Faith-based

The Politics of Being Pope Francis

Church conservatives are working to make sure the next leader isn’t as liberal as the one they have now.

The two popes embrace.
Pope Francis, left, has seen conservative critics come out of the woodwork since the death of retired Pope Benedict, right, shown here greeting his successor in 2016. Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters 

When Cardinal George Pell, once the third most powerful person in the Catholic Church, died last week, Pope Francis mourned the man as a “faithful servant, who unwaveringly followed his Lord.” Pell, a member of Francis’ close circle of advisors, had worked closely with Francis to institute financial reforms.

But secretly, he had also been working to undermine him.

The day after Pell’s death, the Catholic world was shocked to discover that an anonymous memo—written last year under the pseudonym “Demos”—that blasted Francis’ papacy as a “disaster” and “catastrophe,” had actually been written by Pell. On the same day, the conservative magazine the Spectator published an article it claimed Pell had written. That article lambasted one of Francis’ central reform efforts as a “toxic nightmare.”

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These revelations proved one thing: Before his death, the conservative Pell had been undercutting Pope Francis, all while he publicly worked to appear united with him.

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And Pell wasn’t alone in making moves against Francis and his allies; last month, just days after the death of the retired Pope Benedict XVI, it was revealed that Benedict’s private secretary, Georg Gänswein, was set to publish a book avenging the late Benedict by exposing “the blatant calumnies and dark maneuvers” of Benedict’s antagonists. Despite the fact that Gänswein is still the prefect of the papal household—meaning he works directly for Francis—his recent interviews and leaked passages from the book indicate he means to come out swinging against the current pope.

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Vatican experts say this is highly unusual: “That kind of internal opposition against the pope from a vocal minority of cardinals, I hadn’t seen that kind of thing under John Paul II or Benedict XVI,” said Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University. “There’s a lot of hatred and misunderstanding. You have to ask: What’s going on here?”

Francis’ supporters will tell you the reason this is happening is that the pope is magnanimous with his conservative critics—and that those conservatives are growing even more emboldened following the death of Benedict, a conservative who nevertheless urged displays of unity. Francis’ opponents will tell you he is dealing with an increasingly vocal and agitated faction of conservatives because he is sowing an unprecedented amount of confusion in the church, and that desperate times call for desperate measures.

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But the increasing drama likely has the most to do with increasing chatter about Francis’ retirement. Francis is 86 and is facing worsening mobility issues. We don’t know when or if he’ll retire (or experience an incapacitating health issue), but now that Benedict is gone, Francis no longer has to worry about the awkwardness of two retired popes. Meaning, he could up and retire, too.

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Certainly, church conservatives, including the late Pell, have been lobbying hard to influence a future papal election. The second half of Pell’s anonymous memo, which circulated last year among the cardinals and attacked virtually every element of Francis’ leadership, was titled “The Next Conclave”—a reference to the next time a new pope will be chosen.

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What we are seeing is an effort, by conservatives, to make sure the next Pope isn’t as liberal as the one they have now.

Pope Francis was elected in 2013, at a time when the church was battered by continuing sex abuse allegations and the recent Vatileaks scandal. The first non-European to be elected in over a millennium, Francis quickly broke with his more conservative predecessor by eschewing the ostentation of the position. He rejected the church’s narrow fixation on abortion and “sexual sins” and instead emphasized compassion, hinting at leniency for divorced Catholics and making overtures to the LGBTQ community. He condemned greed and unbridled capitalism and made environmentalism a key issue of his papacy.

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But more than any of these theological stances, experts say, it’s his philosophical approach to the church itself that he hopes will be his legacy. He placed lay women in high-ranking positions in the church, made radical changes to the structure of the church’s government, and has downplayed the importance of rituals. He has campaigned against “clericalism,” or the tendency of bishops and priests to relish their power over—and see themselves as separate from—the lay faithful, and has pushed for a more “pastoral” approach. And he has kicked off a global, multi-year experiment in discussion and debate that he hopes will force the church leaders to listen to the wishes and concerns of the public.

