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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Pope’s critics feel the sting after his patience runs out


Bishop Joseph Strickland, left, speaks to supporters outside the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the Marriott Waterfront hotel in Baltimore, on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Strickland, the bishop of Tyler, Texas, and a sharp critic of the pope was recently removed from his post.

By Jason Horowitz


As Pope Francis smiled warmly at the circus performers spinning and flipping in front of him at his weekly general audience in the Vatican on Wednesday, he looked every bit the grandfatherly figure who has for the past decade sought to make the church a kinder, gentler and more inclusive place.


Except for the people feeling his wrath.


There is a sense among some Vatican analysts and conservatives that Francis, who is suffering from a lung inflammation that forced him to pass off his readings at the event and to cancel an important trip to Dubai this weekend, is increasingly focusing his depleted energies on settling scores and cleaning house.


In the past month, he has turned his focus on two of his most vocal and committed conservative critics in the United States, and in the year since the death of his conservative predecessor, Benedict XVI, he has exiled a previously protected chief antagonist and moved against others who have accused him of destroying the church.


While some have wondered whether his ailing health might be driving his actions, Francis, who from the beginning said he didn’t expect to live long in the job, has often moved with urgency. And when it comes to personnel moves, analysts said, it has always been thus.


“He has always acted like this,” said Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican observer at L’Espresso magazine, who cited cases of bishops that Francis had iced out for publicly divulging private conversations or for making him look bad or causing scandal, whether or not they were actually to blame.


But Magister said the death of Benedict XVI last December was the real catalyst for an even more intensive period of “frenetic activism” against his foes, with the former pope no longer a presence in the Vatican gardens.


While conservatives have long complained that the publicly cuddly pontiff has actually acted as a ruthless and impetuous autocrat, supporters of Francis, who will turn 87 next month and is increasingly slowed by the use of a cane and a wheelchair, say that he has exercised patience far beyond that of his conservative predecessors.


But that patience, people close to him say, has limits. And after years of allowing criticism in the interest of allowing good-faith debates, Francis has come to the conclusion that some of the invective is simply politically and ideologically driven.


This month, a Vatican investigation into the bishop of Tyler, Texas, Joseph Strickland, who uses his broad conservative radio and internet platform to sharply criticize the pope, resulted in his removal. Last week, after Pope Francis started feeling under the weather, he told a meeting of church office heads that he would take action against another American antagonist, Cardinal Raymond Burke, by revoking his right to a subsidized Vatican apartment and salary because, according to one attendee, the American was “sowing disunity” in the church. The conservative Italian outlet that first reported Burke’s possible eviction, La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, also claimed that Francis had called Burke “my enemy.”


On Wednesday afternoon, the pope’s biographer Austen Ivereigh said Francis denied calling Burke his enemy. “I never used the word ‘enemy,’ nor the pronoun ‘my,’” Francis wrote in a note to Ivereigh.


Francis also told Ivereigh that he had decided to strip Burke of his Vatican apartment and salary because the American prelate had been acting against the unity of the church.


A spokesperson for Burke said Wednesday that the prelate had received no eviction notice.


“His Eminence did not receive any notification on that matter,” said Canon Erwan Wagner, Burke’s secretary.


Yet even if Burke does lose his lease, he will not exactly end up on the street. A conservative Catholic celebrity, his guest appearances at churches and speaking engagements are often paired with promotions of his many books. He is close to well-financed conservative groups in the United States that are supportive of his campaigns. He also maintains the real instrument of his power in the church: a vote in the next conclave to elect a pope.


“Taking away an apartment is not a sanction, it’s a gesture of spite,” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian and the director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Sciences in Bologna. The removal of Strickland was more serious because while Burke’s punishment “was administrative, the other was sacramental.”


Melloni argued that Francis had long been wary of giving his opponents something to complain about and has in the past been careful not to make martyrs out of his antagonists. But now, the conservatives would make a meal out of his latest crackdowns and eventually enter the next conclave, the meeting of cardinals that selects the pope’s successor, saying “never again.”


But if conservatives are worried about Francis’ hard actions recently, liberals have lamented his inaction. In major church policy areas, such as allowing married priests, same-sex blessings or Communion for the divorced and remarried, Francis has instead punted time and again.


A recent major assembly in the Vatican of bishops and laypeople drew the condemnation of Burke, who depicted it as a hostile and illegitimate takeover of the Catholic Church by progressive interest groups. But the gathering ended up doing very little, and left forces urging meaningful change in the role of LGBTQ+ and female followers of the church disappointed. And Francis has strongly resisted the efforts of the progressive German church to move independently of the Vatican on issues ranging from priestly celibacy to same-sex blessings.


But after his more conservative predecessors cracked down on, and even fired, liberal theologians, Francis and his reform agenda have clearly been better news for progressives in the church, and bad news for traditionalists accustomed to getting what they wanted.


Burke, who in many ways became a champion to conservatives for the opposition to Pope Francis, also became perhaps the greatest papal punching bag.


In 2013, the year he was elected pope, Francis did not reappoint Burke to his position on the Congregation for Bishops, and the following year, he also removed him from his post as prefect of the Vatican’s highest court, the Apostolic Signatura, and named him cardinal patron of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, a ceremonial post for a medieval religious order. He eventually removed him from that, too. For good measure, Francis later removed the cardinal’s ally, the traditionalist leader of the Order of Malta, Matthew Festing, over a staffing conflict.


But Burke is hardly alone in facing the pope’s ire.


In 2014, Francis seemed to give a major promotion to the Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, a figure beloved by traditionalists, making him head of the church’s office on liturgy. But critics argued that Sarah was isolated at the top because Francis surrounded him with his own allies. He ultimately removed the church’s prayer book from Sarah’s hands altogether, accepting his resignation, and then cracked down on the use of the old Latin Mass, beloved by Sarah, Burke and other conservatives, arguing it had been used for disunity in the church.


In 2017, Francis perplexed Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, then the church’s doctrinal watchdog, by ordering him to fire three conservative priests in his office. Then Francis got rid of Müller.


The current occupant of that job is Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, a fellow Argentine who Magister called “the direct opposite of Benedict,” the conservative pope often called “God’s Rottweiler” who himself headed that office for decades when he was a cardinal.


This year, soon after the death of Benedict XVI, Francis essentially exiled to Germany Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s personal secretary, who had served as prefect of the papal household. Gänswein had published a book that exposed tensions between Francis and Benedict.


Those measures drew attention, but the punishment of the prelates from the United States, a country whose clerics the Argentine pontiff has long been skeptical of, that has touched a conservative nerve. Close allies of Francis have said that the United States, with its well-funded conservative Catholic media apparatus, amplified far and wide criticism intended to derail the pope’s vision of a more inclusive church.


Asked on the papal plane returning from Africa in 2019 about the American conservatives attacking his pontificate across vast media platforms, he seemed to shrug off the possibility of their splitting off from the church.


“I pray there are no schisms,” he said. “But I’m not scared.”

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