ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — In an offhand remark on the papal plane en route to Mozambique, Pope Francis on Wednesday acknowledged the sharp opposition he has faced from conservative Catholic detractors in the United States, calling it an “an honor that the Americans attack me.”
His remark came at the start of a six-day trip to Africa, as Francis shook hands in the back of the plane with a French reporter who handed him a copy of his new book, “How America Wanted to Change the Pope.”
Francis warmly told the reporter, Nicholas Senèze, who covers the Vatican for the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, that he had been unable to find the book, which explores American financial, political and media backing of the small but noisy conservative opposition seeking to undermine Francis. Apparently referring to his critics, Francis quipped that their disapproval is “an honor.”
He then handed the book to an aide, and jokingly called it “a bomb.”
Francis’ priorities and inclusive approach to the papacy have infuriated some American prelates, donors and their supporters in the constellation of conservative Catholic media. Those critics often complain that Francis is watering down church orthodoxy, retreating in the culture wars and sowing confusion in the church.
Mr. Senèze said in an interview later that his book, which was released in France on Wednesday, explored the criticism of American conservatives who disagree with Francis’ championing of migrants, his absolute opposition to the death penalty and his willingness to offer the sacraments to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Supporters of Francis had hoped that, after years of being drawn into the sexual abuse scandal and bickering with his conservative critics, this week’s trip to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritiuswould allow him to focus anew on poverty, climate change and migration.
But it was Francis himself who brought the old ideological rifts along for the ride.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been repeatedly demoted by Francis, has been the de facto leader of the dissent against the pontiff. But other conservative prelates in the American hierarchy have not been shy to criticize Francis on a broad variety of issues.
Last August, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, demanded the pope’s resignation. He has been hailed as a hero in some American conservative circles.
It has been no secret that Francis, the first Latin American pope, has a complicated view of his former neighbors to the north, and that the American conservatives have long been out of his good graces.
He has been a committed critic of the abuses of American capitalism. Not long after Francis’ election, Vatican ambassadors briefed the pontiff about various situations around the world and suggested that he be especially careful when appointing bishops and cardinals in the United States.
“I know that already,” the pope interrupted, a high-ranking Vatican official told the Times in 2017. “That’s where the opposition is coming from.”
That year, two close associates of Pope Francis, in an article published in a Vatican-vetted magazine, accused American Catholic ultraconservatives of making an unholy alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians to help President Trump.
One of the writers of that article, Antonio Spadaro, a prominent Jesuit who edits the magazine, Civiltà Cattolica, sat with Pope Francis in the front section of the plane on Wednesday.
Almost immediately after the pope finished his meet-and-greet, asked for prayers for victims of hurricane Dorian and returned to his seat, the Vatican spokesman appeared in an apparent effort to clean up his remarks.
“In an informal context the pope wanted to say that he always considers criticism an honor,” said Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman. “Particularly when it comes from authoritative thinkers, in this case from an important nation.”
The pope’s casual conversation with reporters on the plane soon after taking off from Rome on papal trips is a tradition, and usually features the pope receiving gifts and requests for blessings from reporters in the Catholic media, and engaging in harmless and often awkward chitchat.
When I told the pope on Wednesday that I nearly missed the flight because, like him a few days earlier, I had been stuck in an elevator, he chuckled and made an Italian hand gesture to show how scary it was.
But other conversations yielded more pointed remarks.
In another conversation overheard on the plane, Francis spoke with a German reporter, Andreas Englisch, about the pope’s decision to elevate to the rank of cardinal Raymond Burke, a longtime proponent of interreligious dialogue with Muslims.
Francis called the elevation of Bishop Fitzgerald, who had been sidelined under Pope Benedict XVI, “an act of justice.”
Mr. Englisch said that he also told Francis that not all Germans believed the bad things said about him by the German cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the church’s former chief theologian, who was fired by Francis.
When the pope asked Mr. Englisch what Cardinal Müller had been saying about him, Mr. Englisch told him the cardinal had been saying he would try and save Francis’ papacy from bad theology.
Francis replied that Cardinal Müller “has good intentions and he is a good man, but he is like a child,” Mr. Englisch said.
We know that slaveholders in the American South used Scripture to justify keeping their fellow humans in bondage. They could find no words from Christ on this, for there are no words from him. Just a line in the New Testament from mere mortals presuming to speak for him.
