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Cardinals Disputing the Pope


At least a score of cardinals have openly disagreed with Pope Francis in the past nine months. This is unheard of in recent history, not because churchmen don’t disagree with the pontiff, but because Princes of Church aren’t supposed to do it publicly.

Wilfried Napier is the cardinal archbishop of Durban, South Africa. “He also holds various offices in the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, and is one of the African continent’s most prominent ecclesial figures … ‘Thank God I live in Africa, where we base our faith on the Scriptures & Church Teaching, & not every papal interview!’” he tweeted on July 3rd.

Reinhard Marx is the cardinal archbishop of Munich and a member of Pope Francis’ advisory Council of Cardinals. On June 23rd he stated that “we as Church cannot be against” civil same-sex marriage. The pope has declared that he is opposed to marriage equality dozens of times in the past decades.

George Pell is cardinal archbishop emeritus of Sydney and prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy. On April 12th, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the number two official at the Secretariat of State, issued a letter suspending an external audit of Vatican finances by the global accountants, Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC). “Here, one must point out the obvious: it is hard to imagine the Secretariat of State suspending a contract worth millions, signed by the Prefect for the Economy, without the pope’s approval and after having informed him,” wrote Vatican reporter, Andrea Tornielli.

In response to Becciu’s letter, a statement from Pell’s office “noted with interest that the so-called ‘concerns’ about the PwC audit and contract were only raised when auditors began asking for certain financial information and were finding it difficult to get answers.”

Karl Lehmann, cardinal archbishop of Mainz and former president of the German bishops’ conference, complained in May that “unauthorized people” were interfering in episcopal nominations “unfortunately under the pontificate of Pope Francis.” Usually, three names are sent to the Vatican by the nuncio after consultations with local priests and bishops. “In recent years, the official list of names has been crossed out and a new list sent from Rome,” Lehmann said.

Carlo Caffara, cardinal archbishop emeritus of Bologna, stated on May 30th that Chapter 8 of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia was “objectively unclear … Now, if the pope had wanted to change the previous Magisterium, whose teaching is extremely clear, he would have had the duty – and the grave duty – to say so clearly and directly. One cannot change the age-old discipline of the Church [that the divorced and civilly remarried may not receive communion] with a footnote, and in an uncertain tone.”

Three months after the publication of Amoris Laetitia, churchmen are still debating the issue of communion for the civilly remarried.

Timothy Dolan, cardinal archbishop of New York, was dismissive of the document by stating that lay Catholics interested in the communion debate represent a “distinct minority … The largest group would be those who think, “Who cares, I don’t go [to mass] anyway … Even among Catholics who might hope for some kind of mitigation, most of them would say I don’t care, I don’t go, and if I wanted to [take communion], I would, because I don’t need the Church to tell me what to do!”

Napier, Pell, Caffara and Dolan were among thirteen cardinals who wrote a letter to Pope Francis before the October 2015 synod on the family. They charged that the procedures as dictated by the pope “lacked openness and genuine collegiality,” would “guarantee” that the preliminary document prepared by the pope’s appointees would have “excessive influence,” and were “designed to facilitate predetermined results.” In other words, the meeting of 270 bishops from the world was rigged in favor of the pope’s views.

Pope Francis responded by advising the attendees “not to give in to the conspiracy which is sociologically weak and spiritually unhelpful.” Francis-appointee, Fr. Thomas Rosica, “the official media liaison at the synod for the English-language media, immediately circulated with his own enthusiastic approval the most virulent and authoritative attack against the thirteen signers of the letter.”

Norberto Rivera Carrera is cardinal archbishop of Mexico City. In March, his website stated Pope Francis was misinformed. During his trip to Mexico, the pope said, “We do not need ‘princes,’ but rather a community of the Lord’s witnesses.” The archdiocese editorial said “The Mexican bishops have been accompanying the suffering, downtrodden people, devoting their lives to others and not living like ‘princes.'”

