Some of this resentment is long-simmering. Almost as long as he’s been pope, Francis has been confronted by dissenting church traditionalists. Viganò, for one, has previously called for Francis’s resignation.
The death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had been widely expected to clarify any muddiness about the hierarchy in Vatican City, leaving just one figure wearing papal white within its ancient walls. A year later, the voices questioning Francis’s basic authority have only grown louder, at the same time that bold, legacy-cementing moves by the 87-year-old pope have prompted broader backlash within the church.
Francis is experiencing a level of reproach that some observers say is the fiercest since Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the church’s ban on artificial birth control in 1968. Today’s criticism is further amplified by social and digital media. An even more striking distinction, though, may be the overt disdain some clerics are showing to a man seen by Catholics as the Vicar of Christ atop the Throne of Saint Peter.
“What we’re seeing under Francis is to a very high degree [the kind of dissent] we saw in 1968,” said Austen Ivereigh, the pope’s biographer. “But what’s new is the lack of respect, the lack of deference to papal authority, which has become somehow permissible in this pontificate in a way that I’ve never seen before.”
The opposition to Francis is “unprecedented,” said John Carr, a former longtime lobbyist for the U.S. bishops conference who founded Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. “It is strong, it is narrow, and it is about power — ecclesiastical, economic and political power.”
“They didn’t say John Paul [II] wasn’t pope. They didn’t say Benedict was illegitimate. This is part of a larger project to undermine his credibility.”
The rise in anti-Francis rhetoric doesn’t seem to reflect or have affected his public standing — his popularity remains the envy of politicians in many countries. But the barrage of criticism presents a direct challenge to his papacy and renews an age-old question for the Roman Catholic Church: How far is too far when you fault a pope?
Blessings for same-sex couples
The number of Catholic clerics loudly and proudly announcing their intent to disregard the pope grew last month after Francis shifted Vatican guidance and authorized priestly blessings of same-sex couples and other “irregular” relationships, as long as those benedictions are kept separate from marriage.
Some clerics heralded the decision as long overdue, a move that puts Francis’s past statements about a more welcoming church into practice. The declaration “is a step forward,” wrote Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, “and in keeping not only with Pope Francis’s desire to accompany people pastorally but Jesus’s desire to be present to all people who desire grace and support.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — at times an epicenter of criticism of Francis — was muted in its reaction, saying in a statement that the pope was simply affirming that “those who do not live up to the full demand of the Church’s moral teaching are nevertheless loved and cherished by God.”
Even some bishops loyal to Francis, however, appeared genuinely confused over how such blessings were meaningfully different from condoning same-sex unions, and how the Vatican could support same-sex blessings while maintaining that homosexual tendencies are “intrinsically disordered” and homosexual acts immoral. The Vatican’s stance is that the new ruling marks an expansion of the role of blessings in the church rather than any acceptance of homosexuality, and that the seconds-long benedictions by no means validate the legal or sexual relationships of same-sex couples.
And then there were those who rejected the guidance outright. The African bishops conferences issued an extraordinary joint statement on Thursday, attesting to their allegiance to Francis but at the same time saying members could not carry out the blessings he suggested without “exposing themselves to scandals.” Two bishops in Kazakhstan, in a letter forbidding their priests to obey the Vatican edict, “respectfully” said the pope was not walking “uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel.”
“Of course, it is a crisis of authority,” one of those bishops, Athanasius Schneider, said in an interview with The Washington Post. He is critical of bishops who show outright disrespect to Francis, such as Viganò. But, he added, “the pope is losing the firmness of his words and authorities.”
He continued, “If I will be punished for [saying] this, it will be for me an honor, because I will be punished only for the truth.”
The Vatican released an extraordinary “clarification” last week, stating that while bishops and priests could exercise personal judgment in offering such blessings, there were no grounds to consider the declaration approved by the pope “heretical, contrary to the Tradition of the Church or blasphemous.”
And yet two days later, Cardinal Robert Sarah, a senior cleric from Guinea, wrote in apparent defiance: “We are not opposing Pope Francis, but we are firmly and radically opposing a heresy that seriously undermines the Church, the Body of Christ, because it is contrary to the Catholic faith and Tradition.”
Unusually public criticism
Seen as the heirs of Saint Peter, popes possess “supreme, full, immediate, and universal” authority, according to doctrine, over what is today a church of 1.3 billion Catholics. Despite widely held perceptions that Catholics consider popes infallible, they are viewed as such in very rare instances — with the last universally accepted time being in the 1950s, when Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven, body and soul, as a fundamental article of Catholic faith.
Under church norms, clerics may question the pope — albeit in respectful, reasonable ways.
Francis has shown significant tolerance for dissent, but his patience may be wearing thin. In recent months, one critic, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Tex., was stripped of his diocese. Another, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who frequently spoke at conservative conferences that excoriated Francis, lost his pension and Rome apartment.
“In the case of both Strickland and Burke, the amazing thing is that [Francis] took so long to do it,” said Ivereigh, the biographer. “No previous pope would have put up with anything like that.”
John S. Grabowski, a professor of moral theology and ethics at Catholic University in D.C., said that such criticism is hardly unique in papal history. Consider the 11th-century split between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches, he said. That was a severe break far greater than anything Francis faces now.
The more frequently cited point of comparison is the 1960s, when the majority of a papal commission on artificial contraception advised approving its use. Shortly afterward, Pope Paul VI, wrote “Humanae Vitae,” a high-level papal document reiterating traditional teaching and classifying the use of the birth-control pill and other artificial contraception as a sin. Some bishops conferences and theologians rejected the document, saying Catholics should honor their own consciences.
The 1968 contraception ruling “was the last big time when we had such a strong disagreement with something that came out of the Vatican,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist and longtime journalist who has written several books about the inner workings of the Catholic Church. “But bishops did not criticize [Pope Paul VI] so publicly, the way that some of them are with Pope Francis.”
“I’m stunned at the criticism of Pope Francis by conservatives,” said John McGreevy, a historian of Catholicism and provost at the University of Notre Dame. This extremely public nature of papal criticism, he said, is totally new and modern. As contributing factors, he cited a changed media landscape that provides a platform for outspoken critics such as Strickland or Viganò, as well as the rise of populist impulses around the world.
“The attacks on the institution are symbolic of a populism you would have thought Catholicism would be immune to, because it’s the ultimate bureaucratic institution,” he said.
Some experts said the fact that Benedict is no longer around to temper conservative dissent could be working against Francis.
Same-sex blessings were “the first important action [Francis] took after Ratzinger’s death,” said Alberto Melloni, a Rome-based church historian, referring to Benedict by his pre-papal name. “But this time Ratzinger is no longer there to tell the others: ‘Who cares if you don’t like it, he is the pope and you need to obey.’”
The pushback from dioceses on the same-sex marriage ruling stands somewhat apart from the cluster of fringe extremists who have scandalized even lesser critics of the pope with their incendiary language.
The Italian priest excommunicated on Jan. 1, for instance, is part of a group of Roman Catholic priests, many of them now excommunicated, who hold an almost Trumpian belief that Benedict remained the “true pope” even after his retirement, and that Francis has never been legitimate.
In an interview, the priest, Ramon Guidetti, said he had received emails from U.S. lawyers volunteering to appeal his case within the Vatican.
“I’m no expert on geopolitics but I can grasp something,” he said. “There will be presidential elections soon in the U.S., so basically all those Catholics who are against Bergoglio, who do not recognize him as a Roman pontiff, possibly connected to Trump’s movement, have seized on the chance to offer their support.”
Boorstein reported from Washington.