But perhaps it made those who tore apart families, who whipped insubordinates until they passed out, who sold children and cotton bales as similar commodities feel better to know that the monstrous crime of their daily enterprise could be a blessed act.
These days, no less an authority than Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said recently that God “wanted Donald Trump to become president.”
She offered no sourcing for this assertion, as is the case for vaporous claims that rise from the rot of the Trump presidency on a daily basis. But in blaming God for Trump, Sanders echoed a widespread Republican belief that the most outwardly amoral man ever to occupy the White House is an instrument of divine power. He’s part of the master plan.
Mocking Sanders and the many Ned Flanders of the G.O.P. team is unlikely to make much of a dent. Nearly half of all Republicans believe God wanted Trump to win the election. To them, secular snark is a merit badge on the MAGA hat.
But there is a better way to sway the electorate of faith, as the rising Democratic stars Pete Buttigieg and Stacey Abrams have shown us. They apply something like a “What Would Jesus Do?” test to rouse religious conscience on the political battlefield.
Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., is a Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan, a Rhodes scholar, married to a junior high school teacher. He’s gay and, more surprising for a modern Democrat, he is an out Christian, as quick to quote St. Augustine as Abraham Lincoln. On Sunday, he is expected to formally announce his run for president.
The Catholic Church needs leaders who can purge corruption even among their own theological allies. The pope is failing that test.
During the Catholic Church’s synod on the family in Rome in 2015, a rough-and-tumble affair in which Pope Francis pushed the assembled bishops to liberalize Catholic teaching on remarriage and divorce, one of the attendees, by the pope’s own invitation, was the retired Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels.
Danneels was a natural pick in one sense: One of the church’s prominent liberals, he had been part of a circle that supported Jorge Bergoglio in the run-up to his election as Francis, and in a synodal fight with conservative bishops, the pope needed all the allies he could get.
.. In another sense, though, Danneels was a wildly inappropriate choice, because at the conclusion of his career he was caught on tape trying to persuade a young victim of sex abuse not to go public with allegations against the victim’s uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, Belgium.
.. hauling a cover-up artist out of retirement for a synod on the family was a statement that ideological loyalties mattered more to him than personal misconduct: Sex abuse might be bad, but what really mattered was being on the correct side of the Catholic civil war.
.. after years of failed American attempts to get Rome to take action, Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, placed the already retired McCarrick under some form of sanctions — moving him out of his residence, restricting contact with seminarians, limiting public appearances. It further claims that despite being told that McCarrick was a sexual predator, Francis removed those sanctions, raised McCarrick’s profile and relied on him for advice about major appointments.
.. noting that McCarrick appeared at many events, including with Benedict himself, in the period when he was supposedly under sanctions.
.. given the distracted and ineffectual way that the last pope ran the church, it’s very easy to imagine a distracted and ineffectual attempt to restrict McCarrick being subverted and ignored by the cardinal and his allies in the hierarchy.
.. In which case it’s also easy to imagine a scenario in which Francis didn’t technically “lift” those sanctions so much as acted in ignorance of them, or of their seriousness. He might have been given some knowledge, by Viganò and others, of the allegations against McCarrick but either assumed they couldn’t be that bad (at this point the cardinal mostly stood accused of imposing himself on seminarians, not teenage minors) or else chose to believe a denial from the accused cardinal himself. Why? In part because of perceived self-interest: Francis needed allies, McCarrick was sympathetic to the pope’s planned liberalizing push, and the pope wanted his help reshaping the ranks of American bishops.
.. In this scenario Francis would be guilty of self-deception and incuriosity but not as nakedly culpable as Viganò implies. And if it’s easy to imagine this scenario because of the Danneels example, it’s also easy to imagine because that’s how things have proceeded consistently in the church since the sex abuse scandals broke: If a given predator or enabler is “on side” for either conservatives or liberals, he will find defenders and protectors for as long as events and revelations permit.
- That’s a major reason John Paul II refused to investigate Father Marcel Maciel, the wicked founder of the Legionaries of Christ — because the Legionaries were conservative, and apparently a great success, and that was all that mattered.
- It’s why many conservative Catholics unwisely defended John Paul II-appointed prelates like Boston’s Bernard Law in the early 2000s.
