UnknownVatican watchers reported (AP), after Pope Francis spoke to the Roman Curia on December 22, that “they had never heard such a powerful, violent speech from a pope and suggested that it was informed by the results of a secret investigation ordered by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in the aftermath of leaks of his 2012 papers.”

I believe the ordinary reader does not realize that Pope Benedict XVI was earnestly seeking to reform the Curia for some years. This report grows out of those efforts that he began. Many journalists, with little knowledge of either Pope Benedict or of how the Vatican really works, do not give him the credit that he is due for what he began in earnest. Some have speculated that one reason he stepped down was so that what he began to reform could be carried out by a new “reformer” pope! It seems apparent this reformation is now underway. In Pope Francis we have a pastor of courage and humility who has waded into a mess and seems determined to make a real difference. If you read my post on Monday you saw how Austen Ivereigh, the biographer of the best biography of Pope Francis, The Great Reformer, suggests that there are two legacies of his leadership that will alter the direction of the Catholic Church: (1) Reforming the Curia and thus radically altering the pastoral and moral direction of the Catholic Church, and; (2) An intense personal love for evangelicals that will alter how future relationships between Catholics and evangelical Protestants/charismatic’s develop globally. The first one is addressed by the 15 Ailments that Pope Francis cited in his December 22 address.

As I countdown the pope’s list of 15 Ailments of the Curia I will only take one of them today. I do so because I find that this one needs more explanation and because it deeply intrigues me. I am applying each of those 15 Ailments, with modest reflection, to the entire visible church. This includes the evangelical church which I know best, at least from my white, North American perspective.

No. 8 Suffering from “existential schizophrenia.”

The two words that he uses here need some definition if this challenge is to be rightly understood.

First, the word “existential.” Philosophers have never agreed on a single definition of this oft-used word. Most agree the father of existentialism was Kierkegaard. Some have said that existentialism is a general approach used to reject certain systematic philosophies rather than as a systematic philosophy itself. I can live with that understanding. But I do not believe this is what the pope had in mind.

I am quite sure Pope Francis had in mind the idea that existence precedes essence.  By this I mean that the most important consideration for us as individuals is that we are independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”). If this is true then labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories that attempt to fit individuals into a category miss the “essence”) of who we are before God. The actual life of the individual is what constitutes what should be called their “true essence” instead of there being a person who is arbitrarily attributed an essence that others use to define them.

Second, Pope Francis links this word “existential” with the more common used word “schizophrenia.” Schizophrenia is technically labeled a mental disorder that is generally characterized by abnormal social behavior and the failure to recognize what is truly real. A list of common symptoms includes false beliefs, confused thinking and even auditory hallucinations.

Here is the sentence the pope used when he listed this ailment: “It’s the sickness of those who live a double life, fruit of hypocrisy

[something seems off in the translation to English here to me] that is typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that academic degrees cannot fill.”

I think that the pope is saying something like the following:

We have so looked past the true personhood of others that we have created, especially among many church leaders, a disturbing schizophrenia that fails to recognize what is truly real about others, namely those we are called to serve. If church leaders think and live this way they are led to subtly deny true beliefs and embrace false ideas. Their thinking will become confused and people will be groups they use to advance their own agenda.

Last Sunday I posted a Facebook entry about sharing a meal with a pastor friend who was pushed out of his role in a local church and commented on the damage done to the man and his family as a result. I was amazed at the intensity and amount of response this short note received. Within less than twenty-four hours at least 150 people had responded to this post and it was made on a Sunday, a slow day on Facebook. I think this underscores that many are aware of problems in the church that have deeply impacted both their leaders and the way good leaders are being treated by the people. This is what happens when “existential schizophrenia” becomes the new norm.


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  1. Tom Masters January 8, 2015 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    I looked at the portion of the passage in Italian where the word translated “hypocrisy” is located. It reads: “E’ la malattia di coloro che vivono una doppia vita, frutto dell’ipocrisia tipica del mediocre e del progressivo vuoto spirituale che lauree o titoli accademici non possono colmare.

    The English translation on the Vatican website renders it: “This is the disease of those who live a double life, the fruit of that hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and of a progressive spiritual emptiness which no doctorates or academic titles can fill.” “Ipocrasia” can be translated “hypocrisy,” but it also has secondary meanings of insincere speech, or sanctimoniousness.

    So when you describe “existential schizophrenia” as “a disturbing schizophrenia that fails to recognize what is truly real about others,” I think you’re close to what Pope Francis intends here. As I read this particular part of his speech, he’s finding the source of the apparent distance between those whose vocation is to serve the Church, and those who they are to serve.

    All of us can fall into a double personality, in which we lose sight of our true mission in life because of a sort of internal dishonesty, a focus on the empty and external trappings of our office (hence Francis’ reference to academic credentials) instead of on the real flesh-and-blood people God places before us. As you say, our “thinking will become confused and people will be groups [we] use to advance [our] own agenda.”

    Pope Francis’ frank critique of the leaders in the Roman Curia is something that I am invited to think on and apply in my own life. I suppose that’s why he made this speech public. Church leaders are above all else followers of Christ and his great commandments, not creatures set apart. Early in his papacy, in a letter to the Bishops’ Conference of Argentina on the occasion of the beatification of an Argentine priest, he described Fr. Jose’ Gabriel Brochero as a pastor “who smelled of his sheep, who made himself poor among the poor, who always struggled to be very close to God and to the people.”

    Pope Francis began this speech with an apology for his own failings, and offered it not as a smackdown of the incompetent, but as “a help and a stimulus to a true examination of conscience, in order to prepare our hearts for the holy feast of Christmas…..A “listing” of these diseases – along the lines of the Desert Fathers who used to draw up such lists – will help us to prepare for the sacrament of Reconciliation, which will be a good step for all of us to take in preparing for Christmas.”

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