 On international affairs

After meeting with the pope about migration in May, Cardinals Erdő and Bagnasco talked to the press. Despite Pope Francis urging Europe to “tear down walls” being built to keep out refugees, Péter Erdő, cardinal archbishop of Budapest and president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences said, “We have talked long about migration, but the problem can’t be explained in a three-line statement … You can’t make a quick judgment of the individual decisions of each country, because the countries that were under Soviet domination [and] that are now part of the European Union aren’t yet integrated.”

Angelo Bagnasco, cardinal archbishop of Genoa, and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, said the “Church’s mission is to announce the Gospel and its values, certainly not to give political or operational indications.”

Joseph Zen, cardinal bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, on June 30th “appealed to people’s ‘conscience,’ calling on his ‘brothers and sisters’ of the People’s Republic of China to ignore a potential agreement between China and the Holy See that carries ‘the Pope’s approval.’”

There are two Catholic Churches in China. One is the state-registered Patriotic Church loyal to the government. The other is the “underground” Church that accepts the authority of Rome. In February, an official with a Chinese Catholic charity “suggested that the faithful in China are experiencing the worst persecution in a decade.”  “The Communist Party has  made clear its latest strategy for controlling religious groups across China” by issuing certificates  with a national ID card number to clergy.  It was reported in April that three underground priests disappeared.

“The Vatican is seeking cordial relations with China when it should be standing up for persecuted Catholics … If Vatican diplomacy is contemplating some sort of compromise with the Chinese government whereby they propose bishops which the Vatican then approves, this would be a huge defeat for the autonomy of the Church and for religious liberty, quite apart from throwing the faithful Catholics of China under the bus,” wrote Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, doctor of moral theology, in April.

Nevertheless, it was reported in June that “the Vatican is reportedly willing to accept new bishop candidates chosen out of a set of three with the approval of the Chinese government.

Sviatoslav Shevchuk is the major archbishop (head) of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern Rite Church in communion with the Vatican. It is the second largest religion in the country after the Christian orthodox and three and a half times larger than the Roman Catholic Church.

As regards the joint declaration Pope Francis signed with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church on February 12 at the Havana airport, Shevchuk said: “Many contacted me and said that they feel betrayed by the Vatican, disappointed by the half-truth nature of this document, and even see it as indirect support by the Apostolic See for Russian aggression against Ukraine.”

At the time of the meeting, “Russia’s diplomatic situation is isolated … Many in the international community oppose Russia’s strong support for Syrian president Bashar Assad. Facing this diplomatic isolation, Russian president Vladimir Putin met with Pope Francis in Rome two times in three years: in November 2013 and in June 2015 … [T]he Russian Orthodox Church has often acted as a sort of shadow ministry for the Foreign Affairs of the Russian administration.”

“Greek Catholics felt that [the Havana meeting] was a propaganda coup for Moscow, and that the joint declaration the two men issued was even worse – mostly a series of Catholic concessions to the Russians, including language that could be read to invalidate criticism of Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine.”


Not only are cardinals publicly disagreeing with Pope Francis, but many of the above citations are from publications that didn’t print any critical information about the pontiff until recently. Are these digressions from a publicly docile hierarchy and a fawning press portents of greater problems to come for the Superstar Pope?


(Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America)



4 Responses

  1. Thanks Betty. I think Pontifex Superstar is in trouble for sure……

    • I appreciate your comment. Thanks.

  2. Princes probably always spoke their differences with a reigning pontiff, especially if they were promoted by a previous one. But there wasn’t always media, and international at that. Part of the problem is that there are even princes.
    BC ought to have a column in L’Osservatore Romano, “What the cardinals are saying.” It would make interesting breakfast reading for the pope to find out what they most likely wouldn’t say directly to his face.
    Unfortunately, the vox populi doesn’t count.
    The papacy simply isn’t reformable.
    All the time, money and energy for centuries since Constantine has effectively maintained an authoritarian power structure.
    Pontifex Maximus of the Caesars is the preferred title of popes, Francis included.
    Cardinals simply bid their time till they produce a new pontifex maximus more to their liking until God promotes him.
    Amazing the People of God continues to subsidize this royal court!
    Of course, they don’t have a say in how their money is abused.

  3. Well said” “Part of the problem is that there are even princes” and “the papacy simply isn’t reformable.” Thanks as always for your insightful and learned comments.

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