- It’s why a notorious traditionalist priest, Father Carlos Urrutigoity, could find a welcome from conservative bishops in Pennsylvania and then Paraguay, despite a trail of abuse allegations.
.. Now it’s why certain organs and apostles of liberal Catholicism are running interference for McCarrick’s protectors — because Francis is their pope, the liberalizer they yearned for all through the John Paul and Benedict years, and all’s fair in the Catholic civil war.
.. But the inevitable, even providential irony is that this sort of team thinking never leads to theological victory, but only to exposure, shame, disaster. Indeed, the lesson of these bitter decades is that any faction hoping to lead Roman Catholicism out of crisis should begin with purges within its own ranks, with intolerance for any hint of corruption.
.. Francis, alas for everyone, did the opposite. Elected by cardinals eager for a cleanup at the Vatican, he wanted to be a theological change agent instead — which led him to tolerate the corrupt Roman old guard (whose names fill Viganò’s letter) and to rehabilitate liberal figures like Danneels, McCarrick and Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras (a dubious figure with a predator among his underlings and a scandal at his seminary) who deserved the sidelines if not a penitent’s cell.
.. purge the corruption he has tolerated and to supply Catholicism with what it has lacked these many years: a leader willing to be zealous and uncompromising against what Benedict called the “filth” in the church, no matter how many heads must roll on his own side of the Catholic civil war.
A good gauge of spiritual health is to write down
the three things you most want.
If they in any way differ,
you are in trouble.
—Daniel Ladinsky, inspired by Rumi 
.. If we are really convinced that we have the Big Truth, then we should also be able to trust that others will see it from their different angles—or it is not the Big Truth.
.. “We begin to discover that our Buddhist and Jewish and Islamic and Hindu friends are not competitors. Religion is not a survival of the fittest. There is a deep understanding that we all swim together or we sink together. Each religious tradition reveals a color of the heart of God that is precious.”  As the old saying goes, do you want to be right or do you want to be in relationship?
.. Or, as Aquinas was fond of saying, quoting Ambrose (another Doctor of the Church), “If it’s true, it is always from the one Holy Spirit.”  The important question is not, “Who said it?” but, “Is it true?”
.. while all the world’s religions cannot and must not be reduced to one truth, their core teachings are unifying; they are all calling us to the truth of our essential oneness. This unity in diversity is a cause for celebration.
At their immature levels, religions can be obsessed with the differences that make them better or more right than others. Pope Francis insists that mercy is at the very top of the Christian hierarchy of great truths , and everything falls apart whenever mercy is displaced by anything else or anything less. Bourgeault writes:
The Catholic Church needs an inquest into what the pederast cardinal’s colleagues knew, and when... The first written accusation (that we know of) was filed by one of his priests in 1994, addressed to McCarrick’s successor as the Bishop of Metuchen; the priest who complained was transferred to another diocese while his abuser’s rise continued.
By the end of that decade, McCarrick’s sexual misbehavior (if perhaps not its full scope) was known by enough people that a group of American laypeople went to Rome to petition against his appointment as archbishop of Washington, D.C., and at least one New York priest, Father Boniface Ramsey, sent a letter to the Vatican offering a similar warning.
.. the Washington archbishop became the avuncular, reassuring media point person for his fellow bishops, issuing statements of concern and condemnation that if he really feared the punishments of hell would have turned to ashes in his mouth.
.. Then in 2005 and again in 2007, two New Jersey dioceses settled privately with two men alleging abuse or harassment at McCarrick’s hands. This presumably expanded substantially the number of people who knew about his crimes. Yet nothing was said publicly by the church about these settlements; McCarrick retired with his reputation intact, and was even permitted to live at a seminary.
.. When Pope Francis was elected, he became an eminence grise, whose lobbying helped elevate several of the new pope’s choices for high office in the American church — including the new cardinal archbishop of Newark, Joseph Tobin, and the head of the Vatican dicastery for family life, Kevin Farrell, both of whom considered McCarrick a mentor.
.. In other words, two decades after McCarrick should have been removed from his offices, defrocked and handed over to the civil authorities, he was instead wielding remarkable influence in the church … right up until the moment when a lifetime’s worth of crimes were finally dragged into the light.
.. which probably requires an investigator with a mandate from the pope himself.
.. they can do only so much if the necessary witnesses still feel that the institutional church will not protect them, if they fear their superiors will punish them for telling all the truth.
