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Opinion: The “Byzantine” Vatican and Pope Francis’s big mistake

Pope Francis decided he would try to reform the bureaucrats, rather than the bureaucracy, and that was never going to be a permanent solution.

St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican is reflected in a puddle in Rome Dec. 9, 2021. (CNS photo/Cindy Wooden)

There are two different – not necessarily competing – explanations for our use of “Byzantine” as a shorthand for an outfit or operation with highly complex and apparently needless layers of detail in its organization.

One is that it fairly describes the developed bureaucracy of the Roman Empire in the East. The other is that it comes from the miles of roughly – but not exactly – concentric and interwoven networks of walls around the great imperial capital.

Either way, I’ve often thought – and even said, if memory serves – that folks must speak of “Vatican” complexity and dysfunction on the other side of the Bosphorus, the same way we speak of “Byzantine” modes and orders on this side of the strait.

From the outside looking in, both the physical and the administrative defenses of Constantine’s city appear not only impenetrable but also utterly indecipherable. No one could hope to navigate the former or negotiate the latter. That, in short, is among the capital reasons why so rarely in the history of the papacy have the cardinals given the office to a total – or near-total – outsider.

In 2013, the cardinals chose a fellow who was just that – a near-total outsider – to reform the Church’s central governing apparatus. Outsiders can be successful, but only if they act swiftly and decisively, upon solid intelligence, with both a developed vision for the endgame and a keen understanding of what is possible now.

One wonders whether Francis’s big mistake wasn’t his failure to take a page from Lee Iacocca’s book, and sack the lot of the curial big-wigs, starting on Day One. Maybe, for effect, right after he paid his bill at the clerics-only hotel where he’d been staying before the conclave that elected him – though he certainly has done the other thing Iacocca did, which was to bring in folks he knew from previous turns in other senior leadership roles.

Doing the latter with alacrity without doing the former is frequently a recipe for failure, if not disaster.

Francis could have made the resignation of every senior curial official permanent, for example – all but a few of them lose their appointments automatically when the See of Rome becomes vacant – or at least those of every official over the age of seventy.

He could have ordered an independent review of each department completed within six months.

He could have shuttered some of the advisory offices created over the last forty years and dedicated their budgets to the creation of a permanent investigative arm – a sort of Vatican Bureau of Investigation.

Instead, the discipline section in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – a passive office that mostly instructs local jurisdictions regarding cases – has about two dozen people working for it to cover a worldwide remit for an organization with over a billion members and a half-million clerics at least nominally subject to it. There are District Attorney’s offices in rural jurisdictions with more staff.

In short, Francis had about six months in which he might have done almost entirely as he pleased, but he didn’t.

There were signs of trouble almost from the get-go, mostly arising from Francis’s reluctance to swing the ax on the Old Guard. At times, he appeared ready to do it, but always opted in the end for half-measures.

Instead, Francis decided he would try to reform the bureaucrats, rather than the bureaucracy.

While he was waiting for the bureaucrats to come around to his way of seeing things, he basically governed without them and the offices they continued nominally to lead. That need not have been a bad thing, mind, and was arguably necessary given the depth of rot and extent of dysfunction he inherited. Nevertheless, it was never going to be a permanent solution. Not even the strongest strongman can govern without help.

Think of Star Wars.

At a small council meeting on Emperor Palpatine’s just-completed “ultimate” weapon, ominously styled the Death Star, a senior military man – General Tagge (played by the workhorse English character actor, Don Henderson) – asks: “How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?” The heavy of the piece, Grand Moff Tarkin (deliciously played by the late great Peter Cushing), replies: “The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”

Even if one opts for the Palpatine / Tarkin Protocol, one can’t get it done without a moon-sized battle station to command and a few competent henchmen.

It’s not that Pope Francis hasn’t made a mess of things in the curia and beyond. It’s that he and his chief lieutenants and handlers have been rather … unsystematic about their business.

“A matter of style,” one may urge, but style is an interesting word. It comes from stylus, which means “pen” and also “dagger” in Latin.

The anti-Papal cleric and writer, Paolo Sarpi, found himself on the wrong end of a knife attack one time. His assailants cut him up pretty good, but he made it to a doctor. When he’d recovered, the medical man observed that Sarpi would surely be dead, if his attackers had known their work better.

Sarpi, who knew – or strongly suspected – that his muggers had acted on Roman commission, quipped: Agnosco stylum Romanae Curiae. “I recognize style of the Roman Curia.”

(Editor’s note: This post has been updated and expanded.)

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About Christopher R. Altieri 188 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Francis is a failure because Francis does not know what the church is, or what it is for. He is the product of a church that has lost its way.

