Is there now a significant Catholic opposition to Pope Francis and his reform agenda or not? This topic has been raised repeatedly in recent days, which is reason enough to present some of the different arguments here. When delivering on 1 June the keynote address about Catholicism in the U.S. and in Europe at a prominent Catholic-secular Austrian conference, John Allen, Vatican specialist and editor of Crux, told his audience that the opposition against Pope Francis from conservatives in the Roman Curia, as well as in the Universal Church, “should not be overestimated,” according to a report on the Austrian bishops’ official website kathpress.at. Just as in the case of all the other previous 265 popes, Pope Francis does have – according to Allen – some problems with bishops. However, reports kathpress.at:
The purported reports about an existing rift between the pope and his “opponents” are caused by the dynamics of social media, as well as by the general laws of the media themselves, according to Allen. It is simply a “sexy story” when conservative bishops are opposing a liberal pope.
Allen, as a well-connected Vatican specialist, “practically never meets any general resistance against the pontificate of Francis,” even though there are mentioned, sometimes, “reservations about certain substantive topics,” says kathpress.at. In spite of this, in Allen’s eyes, Pope Francis is “’the’ religious leader per se” who wisely uses his “soft power” – aiming at a change of attitudes and visions, rather than depending on external power. In Allen’s eyes, Francis can achieve much by showing himself to be “a friend” to certain conflicting parties and thus can help build bridges, such as between Cuba and the U.S., in Colombia and in Egypt.
While speaking in a very affirming way about Pope Francis, John Allen by contrast makes his opinion clear that Pope Benedict had – also due to his Regensburg address which alienated some Muslim authorities and due to his former role as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – a much more unfortunate situation where he was perceived as the “Panzer Kardinal” (“cardinal in armor”) and as a “Darth Vader” of the Catholic Church, even though Allen insists that this description does not at all do justice to Benedict.
As if in direct response to John Allen, two days later, the German news magazine Der Spiegel, on 3 June, published an article entitled: “Resistance against Francis: The Curia Hits Back.” The article is written by the journal’s Italian Correspondent, Walter Mayr, who last Christmas notably had quoted Pope Francis as saying: “It is not to be excluded that I will enter history as the one who split the Catholic Church.” [emphasis added] Mayr speaks now about a pope who is “mainly popular among non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics” (which may well speak volumes in itself). Within the Curia, however, the opposition is strong where there is to be found mainly criticism “of the authoritarian leadership style, the volubility, and the lack of theological steadfastness of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.” In addition to the Roman Curia, Mayr also sees resistance coming out from the group of cardinals who “resist the radical rebukes with which Francis repeatedly approaches them.” The opposition also comes, in Mayr’s eyes, from the side of conservative cardinals “for whom the pope’s willingness to be open toward the excluded people goes clearly too far.” Here the Spiegel journalist mentions Francis’ “publicity-friendly engagement in favor of the homosexuals, the remarried divorcees, and the migrants.” Among the conservative critics, Mayr mentions specifically the four dubia cardinals. As a general theme, the journalist sees that conservatives fear a “’protestantization’ of the Catholic Church,” and an undermining of Catholic integrity and identity – “dogmas, mysticism, and the binding nature of Holy Scripture.”
In addition to the dubia, there has come to Rome “an unprecedented amount of public manifestations of protest against the pope.” Here, Mayr mentions the anti-Bergoglian posters, the faked issue of L’Osservatore Romano, as well as the recent appearance of coarse “street art” in Rome, with President Trump and Pope Francis shown to be engaged in a kiss.
In light of these increasing numbers of external signs of opposition to Pope Francis, Walter Mayr asks what will happen with Pope Francis? He says, as follows:
Francis has repeatedly pointed out that his pontificate will be “short.” Intimate friends of the pope, who is now 80 years old, can well imagine that he will resign as soon as he has the impression that the course for a fundamental change in the Curia and in the elective College of Cardinals has been set according to his own taste.
Here Mayr points further to the future when he adds:
Then there would be the historically unique case that, with Joseph Ratzinger aka Benedict XVI and with Bergoglio aka Francis, two retired popes would live at the side of a new [ecclesiastical] head. As a favorite of the Francis-critics, the 72-year-old African Cardinal Robert Sarah is being discussed, to whose new book, The Power of Silence, Pope Benedict of all people produced the preface. It is not impossible that this is a hint against the all-too-voluble office-holder.
Arguably, also somewhat of importance here could be the fact that Walter Mayr himself is writing for a prominent secular journal with rather left-liberal leanings, and not for a conservative or traditional Catholic outlet.
However, several of our sources in Rome doubt that Pope Francis will likely soon retire. He is, they say, still too much interested in his office, as it might seem, and also too much interested in changing the Church. Moreover, this article does not intend to make any claim or hint about an impending retirement of Pope Francis, but, rather, intends to discuss the weight and nature of the Catholic opposition to Pope Francis.