.. the Catholic bishops are now somewhat protected from media scrutiny by virtue of their increasing unimportance.
.. There are a few American bishops still with media platforms, a few with intellectual chops. But many of the notional leaders of the church are important only within the bureaucracies they manage and as invisible to the average churchgoer as a Target regional vice president would be to the average weekend shopper at the superstore.
.. the kind of crimes once covered up because of the power and influence of bishops might now be swept under quickly because of the episcopacy’s obscurity and irrelevance.
.. whether they are happy with this settlement — happy to be ignored so long as they can also evade accountability for what’s still rotten in the church, happy to serve out their time as stewards of a declining institution rather than demanding the heads of the men whose culpable ignorance made the decline much steeper than it should have been.
his critics see his approach as that of a stealthy revolutionary or a reckless agent of disruption. In fact, Francis’s exercise of the papal role reflects the Jesuit practice of discernment, which involves waiting, listening, letting competing options for action emerge, and choosing one after prayer and internal deliberation.
.. The group of advisory cardinals is significant because it belies the supposed solitary autonomy of papal decision-making and incorporates cardinals from places long thought remote from power: Santiago, Chile, and Mumbai, India, as well as Munich and Boston.
.. The 2015 synod on marriage and the family, judged a debacle by many, is better understood as an instance of soft power in action. By calling the synod, Francis signaled that the issues surrounding Catholic teaching on marriage are not closed to further Vatican discussion — in sharp contrast to the “Rome has spoken” approach of his predecessors. Then Francis set out to point the synod discussions in a progressive direction on the issue of whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics in certain countries may receive communion at Mass. Traditionalists accused Francis of flirting with heresy.
.. But discussions were had, and cardinals who opposed Francis were heard — because Francis let them be heard. He gave a closing speech thick with exasperation, replaced some resistant curial officials and demoted the hostile American Cardinal Raymond Burke — but he set aside the most far-reaching proposals about marriage and family for a future time, meanwhile keeping the discussion open.
.. Francis has acted on his conviction that Catholic faith is less about the use of power to shape the social order — the stuff of present strongmen and past popes — than about straightforward efforts of kindness and generosity.
.. Symbolically, the papacy is meant to be a “contrast structure” to worldly forms of authority. Too often, it has been such a structure in the wrong ways: crabbed, self-protecting, aloof and denunciatory. Five years into his pontificate, Francis is no small-d democrat, no faultless leader — and no perfect pope. And yet in this pope, our upside-down age has a leader whose approach and example stand as reminders of what the sensitive exercise of power can look like.
the great achievement of Pope Francis’ five years on the papal throne. He leads a church that spent the prior decade embroiled in a grisly sex abuse scandal, occupies an office often regarded as a medieval relic, and operates in a media environment in which traditional religion generally, and Roman Catholicism especially, are often covered with a mix of cluelessness and malice.
And yet in a remarkably short amount of time — from the first days after his election, really — the former Jorge Bergoglio has made his pontificate a vessel for religious hopes that many of his admirers didn’t realize or remember that they had.
.. the theological risks he’s taken in pushing for changes that liberal Westerners tend to assume Catholicism must eventually accept — shifts on sexual morality above all, plus a general liberalization in the hierarchy and the church.
.. But when people say, “He makes me want to believe again,” as a lapsed-Catholic journalist said to me
.. What my friends and acquaintances respond to from this pope, rather, is the iconography of his papacy — the vivid images of humility and Christian love he has created, from the foot-washing of prisoners to the embrace of the disfigured to the children toddling up to him in public events.
.. Like his namesake of Assisi, the present pope has a great gift for gestures that offer a public imitatio Christi, an imitation of Christ.
.. And the response from so many otherwise jaded observers is a sign of how much appeal there might yet be in Catholic Christianity, if it found a way to slip the knots that the modern world has tied around its message.
.. we — are always at risk of finding in the mirror the self-righteous elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, who resents his father’s liberality, the welcome given to the younger brother coming home at last.
.. The cardinals who chose Jorge Bergoglio envisioned him as the austere outsider.
.. Vatican life is more unsettled than under Benedict XVI, the threat of firings or purges ever present, the power of certain offices reduced, the likelihood of a papal tongue-lashing increased.