    • Francis is a great Pope because he knows very well what the Church is. He is doing his best to get its members to appreciate what it means to be a true member of the Church, that it is not all about praying “Lord, Lord” but about doing the will of God. When I was hungry, thirst, homeless, a slum dweller, a victim of greed, lust, hatred and pride … you were there for me. For what you did to these the least of my brothers you do that to ME – said the Lord. Of course, the Pharisees of that time did not like this message. Jesus was called all sorts of names, including being possessed by Beelzebul. Well, people will never learn.

      • There are lots of saintly people in the catholic church. But to be a good Pope, you also must be a good leader. There is a problem.

      • Mal, I can’t see what this has to do with the article or the previous comments. Some rather fuzzy generalities that most of us would agree with, but unconnected to the topic here.

  2. That is the whole “problem” of social justice. According to Fr. William J. Ferree’s analysis of the social doctrine of Pius XI, the idea of social justice is to reform institutions so that people can be individually virtuous by using such social props or tools.

    Unfortunately what has happened is that many people have interpreted social justice as a substitute for, or replacement of individual justice and charity. They assume that if people aren’t acting virtuously or being treated properly due to a badly structured social order, that individuals are to blame. Instead of correcting the system, then, through acts of social justice, they try to impose desired results by passing coercive laws, redistribution, or trying to reform individuals’ behavior or thoughts, or even just hoping God will turn things around.

    The problem is that in many cases people are not acting virtuously (or, more often, failing to act at all) not because THEY need reform, but because the SYSTEM needs reform. They would act virtuously if they could, but there are social, and sometimes even legal barriers that inhibit or prevent them from doing so. The solution is not to try and act virtuously anyway, come what may, but to organize, restructure institutions from structures of sin to structures of virtue so that people have access to the opportunity and means to become virtuous. THEN it becomes possible to reform individuals.

    This is described in Father Ferree’s pamphlet, “Introduction to Social Justice” (1948):

    • It is extremely doubtful that Jesus would agree with the claim: “…there are social, and sometimes even legal barriers that inhibit or prevent them [individuals from acting virtuously] from doing so. The solution is not to try and act virtuously anyway,..”

      Can men of non-virtue construct institutions of virtue? How can we conceive of giving something we do not have?

      • Somewhat similar to the fact – mutatis mutandis – that most of the faculty of Harvard laws school despise the U.S. Constitution. Thus, most of us in the pews continue to keep the faith while many of our shepherds regard us as benighted fools.

        • Absolutely I agree. The entire raison d’etre Jesus instituted the Church and its sacraments is because NOTHING else–NO ONE ELSE–but God and His Church–is able to place us on the path of virtue or holiness.

          To hope, to act, to believe that government or church programs can rectify social injustice while denying, minimizing, changing traditional scriptural Church teaching suggests demonic deception.

          The good Christian soldiers know–in their individual souls–the way, the life, and the truth in God’s Church is in Her sacraments. Such men in the pews continue to hold and pass on the faith. Fools in pride, position, and hats don’t tell us what or how to think. God is our judge.

          • The change that Jesus wanted was for us to say “Father, Father” but to go beyond that as well. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked etc because every human being is loved by Jesus. He came to redeem everyone. Prayers and sacraments mean nothing if there is hatred, greed, anger and pride in our minds and hearts. Jesus asks that we attend to these problems first.

          • Mal says: “…sacraments mean nothing if there is hatred, greed, anger and pride in our minds and hearts. Jesus asks that we attend to these problems first.”

            Original sin is healed in the SACRAMENT of Baptism, and capital sins like hatred, greed, anger, pride (together with all other actual personal sins) are healed and forgiven in the SACRAMENT of Confession. In both these sacraments, the priest and participant/sponsors OFFER PRAYER. Sacraments and prayer are vehicles through which we obtain the GRACE of God so we are able to grow in love.

            The Baltimore Catechism or the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a friend. Do you have a copy?

            Because sacraments are vehicles through which we obtain God’s grace, sacraments signify and transmit – EVERYTHING we need in order to love.

    • Nothing prevents people from acting virtuously, and no institution can be blamed or held responsible for people’s sins. Viktor Frankl and Alexander Solzhenitsyn both observed that people maintained their individual dignity, integrity, and humanity in the worst situations. For institutions to change, people need to change.

  3. The “Vatican” is just the way the Pontiff Francis wants it, having already “re-organized” it to reinforce its dysfunction as a sanctimonious bureaucracy devoted to nothing so much as it’s self-serving niche in world political affairs, subverting everything, including Jesus, to the parasite organism of the Secretariat of State, which 50 years ago was made the prime Congregation by Paul VI, and which a few years ago was made a super-power in the “re-re-organization” done by the Pontiff Francis.