In this context, it might be worth considering the question as to whether other cardinals are proposing such a step on the side of the pope. As OnePeterFive reported in March 2017, there were rumors about a group of cardinals proposing such a step to Francis, with Cardinal Pietro Parolin proposed as his replacement.
As of a few days ago, Cardinal Peter Turkson, the new Prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development (Integra Humana Progressio), was quoted by the Portuguese newspaper Sol as saying that the door for a possible retirement for Pope Francis is always open. That part of the Sol interview with Cardinal Turkson reads as follows:
Sol: Is it possible that Francis will follow the example of Benedict XVI and retire?
Cardinal Turkson: I do not know whether he will do that. That is between him and God. But it is also true that what Benedict has done has become now, in part, an institution. That means: the freedom to do it [to retire] is now always given.
Sol: You mean, even if he does not open the door, the door is always there?
Cardinal Turkson: Definitely. That can happen.
In this context, it might be worth considering two more aspects. First, Sandro Magister, the Italian Vatican specialist, just recently pointed out that there are, in effect, very few bishops conferences as a whole who are in support of the proposed and inchoate Francis reform. With regard to the papal document Amoris Laetitia, Magister says, there are mostly the German, Maltese, and now the Belgian bishops who support Francis, but these three have in common that their own Catholic base is eroding and crumbling away.
Secondly, another Italian Vatican specialist, Marco Tosatti, has just published an article in First Things in which he summarizes the chaotic curial reform thus far undertaken by Pope Francis and his Council of Nine Cardinals. When Tosatti, while presenting in detail the different facets of the defective reform, also quotes two concurring curial members, it becomes clear that there is, indeed, much discontent about Pope Francis in Rome:
So much time has been spent on the reform of the pontifical councils, and so little has been accomplished. We heard by chance a cardinal and an archbishop, both of whom have worked in the Curia for many years: “Such a reform! We could have prepared it ourselves, in the space of one morning, sitting at a table.”
According to Tosatti, it is the Secretariat of State under Cardinal Parolin that seems to have become a sort of doorkeeper between the pope and the different curial institutions, thus making any smooth collaboration even harder. Tosatti explains:
When the cardinals urged reinstating the udienze di tabella [a fixed schedule for meetings with the pope] their idea was clear: to prevent the secretariat of state [under Cardinal Parolin] becoming a gatekeeper through whom all business must pass. Without this regular schedule, the secretariat of state becomes a filter between the pope and the Curia. And so, despite the calls for reform, the secretariat of state is more powerful than ever. So long as that is the case, real reform seems unlikely.
However, as several sources in Rome have told us, there does not yet – despite the murmuring discontent – seem to be any sort of larger organized opposition against Pope Francis from within the Curia. It is now only to be hoped that there soon will be. It is in this light that we should hope that Cardinal Robert Sarah’s own words yesterday – given at the Sacra Liturgia conference in Milano, Italy – indicate an increase of the opposition among curial members against the disordered Francis papacy.
In his conference talk, Cardinal Sarah is clearly indicating his desire to return to more devout and sacred liturgical gestures, thus insisting upon his own special authority as the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. As one example, he mentions St. Teresa of Calcutta’s reverence toward the Holy Eucharist and her trenchant words: “Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive [Holy] Communion in the hand.” [emphasis added] Cardinal Sarah also refers to Pope John Paul II and his own recurrent insistence – until the end of his life and in spite of his serious illness – to “never sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.” “He forced his broken body to kneel,” added Sarah. “What more profound testimony could he give to the reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament than this, right up until his very last days.”
Moreover, in a talk at the end of May 2017, Cardinal Sarah made some strong remarks about the “secularization” within the Catholic Church and he rejected the idea of solving problems within the Church with merely secular means. I recently summarized some of his words, as follows:
“But it is problematic that we seek merely human solutions as an answer for our [own quest for our] destination.” In the face of great problems, explains the cardinal, “we insist upon human means instead of lifting up our hearts to God.” [emphasis added] The African cardinal then presents a striking thought: “Sometimes I have the impression that this secularization has entered the Church in order also to reduce our Faith to a human standard.” [emphasis added] A “Faith according to human terms” is being presented to man “which is not any more rooted in the depth of the Revelation of Christ and the Tradition of the Church, but, rather, in the claims and [purported] needs of modern man.”
Does one not feel reminded here of the Francis papacy which seems to aim more at accommodating modern man and searching for merely human solutions (such as methods to avoid climate change), rather than calling him to a deeper conversion?
It is to be hoped that some of the aspects described in this article are signs of a justly increasing Catholic resistance against Pope Francis’ fragmenting reform agenda. May that organized moral resistance now grow among cardinals and priests and loyal laymen.
Dr. Maike Hickson, born and raised in Germany, studied History and French Literature at the University of Hannover and lived for several years in Switzerland where she wrote her doctoral dissertation. She is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.
Her articles have appeared in American and European journals such as Catholicism.org, LifeSiteNews, The Wanderer, Culture Wars, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Apropos, and Zeit-Fragen.