.. the blueprints for reorganization have been put off; many ecclesial princes have found more power under Francis; and even the pope’s admirers joke about the “next year, next year …” attitude that informs discussions of reform.
.. Francis just spent a recent visit to Chile vehemently defending a bishop accused of turning a blind eye to sex abuse, while one of his chief advisers, the Honduran Cardinal Óscar Maradiaga, is accused of protecting a bishop charged with abusing seminarians even as the cardinal himself faces accusations of financial chicanery.
.. the idea of this pope as a “great reformer,” to borrow the title of the English journalist Austen Ivereigh’s fine 2014 biography, can’t really be justified by any kind of Roman housekeeping.
.. Instead Francis’ reforming energies have been directed elsewhere, toward two dramatic truces that would radically reshape the church’s relationship with the great powers of the modern world.
.. The first truce this pope seeks is in the culture war
.. the conflict between the church’s moral teachings and the way that we live now, the struggle over whether the sexual ethics of the New Testament need to be revised or abandoned in the face of post-sexual revolution realities.
.. Instead of formally changing the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriage, euthanasia — changes that are officially impossible, beyond the powers of his office — the Vatican under Francis is making a twofold move.
.. First, a distinction is being drawn between doctrine and pastoral practice that claims that merely pastoral change can leave doctrinal truth untouched. So a remarried Catholic might take communion without having his first union declared null, a Catholic planning assisted suicide might still receive last rites beforehand, and perhaps eventually a gay Catholic can have her same-sex union blessed — and yet supposedly none of this changes the church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble and suicide a mortal sin and same-sex wedlock an impossibility, so long as it’s always treated as an exception rather than a rule.
.. At the same time, Francis has allowed a tacit decentralization of doctrinal authority, in which different countries and dioceses can take different approaches
.. In effect he is experimenting with a much more Anglican model for how the Catholic Church might operate — in which the church’s traditional teachings are available for use but not required
.. different countries may gradually develop away from each other theologically and otherwise.
.. seeking a truce not with a culture but with a regime: the Communist government in China
.. Such a reconciliation, if accomplished, would require the church to explicitly cede a share of its authority to appoint bishops to the Politburo — a concession familiar from medieval church-state tangles, but something the modern church has tried to leave behind.
.. A truce with Beijing would differ from the truce with the sexual revolution in that no specific doctrinal issue is at stake, and no one doubts that the pope has authority to conclude a concordat with a heretofore hostile and persecuting regime.
.. the two truces are similar in that both would accelerate Catholicism’s transformation into a confederation of national churches — liberal and semi-Protestantized in northern Europe, conservative in sub-Saharan Africa, Communist-supervised in China.
.. both treat the concerns of many faithful Catholics — conservative believers in the West, underground churchgoers in China — as roadblocks to the pope’s grand strategy.
.. they both risk a great deal — in one case, the consistency of Catholic doctrine and its fidelity to Jesus; in another, the clarity of Catholic witness for human dignity — for the sake of reconciling the church with earthly powers.
.. they take this risk at a time when neither Chinese Communism nor Western liberalism seem exactly like confident, resilient models for the human future — the former sliding back toward totalitarianism, the latter anxious and decadent and beset by populist revolts.
.. the “Francis effect.”
.. If current trends continue, China could have one of the world’s largest Christian populations by this century’s end, and this population is already heavily evangelical
.. Francis will have ceded the moral authority earned by persecuted generations, and ceded the Chinese future to those Christian churches, evangelical especially, that are less eager to flatter and cajole their persecutors.
.. The gamble on an Anglican approach to faith and morals is even more high-risk — as Anglicanism’s own schisms well attest.
.. it will ensure that the church’s factions, already polarized and feuding, grow ever more apart.
.. it implies a rupture (or, if you favor it, a breakthrough) in the church’s understanding of how its teachings can and cannot change
.. Francis’ inner circle is convinced that such a revolution is what the Holy Spirit wants — that the attempts by John Paul II and Benedict to maintain continuity between the church before and after Vatican II ended up choking off renewal.
.. this pope has not just exposed tensions; he has heightened them, encouraging sweeping ambitions among his allies and pushing disillusioned conservatives toward traditionalism.
.. here is no sign as yet that Francis’s liberalization is bringing his lapsed-Catholic admirers back to the pews;
.. Whereas accelerating division when your office is charged with maintaining unity and continuity is a serious business