel Mission of the Church’. Then he paused and smiled and said. ‘So, pray for Francis’ health’.

Similar Posts


  1. June McAllister says:

    You say the bishops found it difficult to tell people the outcome of the survey.
    I live in the Tuam Diocese. Obviously I know only a number of people, but I do not know of any parish where people were invited to participate in the survey. I do not know of any parish where the shepherd ensured that the sheep understood the language of the document.
    I know that the Archbishop had over 1000 responses. Did these responses come through the ACP? Maybe they were the responses of parish councils. I simply do not know and I should very much like to know. Everyone I speak to didn’t know that there was a survey or that the Pope wanted parishioners to participate. The people I have spoken to were disappointed not to have been able to ‘have their say’.
    Anyway. it doesn’t matter, because as Mary McAleese is reported to have said, ‘nothing will change’.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    June, @1, it will change. Freedom has become irresponsible and because of this, indulgence as a freedom reigns supreme even within the Catholic Church and this is the reason so many wish to protect its rules. The ACP can sit idly and watch what ultimately happens when this corruption consumes everything, or they can start to play a harder hand in response to the Bishop’s statements.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Bishops sometimes call the curia “the bureaucracy of nothing” — this article makes me see why — it is possible to reform a mafia, a KGB, a CIA or any well-organized phalanx of bureaucrats, but how does one reform a mess? how does one give shape to jelly?

  4. Strictly, the word in the title should have been “uninterested”, not “disinterested”, and the difference between the meanings of the words has rarely been more interesting. The Irish bishops might be uninterested in the reforms of Pope Francis but despite the evidence of their lack of enthusiasm, this is unlikely given that they do after all belong to the church he heads, and they cannot but feel the unsettling currents washing around them. But they could be disinterested if they could hope that someday soon Francis will just go away and leave them and their church as they had been, unchanged, and then, to recall and adapt the words of W. Churchill and make a fantasy of them unlikely to be realised, “.. as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we (shall) see the dreary steeples … emerging once again…one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

  5. A good test of interest in the Francis tide: is Francis’ letter “The Joy of the Gospel” being used? Is there any enthusiasm for it? Are copies of it readily available in parishes? After seven months, has it been translated into the local language? (I’m thinking globally)

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    Evangelii Gaudium is a far more readable and interesting document that any of Benedict XVI’s encyclicals, The latter were widely distributed in Italy as cheap pamphlets, and given the popularity of Papa Francesco I suppose the same is true to the former? Evangelii Gaudium is a godsent to discouraged Catholics and should have been given blanket distribution in our churches.

  7. “It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound decentralization.” Evangelii Gaudium 16
    “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything so that the Church’s customs, way of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can suitably be channelled for evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” Evangelii Gaudium 27
    “I prefer a Church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” Evangelii Gaudium 49
    These and other passages make this document a charter for change. Irish bishops are still behaving like eastern Europeans newly released from the grip of Moscow – too fearful of real freedom to know what to do with it. How long will it take the Irish church to recover from the fearful grip of a centralising and clericalist authoritarianism? It will take a Francis II or III (I fear) to shake our bishops into proactivity. As for the rest of us ???

  8. Patrick T. Darcy says:

    Changes come through people of vision who are willing to make changes. You can have great ideas for change, but without the right personnel to implement those ideas, change will never take place. The church is divine and human. Like any other business or corporation, the people in charge (those at the Vatican and local diocesan bishops), if they are not following orders from the top (Pope), should be replaced by people who can implement his plan of renewal for the church. What the church lacks today are leaders (not “yes men” or functionaries) who take seriously their responsibilities. Putting the right people in positions of leadership is only a first step.
    What is totally lacking in our church today, and an important second step, is holding Vatican officials and local diocesan bishops accountable for their actions. Here are but two examples. We have a local diocesan bishop (Kansas City, Missouri, USA) who was convicted of a misdemeanor for not reporting one of his priests who possessed child pornography. (Ironically, this man’s first pastoral letter was on the evils of pornography). He remains the diocesan bishop. He should be fired. An archbishop, preparing his retirement “home,” is adding a $450,000 addition to his “home” (read: mansion). This same man quotes Pope Francis who calls for bishops to live simply. He should be fired.
    An Australian bishop who merely asked for a discussion of married priests was sacked because JPII had taken any discussion of married priest off the table. That example shows a third step needed for renewal, an openness to discussing issues which are not part of the church’s dogma. JPII’ arbitrarily took married priesthood and optional celibacy off the table. In spite of his pronouncement, celibacy is a discipline not dogma, and it can change. Getting rid of married priests and opting for mandatory celibacy was a change in discipline, and the change was made, not for the noblest of reasons: the church wanted a priest’s property (read: money) to go to the church and not to the priest’s first-born son.
    A fourth step is vitally important: lay women and men should have not only a voice in the church, but be given real responsibilities at the Vatican and local diocesan levels. The church is the People of God composed of the laity and the clergy. The church is no longer the uneducated sheep led by the all-powerful clergy. As a first-generation Irish American, I wonder who did more damage to the Irish people: Britain or the Catholic Church. It is beyond reason to think that celibate men should be discussing family life without a sufficient number of lay people as part of the discussion. How about an equal split between lay and clergy!
    A fifth step is the need for lay and clerical voices to speak up without fear of reprisals on the part of the bishops and Rome. The “boys in red and purple” hold all the cards because we the church continue to give them their power which often is misguided and/or punitive. I respect so many Irish priests, like Brendan Hoban, and lay people, like Mary McAleese, who “tell it as it is.”
    Finally, our Holy Father, Francis, has to make it perfectly clear what is expected of all of us in the church, including our clergy. For example, regarding the sexual abuse scandal, if he doesn’t put his “money where his mouth is,” then his words will be as vapid at those of JPII and BXVI. Zero tolerance for clerical abusers and zero tolerance for enabling bishops. Also, reporting abusers to civil authorities throughout the world, no matter what a country’s laws are for reporting such crimes. Why is there a need for more discussion?
    As a former Jesuit, I am thrilled that the cardinals finally had the good sense to elect a Jesuit pope (no comments, please). The Holy Father’s focus on reforming Vatican finances is the tip of the iceberg. Officials of the Vatican Bank have been replaced. Enabling and wealthy-seeking bishops should be removed. Lay women and men should be appointed to positions of responsibility now not later. People should be allowed to speak on issues without fear. The Holy Father can make these changes now. The longer he waits, as your former president said, then “nothing will change.”

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.