Prominent officials in doctrine and financial reform have been removed in 2017

Pope Francis has criticised Vatican officials for “ambition”, “vainglory” and “self-referentiality” in his annual keynote speech.

The yearly address to the Roman Curia, given in the days before Christmas, has often been a wake-up call. In 2014, Francis drew up a list of “sicknesses” such as “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and “existential schizophrenia”.

This year the Pope again delivered some stern criticisms of his staff, and appeared to make reference to recent public controversies.

The Pope denounced an “unbalanced and debased mindset of plots and small cliques that in fact represent – for all their self-justification and good intentions – a cancer leading to a self-centredness”.

He also referred to former officials who left after being “corrupted by ambition or vainglory. Then, when they are quietly sidelined, they wrongly declare themselves martyrs of the system, of a “Pope kept in the dark”, of the “old guard”…, rather than reciting a mea culpa.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has been the focus of recent controversy. Three officials were removed from their posts, despite the protests of the then-prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller. The cardinal’s term was then not renewed – the first time this has happened in modern Vatican history.

Cardinal Müller has since complained that Pope Francis “did not give a reason. Just as he gave no reason for dismissing three highly competent members of the CDF a few months earlier.”

Cardinal Müller added: “I cannot accept this way of doing things. As a bishop, one cannot treat people in this way.”

Another prominent official to have been removed this year is Libero Milone, the Vatican auditor general, who claimed he was forced out by the “old guard” because he was cracking down on financial corruption.

In this morning’s speech, the Pope praised “vast majority” of curial officials. saying that many work with “dedication” and sometimes “great holiness”.

But he acknowledged the difficulties of reforming the curia, quoting a 19th-century statesman who quipped: “Making reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx with a toothbrush.”