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VATICAN CITY — Five years ago, Pope Francis was elected to be an agent of change within a church shaken by scandals and the historic resignation of Benedict XVI.

He quickly became a global force in geopolitics, setting the agenda on climate change and care for migrants. World leaders wanted to be near him. Even non-Catholics adored him.

Today, Francis is increasingly embattled. The political climate has shifted abruptly around the world, empowering populists and nationalists who oppose much of what he stands for. Conservative forces arrayed against him within the Vatican have been emboldened, seeking to thwart him on multiple fronts.


Yet a close look at his record since becoming pope and the strong reactions he has engendered also show that Francis continues to get his way in reorienting the church.

And his supporters say that the backlash against his views has only made his voice more vital in the debate inside and outside the church over the issues he has chosen to highlight, like migrants, economic inequality, and the environment.

But even they concede that Francis’ message has fallen decidedly out of sync with the prevailing political times, in contrast to, say, Pope John Paul II, who provided the spiritual dimension for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s battle against communism.

“This is the duty, even if it’s a losing effort,” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, said of the pope’s role as a global conscience. He said the pope still reached a large audience and exercised power, even if “the world is going in another direction.”

Within the church, Francis, a Jesuit, has been assailed by conservatives threatened by his efforts to undo three decades of their domination, as well as by liberals who had hoped for even more.

Both sides complain that the pope is taking the church in the wrong direction and that he has been ruthless with his opponents.


Lucetta Scaraffia, editor of the monthly magazine Women Church World, said that expectations among some secular liberals that Francis would ordain women were “unrealistic,” and that the pope had purposefully taken “little steps” to avoid engendering more resistance.

Just this month, she pointed out, he appointed three women as consultants to the church’s doctrinal watchdog.

There has also been more widespread consensus on his failure to hold bishops accountable for clerical sex abuse. It is an issue in which — despite recent notable apologies — critics say he has demonstrated a remarkable tone deafness.

On Friday, Francis began several days of talks with Chilean sex abuse survivors in what the Vatican said was a climate of ‘‘reparation for suffering,’’ after the pope attempted to discredit their claims of abuse coverup by a bishop.

The three men — Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton, and Jose Andres Murillo — are staying at the Vatican’s Santa Marta hotel as guests of Francis. Their treatment is evidence of the about-face that Francis has made after admitting he made ‘‘serious errors of judgment’’ in the case of Bishop Juan Barros.

It is Francis’ prioritizing of social justice over culture-war issues such as abortion that has caused the sharpest internal divisions, with a small but committed group of conservative cardinals publicly suggesting that he is a heretical autocrat leading the faithful toward confusion and schism.

“Dictators usually are not nice,” said H.J.A. Sire, author of “The Dictator Pope,” one of several new books by conservative Catholics that criticize Francis’ effect on the church. “He is able to present this very subdued image, but people know behind the scenes he works very effectively to hit at his enemies.”


Conservatives, accustomed to getting their way over the past three decades, speak of a culture of fear inside the Vatican — and worry about Jesuit spies reporting back to Francis.

They point to examples like Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the top doctrinal watchdog in the Roman Catholic Church.

Last year, the pope ordered Müller, an ideological conservative who is often at odds with Francis, to fire three priests in his congregation. He said the pope did not give him a reason.

“I’m not able to understand all,” Müller said at the time, when asked why Francis had sent them away. He added, “He’s the pope.”

Then the pope fired Müller, and observers say he has since stripped the once-powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the protector of church orthodoxy, of its power, replacing it with his own council of loyal cardinals.

But the main rallying point for conservatives has been the doctrinal opposition to the pope’s exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which contained a footnote that seemed to open the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive holy communion.

A small group of cardinals demanded a formal clarification from Francis, who has ignored them for years. Two of the cardinals have since died, but the group’s leader, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, has pushed on.


On a recent Saturday, Burke sat on a panel in the basement of the Church Village hotel in Rome for a conference about confusion in the church. As he noted that the pope can “fall either into heresy or into the dereliction of his primary duty,” conservative supporters cheered him on.