The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opposition to Pope Francis spills into view in wake of Benedict’s death

Pope Francis arrives for the weekly general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)
6 min

VATICAN CITY — Last year, a high-ranking figure in the Vatican invited a journalist to a confidential meeting and handed him a stapled seven-page memo, a scalding insider critique of Pope Francis’s pontificate. The memorandum, touching on everything from moral to financial issues, ended with an appeal about the kind of pope that should emerge from the next conclave: in short, somebody the opposite of Francis.

“The first tasks of the new pope will be to restore normality, restore doctrinal clarity in faith and morals, restore a proper respect for the law,” said the memo, which was signed with the pseudonym “Demos.”

The journalist, Sandro Magister, published the text last March on his Vatican blog, Settimo Cielo.

But then there was a final twist. After the purported author died last week, Magister felt free to reveal his identity: Cardinal George Pell, a giant of the conservative Catholic world.

“He had wanted it to circulate because he deemed it useful to develop a conversation” about the church, Magister told The Washington Post.

That revelation, coupled with other recent pontifical critiques, have quickly dissolved the notion that the Dec. 31 death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a symbolic leader of the church’s conservative wing, might lessen the opposition to Francis. Some church watchers had expected that this might be a liberating moment for Francis — he’d be, at last, the lone Vatican figure dressing in white. But to the extent there’s been a new phase, it’s been typified by intrigue and acrimony.

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Magister’s disclosure came at a time when the Vatican was already buzzing about a book written by Benedict’s trusted personal secretary that highlighted several moments of tension between the ex-pope and current one.

As if that weren’t enough drama, the Spectator, a conservative London-based magazine, posthumously published one more article written by Pell — this one signed — in which he skewered an ongoing multiyear church project, central to Francis’s vision for the church, that involves listening to grass-roots Catholics and accounting for the “richness” of different church perspectives.

“A toxic nightmare,” Pell called this process, which will culminate with a major assembly in October.

Pell’s critiques in particular amount to a clarion call for conservatives, who have long worried that Francis might become bolder now that he doesn’t risk personally offending his predecessor.

Cardinal George Pell, convicted then acquitted of child sex abuse, dies at 81

Pell had spent more than a year in solitary confinement after being found guilty of assaulting two teenage choirboys in his home country of Australia. But that conviction was overturned by the country’s top court in 2020. When he returned to Rome, he reclaimed his platform among conservatives, who celebrated what they saw as his vindication.

It’s unclear whether Francis has any plans for new landmark documents. But at minimum, he’ll be able to put an updated stamp on the Vatican this year by replacing several aging moderate cardinals who head major departments. He’ll also have a hand in the October assembly, a powder keg moment for the church, given the topics — such as homosexuality and the role of women in the church — that will be included in the discussion.

A working document issued by the Vatican, based on consultation with local churches, explicitly says it is neither conclusive nor reflective of church teaching. But it cites numerous calls to make the church more welcoming, including for those who “feel a tension between belonging to the Church and their own loving relationships, such as: remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in a polygamous marriage, LGBTQ people, etc.”

Pell, in the Spectator, called it a “potpourri … of New Age good will” that ignores the Old Testament.

“Based on what we’ve seen in the first half of January, my impression is that this resistance to Pope Francis is only going to escalate,” said Mike Lewis, a founder of Where Peter Is, a website that aims to help conservatives understand Francis’s pontificate. “I think there is a fear that everything is going to fall apart at the [assembly] in terms of Catholic moral theology.”

Lucetta Scaraffia, a historian and former editor of a Vatican magazine, said that, going forward, dissent against Francis would probably become a “free-for-all.”

She cited the example of Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s longtime gatekeeper, who made the kind of disclosures shortly after Benedict’s death that the former pope himself never abided.

Gänswein, in his book, shows some warm moments between Francis and Benedict — meetings over wine and sweets — while describing how Benedict felt it was a “mistake” for Francis to impose restrictions on the Latin Mass. Gänswein writes that he had his own differences with Francis and said he was never able to establish a “climate of trust” with the pope.

Scaraffia said that there is “huge chaos” inside the church and that Benedict — generally showing fealty to the pope even when disagreeing with him — had set an example that probably worked to limit the ferocity of other Francis critics.

“The death of Benedict has marked the end of an equilibrium,” Scaraffia said.

Francis’s nearly 10 years as pope have been defined by opposition and deepened polarization — not just with rank-and-file Catholics, but with those in the highest ranks of the church. Cardinals over the years have accused him of sowing moral confusion, asking for clarifications on his stances, and in one instance even called a church document heretical.

He called on the pope to resign. Now this archbishop is in an undisclosed location.

Even by those standards, the “Demos” memorandum is unusually comprehensive and personal. It upbraids the pope on issue after issue: his “silence” in the face of progressive German bishops, his uneven financial reforms, his willingness to “help the prosecution” and ignore “due process” in an ongoing Vatican fraud trial.

The final part of the memo — titled “The Next Conclave” — calls for a next pope who understands that Catholicism’s vitality is rooted in the “teachings of Christ,” not in “adapting to the world.” That critique echoes one of the most common conservative complaints about Francis: that he has been willing to blur Catholic stances in the name of listening to other points of view.

There is some debate among church watchers about whether the “Demos” memo was written solely by Pell or with the help of others. George Weigel, a papal biographer, said some of the points are “quite familiar” to those who were in regular touch with Pell, who was known for his pugilistic personality and financial expertise.

Writing for the Religion News Service, Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, said Pell “crossed a line” in writing the anonymous memo.

“Pell for the first time in his life showed himself a coward,” Reese said. “It is one thing to argue with the pope behind closed doors; it is another thing to stab him in the back.”