On Tuesday, Pope Francis took part in an interview with Nicole Winfield, the Vatican correspondent for the Associated Press. After the interview was published, commentators in the United States focused on the Pope’s answer to a question about criminal laws against homosexuality, which exist in some sixty-seven countries—among them, Sudan, where he will travel next week, which forbids sodomy and applies a sentence of life imprisonment for a third offence. In his response, Francis extemporized. “Being homosexual is not a crime. It’s not a crime. Yes, but it is a sin,” he said. “First let’s make a distinction between sin and crime. But it’s also a sin to lack charity toward another. So what about that?”
Those remarks were one more instance of Francis’s incremental approach toward acceptance of gay people, which has involved expressing compassion for them and support for them in civic matters, while leaving aside the Church’s stern teaching that homosexual activity is “intrinsically disordered.” The interview as a whole, which was conducted in Spanish with an American reporter, for a US-based news organization, represented a response to his critics. The weeks since the death of Pope Benedict XVI have been open season for Catholic traditionalists opposed to Francis, and the roiling intrigue, rancor, and partisan jousting in Rome have offered a preview of what life in the Church might be like in the coming years.
Benedict’s death, on December 31st, at age ninety-five, after a long decline in his health, was not unexpected. But its aftermath took many by surprise. Since resigning the papacy, in 2013, Benedict had lived in a renovated monastery behind St. Peter’s Basilica—a short distance from the guesthouse where his successor, Pope Francis, has chosen to live. And, from the beginning of the arrangement, it was an article of faith at the Vatican that the unprecedented instance of a living ex-Pope was a source of tension for Francis, and that the sense of Benedict looking over his shoulder prevented him from acting as boldly as he might have wished—say, by changing Church doctrine, calling an ecumenical council, or even retiring, himself. It now seems, rather, that Benedict’s presence was a force of restraint on Francis’s critics; with the thirty-five-year era defined by Benedict and his predecessor, the since-canonized Pope John Paul II, really done and gone, the “trads” have been striking out against Francis unabashedly.
First, they griped about Pope Benedict’s funeral, claiming that it was held too soon after his death (preventing heads of state and other dignitaries from being able to make arrangements to attend), that Francis’s homily was too perfunctory, and that the Vatican’s refusal to close its offices for a day of mourning was a snub to Benedict, his followers, and the papal office. Next, Benedict’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, published a memoir of his years of service—a production clearly intended and timed to consolidate the Pope’s posthumous legacy. In the book, Gänswein argued that Francis had treated Benedict with disrespect, for example, by restricting the use of the old Latin Rite Mass, a practice cherished by traditionalists. Not only was Benedict not consulted about the restriction, Gänswein claimed, but he didn’t know about it until he read a report in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
Then Cardinal George Pell, of Australia, died in Rome, at the age of eighty-one, of cardiac arrest, after having attended Benedict’s funeral a few days earlier. As the obituaries for Pell were coming out, the Italian journalist Sandro Magister disclosed that Pell had been the author of a pseudonymous memo that Magister had published in his blog last March. That memo opened with the declaration that “commentators of every school . . . agree” that Francis’s pontificate has been “a disaster in many or most respects; a disaster.” It then set out the Pope’s alleged failures bullet-point style.
We only have it on Magister’s word that Pell was the memo’s author, but writing it would certainly have been in keeping with Pell’s character. First in Australia, and then at the College of Cardinals—where he is said to have mustered the support of Anglophone cardinals for Benedict’s election, after the death of John Paul II, in 2005—Pell was a traditionalist without Benedict’s scholarly opacity or sense of protocol, and his style was often likened to that of the Aussie-rules football player he’d been as a young man. And yet his hard-charging manner didn’t stop Francis from naming him to lead the Secretariat for the Economy, in 2014, tasking him with reorganizing the corruption-added Vatican finances; on the contrary, it was seen as an asset. When, several years later, Pell was charged, tried, and convicted of sexually assaulting two teen-age boys while serving as archbishop of Melbourne, in the nineteen-nineties (charges he denied), Francis stood by him on the ground that he deserved the presumption of innocence while the ruling was on appeal; and, when Pell, after serving thirteen months in prison in Australia, saw his conviction overturned by Australia’s High Court, and was released, Francis offered a prayer for “all those people who suffer an unjust sentence as a result of those who had it in for them,” and then welcomed him back to the Vatican with a photo op. What was surprising about the disclosure of Pell’s role in the memo, then, was that he would strike out so bluntly against a Pope who had shown him such favor.
Yet traditionalists have been set against Francis from early in his pontificate. So why all the hue and cry now? One reason, certainly, is the sense of an ending that Benedict’s death brought—a sense deepened by the recent publication of a book of Benedict’s last writings, with the ponderous subtitle “Almost a Spiritual Testament.” Another reason is a sense that Francis, now eighty-six, is physically failing, and that his grip on the Church is less than strong.
It’s true that Francis is less than strong in Rome. This is partly his own fault: he has responded vaguely and fitfully to a new round of accusations of sexual abuse, involving bishops and Jesuits close to him; and his long initial refusal to name Russia as the aggressor in the war in Ukraine has made his subsequent, progressively more direct denunciations of Russian actions confusing and unpersuasive. With the old Latin Rite Mass, he inflamed a situation that he might have handled more nimbly than through a formal restriction. But, at bottom, the traditionalists’ surge of enmity against Francis is a consequence of the more open Church that he has called for and has fostered throughout his nearly ten years in office—in sharp contrast to his predecessors, who often investigated their critics or placed restrictions on their ability to write and teach. Take Archbishop Gänswein’s situation. Under Benedict, he was named the prefect of the papal household—the gatekeeper to the Pope. After Benedict retired, and Francis was elected, Gänswein served both Popes, shuttling from the monastery on one side of St. Peter’s to the guesthouse on the other. It seemed clear that his loyalty to the former Pope made him a liability to the present one. Finally, in 2020, Francis is said to have removed him as prefect (which the Vatican has denied), but left him in place as Benedict’s secretary, enabling him not just to serve Benedict but to maintain a court-like traditionalist power base at the monastery, vested with the prestige of the ex-Pope.
Or take the case of Cardinal Pell. Francis or his advisers may have suspected in 2022 that Pell had had a hand in writing the memo. In that case, Francis could have forced him to retire, leave Rome, and return to Australia, or he could have compelled him to publicly state whether he’d written the memo and, if so, why he’d done so pseudonymously. But any ensuing controversy might have actually empowered Pell as a figure scolded for speaking hard truths. In any event, Francis has endured the criticism, even after Pell’s authorship was disclosed.