    The corruption of the Secretariat of State, under its former head Cardinal Sodano, and it’s legacy of stifling sex abuse investigations, was a topic raised by Jody Bottum in First Things some 10 or so years ago. He was sacked or resigned as editor of FT shortly after penning an editors opinion about that. In his article he wrote that Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI tried to fight Sodano and the Secretariat of State, and when he as head of the CDF finally got Pope JP2 to give the CDF control over sex abuse investigations, justice and accountability started happening, and the corrupt abusers and coverup Cardinals like “Eminence” McCarrick and Eminence” Danneels etc didn’t like the way things were heading, with abusive Bishops and priests getting sacked. So they set about to oppose B16 and as soon as possible elect Jorge Bergoglio, who “took care of the problem” by liberating and promoting abusers and coverup artists, and reinforcing the corruptive control of the Secretariat of State.

    That is “the reform” of the Pontiff Francis.

  4. My Church as a Star Wars movie. I have long since overdosed on the latter; I pray for perseverance with regard to the former. I also pray that the next Pope is a holy man – preferably one coming from the monastic tradition. I’ve had my fill of bureaucracies, bureaucrats, politicians, sound bites, photo ops, power brokers, World Youth Days, Synod and Synods about Sydods, St. Gallen Mafias, climatology, and on and on and on. I’d be content with a Catholic Church where we seldom hear the word “Vatican” mentioned and one where when Peter spoke it was unusual and such a momentous occasion that one could take every word to heart.

  5. I object! To Altieri’s robbery of my coinage. Byzantium on the Tiber. That aside, Byzantine also suggests furtive and deceptive manuevering.
    Of stars and wars and crumbling cookies. Chris Altieri doesn’t explain why the Old Guard officials were detetrimental to Francis’ pontificate. Altieri faithful as ever strains to be a papal loyalist [as do I]. And if so why? A nuance of approbation of whatever His Holiness’ agenda is?
    Darth Vader comes to mind as a major player but then we have the emperor. If the Vatican is a Star Wars scenario it seems the movie players in real life Byzantium on the Tiber fade into mirage reappear in true indistinguishable form from another. Death Star. Crumbling cookies crumbling expectations. I and others might wonder if Death Star isn’t a Feudian slip?

  6. I have spent my life in trying to reach a philosophical understanding of Christianity, based on storic ethnografic comparison, and I feel ill at ease when I here related on the news scraps of speaches from Francis and eminent cardinals and bishops. I don’t hear in them anything I don’t say christianly correct, but anthropologically correct. Just a moral message watered down to a,speaking in Italian (my language that Altieri well knows, “volemose bene”: translated into English, let’s love each other.
    Really, it is so easy? If I remember correctly there was something called original sin, which made it hard to achieve, and it was necessary the incarnation of the Son of God, his passion death and resurrection to restore the universality of charitas.
    Burocracies tend to be self-referential and corrupt. Altieri is sharp with his observations regarding the reformation of that specific burocracy that goes under the name of “Vatican”. But he also observed the to work on reforming one has to have clear ideas. I am afraid that Francis, and other higher ups in the Cathilic hirarchy have them rather confused.
    They seem to forget what is needed to universalize charitas!

    • Giorgio, “Really, it is so easy? If I remember correctly there was something called original sin, which made it hard to achieve, and it was necessary the incarnation of the Son of God, his passion death and resurrection to restore the universality of charitas” appears to summarize your query regarding today’s flaccid messaging.
      Yes. You’re correct. What missing is a clear, unambiguous call to repentance, to change our lives and live as ordained by God revealed in the life and words of his Son. Just as the saints and martyrs did in giving us their witness. The fire of Christ message has been watered and made insipid.

  7. Maybe the lesson to be learned is “Who elected Bergolio pope and what does it say about them? Do they regret their decision?”

  8. “Instead, Francis decided he would try to reform the bureaucrats, rather than the bureaucracy.”

    Both entities needed attention, and that is what they are getting. Slowly but, hopefully, successfully. Our Lord did not comment on the systems – political and economic – that were in place during his time. Instead, He gave us examples of how a good landlord or boss should behave, how the workers (tenants and slaves) should behave, how we should be as forgiving as the Prodigal Son’s father, and as loving of neighbor as the Good Samaritan. Any system will work well if the members involved behave as Jesus taught. However, no system – not matter how well structured – will succeed if its members are corrupt, greedy lazy and self-serving.

  9. meiron, you are telling me something that I already know as faithful Catholic who makes use of these sacraments regularly. And you simply repeated what I said but in a different way. You said that sins are are” healed and forgiven in the SACRAMENT of Confession” whereas I said “Jesus asks that we attend to these problems first.” Yes, all the masses in the world will not do much for our redemption if we do not attend to these matters first. You will find this advice Mt 5:24, “Leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother: and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift.”

    • Meiron noted Church teaching that proved Mal’s quote to be an error in opposition to Church teaching. But Mal would seek to justify her ironic ‘good name’ by a little end-game disingenuity refuting herself. The first move was clear as a bell, and the last one reiterated.

      The Catechism is a friend as are the sacraments, received FREQUENTLY.

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