Pope Francis uses Christmas greeting to chide church officials for greed, gossip and getting ahead

In remarks for Christmas before the Roman Curia, Pope Francis delivered a scathing review of the behavior of Vatican officials, decrying the "spiritual Alzheimers" that makes them forget their real purpose. Gwen Ifill talks to Kevin Eckstrom of the Religion News Service about the pope’s latest effort at spurring reform in the Catholic church.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Pope Francis took church leaders and Catholics around the world by surprise today when he used an annual Christmas event in Rome to sharply rebuke and audience of top church officials for their shortcomings.

    The cardinals, bishops and priests of the Curia, who run the Holy See, sat mostly silent and unsmiling as the pope delivered a scalding review of their behavior.

    POPE FRANCIS, Leader of Catholic Church (through interpreter): Let's start with the sickness of feeling immortal, immune or, even more, indispensable and therefore of neglecting the necessary routine checkups.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Francis said the Vatican officials have a spiritual Alzheimer's that makes them forget their real purpose, and he listed 15 illnesses, or sins, from vanity to gossip-mongering to materialism.

  • POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter):

    There is also the sickness of the stony mind and spirit, of those who along the way lose their inner serenity, their vivacity and their audacity and end up hiding behind papers, becoming machines for practices, and not men of God.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The first non-European pope in 1,300 years has increasingly confronted the Italian-dominated Curia. Internal power struggles were widely blamed for Pope Benedict's decision last year to resign.

    For some insight on what led to the pope's remarks today, I am joined by Kevin Eckstrom, editor in chief at Religion News Service.

    I feel like that was building for a while. That was quite a lot he unloaded today.

  • KEVIN ECKSTROM, Religion News Service:

    Yes.

    He is — from the day he was elected, it has been clear that he was going to be a reformer and that some heads with probably roll. But what we are starting to see sort of in real time is how extensive that is going to be. Just a couple of weeks ago, he fired a leading American conservative, Cardinal Burke, who was sort of leading the opposition.

    And so what he has shown is that he is going to do what it takes and maybe even fire who he needs to fire to kind of get his way.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    When he talks about reform, has any of that happened, other than this firing? Or is he exhorting mostly at this point?

  • KEVIN ECKSTROM:

    He is still sort of laying the groundwork. It seems like he has been pope forever, but it hasn't even been two years.

    So, he is still sort of getting his grounding. He has moved to reform the Vatican Bank and he has moved on issues like sex abuse. But he's really getting going now, laying the foundation for the kind of church not only that he wants, but the church that he wants to pass on to the men who are you going to come after him.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Is it significant that he is an outsider? As we mentioned, he was the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, and that he's not Benedict?

  • KEVIN ECKSTROM:

    Yes.

    And the other thing to remember is that he is the first Jesuit pope. The Jesuits are the church's largest religious order. And they have had a long history of tense relations with Rome. They have always viewed actions coming out of the Vatican with a lot of suspicion and uncomfortableness, I guess.

    And so he embodies that. And so when he challenges power, when he asks why are we doing things the way that we do, that's very Jesuit of him, and that's very much a part of his DNA. And you can see that playing out in his programs.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And he talked about ailments and diseases. It didn't sound like he was saying, here is a problem we can fix, like, for instance, with the priest sexual abuse scandal. Let's fix that. He's saying, there is something that goes pretty deep.

  • KEVIN ECKSTROM:

    Right, and it's not just a policy problem or, you know, an administrative problem, but these are really spiritual problems.

    And he's talking about cliques and gossiping and backbiting and careerism and the sorts of things that are not the kind of middle management that he wants in the church or in the men that surround him. I mean, he's really talking about qualities of people, particularly the qualities that he doesn't want.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What fixes does he have in mind?

  • KEVIN ECKSTROM:

    Well, he has started by, you know, making some appointments.

    So if you looked a couple of weeks ago when he appointed a bishop to Chicago, he appointed somebody who was very pastoral, fairly progressive, not an administrator, not a ladder climber. So, you know, the pope has unlimited authority in some ways. He's an absolute monarch.

    But there are constraints. He faces a huge bureaucracy and he — there are only certain things that he can do. One of the most powerful things that he can do is the people that he surrounds himself with, so the people that he appoints and also the people that he demotes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Pope Benedict was seen as being more doctrinal, much more of an academic. Pope Francis seems more a man of the people. At least, that's the way he has been hailed.

    But can any pope change a system that is as entrenched as the problems that he has identified here?

  • KEVIN ECKSTROM:

    Well, you have got 2,000 years working against him.

    But the thing that he does have is the charisma and the power of his personality. And it's very clear that he has a lot of people behind him. He's got a lot of popular support. And you can't understate the importance of that in trying to…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But does he have support in the curia? They didn't look thrilled.

  • KEVIN ECKSTROM:

    Well, not all of them.

    But some of them have been the victims of the very sorts of behaviors that he has been talking about, backbiting and stabbing and that sort of thing. So there are people in there that support him and want to see a lot of change.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Kevin Eckstrom of Religious — Religion News Service, thank you very much.

  • KEVIN ECKSTROM:

    Thank you.

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