The Needs of the Vatican Tomorrow


Published March 5, 2024

First Things


In March 2022, a memorandum entitled “The Vatican Today” appeared and was widely circulated. Sharply critical of the Francis pontificate, it was signed by an anonymous source described as “Demos.” The author was subsequently identified as the late Cardinal George Pell. Last week a similar document, “The Vatican Tomorrow,” appeared simultaneously in six different languages. It was signed, again anonymously, by a source identifying as “Demos II.” It’s unclear who the actual authors are. But at least one cardinal and various senior bishops seem to have been involved.

The text is worth reading. All of it. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, Hong Kong’s retired archbishop and a man who’s had frictions on matters of principle with both the current pontificate and the Chinese government, posted the document on his social media. It drew more than 125,000 views in the first 48 hours.

Unlike the original Demos text, “The Vatican Tomorrow” acknowledges the strengths of the Francis papacy noted elsewhere by others: “the added emphasis [Francis] has given to compassion toward the weak, outreach to the poor and marginalized, concern for the dignity of creation and the environmental issues that flow from it, and efforts to accompany the suffering and alienated in their burdens.”

The new text also argues, as do others, that the flaws of the current pontificate “are equally obvious” and serious, with damaging effect. As a result, “the task of the next pontificate must therefore be one of recovery and reestablishment of truths that have been slowly obscured or lost among many Christians.” Which leads into the seven points that comprise the substance of the text, all of them worth quoting here:

First: Real authority is damaged by authoritarian means in its exercise. The Pope is a Successor of Peter and the guarantor of Church unity. But he is not an autocrat. He cannot change Church doctrine, and he must not invent or alter the Church’s discipline arbitrarily. He governs the Church collegially with his brother bishops in local dioceses. And he does so always in faithful continuity with the Word of God and Church teaching. “New paradigms” and “unexplored new paths” that deviate from either are not of God. A new Pope must restore the hermeneutic of continuity in Catholic life and reassert Vatican II’s understanding of the papacy’s proper role.

Second: Just as the Church is not an autocracy, neither is she a democracy. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ. She is his Church. She is Christ’s Mystical Body, made up of many members. We have no authority to refashion her teachings to fit more comfortably with the world. Moreover, the Catholic sensus fidelium is not a matter of opinion surveys nor even the view of a baptized majority. It derives only from those who genuinely believe and actively practice, or at least sincerely seek to practice, the faith and teachings of the Church.

Third: Ambiguity is neither evangelical nor welcoming. Rather, it breeds doubt and feeds schismatic impulses. The Church is a community not just of Word and sacrament, but also of creed. What we believe helps to define and sustain us. Thus, doctrinal issues are not burdens imposed by unfeeling “doctors of the law.” Nor are they cerebral sideshows to the Christian life. On the contrary, they’re vital to living a Christian life authentically, because they deal with applications of the truth, and the truth demands clarity, not ambivalent nuance. From the start, the current pontificate has resisted the evangelical force and intellectual clarity of its immediate predecessors. The dismantling and repurposing of Rome’s John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and the marginalizing of texts like Veritatis Splendor suggest an elevation of “compassion” and emotion at the expense of reason, justice, and truth. For a creedal community, this is both unhealthy and profoundly dangerous.

Fourth: The Catholic Church, in addition to Word, sacrament, and creed, is also a community of law. Canon law orders Church life, harmonizes its institutions and procedures, and guarantees the rights of believers. Among the marks of the current pontificate are its excessive reliance on the motu proprio as a tool for governance and a general carelessness and distaste for canonical detail. Again, as with ambiguity of doctrine, disregard for canon law and proper canonical procedure undermines confidence in the purity of the Church’s mission.

Fifth: The Church, as John XXIII so beautifully described her, is mater et magistra, the “mother and teacher” of humanity, not its dutiful follower; the defender of man as the subject of history, not its object. She is the bride of Christ; her nature is personal, supernatural, and intimate, not merely institutional. She can never be reduced to a system of flexible ethics or sociological analysis and remodeling to fit the instincts and appetites (and sexual confusions) of an age. One of the key flaws in the current pontificate is its retreat from a convincing “theology of the body” and its lack of a compelling Christian anthropology . . . precisely at a time when attacks on human nature and identity, from transgenderism to transhumanism, are mounting.

Sixth: Global travel served a pastor like Pope John Paul II so well because of his unique personal gifts and the nature of the times. But the times and circumstances have changed. The Church in Italy and throughout Europe – the historic home of the faith – is in crisis. The Vatican itself urgently needs a renewal of its morale, a cleansing of its institutions, procedures, and personnel, and a thorough reform of its finances to prepare for a more challenging future. These are not small things. They demand the presence, direct attention, and personal engagement of any new Pope.

Seventh and finally: The College of Cardinals exists to provide senior counsel to the Pope and to elect his successor upon his death. That service requires men of clean character, strong theological formation, mature leadership experience, and personal holiness. It also requires a Pope willing to seek advice and then to listen. It’s unclear to what degree this applies in the Pope Francis pontificate. The current pontificate has placed an emphasis on diversifying the college, but it has failed to bring cardinals together in regular consistories designed to foster genuine collegiality and trust among brothers. As a result, many of the voting electors in the next conclave will not really know each other, and thus may be more vulnerable to manipulation. In the future, if the college is to serve its purposes, the cardinals who inhabit it need more than a red zucchetto and a ring. Today’s College of Cardinals should be proactive about getting to know each other to better understand their particular views regarding the Church, their local church situations, and their personalities – which impact their consideration of the next pope.

The anonymity of the text, however reasonable its motives, inevitably weakens its effect and opens it to criticism. But given the nature and scope of today’s problems in the Catholic Church, the substance of “The Vatican Tomorrow” can’t easily be dismissed. One can hope that at least some of its concerns will inform the thinking of the next conclave.


Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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