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Though Francis gives off a warm, grandfatherly impression, there’s no doubt that he’s politically savvy. He is almost certainly working to reshape the College of Cardinals, the advisory body composed of the church’s most senior members—known as the “princes of the church”—that will, most importantly, be tasked with choosing the next pope. And he has shown himself willing to shake up the rules.

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One of the most visible ways he has done that is by elevating cardinals from all over the globe in an effort that helps diversify the church outside of Europe. (He also has snubbed some expectant conservatives in favor of less senior but more loyal allies.) In nearly 10 years in the position, Francis has appointed a majority of cardinals, at least in terms of those who are permitted to vote for the next pope.

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But still, his legacy isn’t secured.

“It’s going to be difficult for people from all over the world to form a political bloc,” said David Gibson, the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. The elevation of cardinals all around the world is healthy for the future of the church, and it certainly puts more of Francis’ allies in positions of power, but it’s not necessarily politically advantageous. “The [cardinals] in Rome who know Italian, know the way the curia works, and tend to be more conservative, have the home field advantage,” Gibson said.

Making things more tenuous, according to Ulrich Lehner, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, Francis has rejected the typical practice of using the College of Cardinals as an advisory board in favor of consulting a small circle of trusted advisers. “This has a fatal consequence,” Lehner wrote in an email. “The cardinals do not know each other, cannot establish relationships, and consequently also cannot learn how to trust each other—unless rectified, this sets a future conclave on a very unhealthy footing.” He added: “It makes it more vulnerable to manipulation.”

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To elect a new pope, two-thirds of the voting members of the College of Cardinals—they must be under the age of 80 to vote—have to agree on a candidate. (According to tradition, that candidate will come from among their number; in principle, it could be any male Catholic.) In the weeks after a pope’s retirement or death, these cardinals will debate and strategize and form factions with one another while sealed away in the Sistine Chapel. It’s crucial, then, for any pope looking to ensure a legacy to stock the College of Cardinals with allies.

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Francis is doing exactly that—though it’s complicated. It’s very difficult to say how many of his appointees are actually allies. (And tradition, as well as political and logistical factors, mean he can only appoint so many, and only in batches.) But if all goes as expected, he is set to have the needed two-thirds majority at the end of July.

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The matter of the next pope is not just a math problem, of course. We can have no idea who the next pope will be—or how his politics will manifest. There’s a lot of unpredictability to the process. As several Vatican experts noted, there’s an Italian phrase that says, “The cardinal who enters a conclave a pope comes out a cardinal”—meaning no one should get cocky here. Who knows? Maybe the electors will focus on administrative capabilities rather than any theological stances. Maybe there will be geopolitical factors that sway the outcome. Maybe even Francis’ strongest defenders will get tired of the changes of these past few years and vote for someone less disruptive. It’s really hard to say.

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The long and short of it is: If Francis really wants to try to stave off a conservative insurgent, he’ll need to stay in the role for a bit longer. After July, Francis will be able to appoint three more allies. In 2024, he’ll be able to add another seven. By the end of next year, he will mostly likely have 91 appointees to his predecessor’s 29. That’s a solid three-quarters majority of appointees, if not allies, if Francis only stays in the role—and/or lives—for two more years.

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As Gibson sees it, it’s not just Francis’ aging that has his enemies lashing out; it’s his success, too. “It’s growing desperation,” Gibson said. “The anti-Francis conservatives feel that the longer Francis goes on, the less chance they have of a restoration. So Gänswein and his tell-all, Pell, all these things going on—they’re signs of panic.”

Gibson doesn’t think the conservatives have reason to fully despair yet. But things aren’t necessarily looking good for them, either. “If [Francis] survives two more years,” Gibson said, “that’s going to be a real shift.”

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