Is Pope Francis really facing a coup? Or just 'fake news'?

This story appears in the Four Years of Francis feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis outside Our Lady Queen of Angels School in the East Harlem area of New York Sept. 25, 2015.(CNS/Eric Thayer)

Pope Francis outside Our Lady Queen of Angels School in the East Harlem area of New York Sept. 25, 2015.(CNS/Eric Thayer)

by David Gibson

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

As Pope Francis marks the fourth anniversary of his revolutionary papacy, the pontiff apparently finds himself besieged on all sides by crises of his own making: an open “civil war” in the Catholic Church and fears of schism, mounting opposition from the faithful and a Roman Curia so furious with his reforms that some cardinals are plotting a coup to topple him.

And those are just some of the more noteworthy threats to the church and his authority, at least in the view of various right-wing Catholic websites and pundits who have been criticizing Francis almost since the day he was elected four years ago on Monday (March 13).

Now, as the anniversary approaches, their claims have grown increasingly insistent and eye-popping, often migrating into mainstream media accounts as well.

Yet if you talk to senior churchmen in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as advisers to the pope, Vatican officials and veteran church observers, these reports are also dismissed as increasingly outlandish and often driven by an anti-Francis agenda that is so hyperbolic that it is obscuring the genuine reservations that some might have about the direction Francis is taking the Catholic Church.

"I certainly don’t see plots. I don’t see all this seething behind the cassocks of prelates all over Rome,” said Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, one of Francis’ main U.S. advisers. Wuerl is frequently in Rome for meetings and has wide contacts among the global hierarchy, and he said he sees wide support for what Francis is doing, often more so in other countries.

"I think there are a small number” of opponents, Wuerl said, "and they are the ones you see quoted over and over and over again – the same quotes, the same words, in the same publications.

"It really is a concern of a few people in a few locations that is amplified by the megaphone of the media that support them.”

Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, who was personally picked by Francis to head the Archdiocese of Chicago and sit on key Vatican committees, has also characterized the pontiff’s foes as a splinter group. "They are not as much large as loud,” Cupich recently told Italian Vatican-watcher Andrea Tornielli.

Several curial officials, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, readily admitted they see what they described as "concern” among some in the Vatican, and perhaps more than the usual amount of bureaucratic resistance to the structural overhaul Francis is pursuing.

But as for serious, organized opposition, as one senior Vatican official put it, "I think it’s just wishful thinking by some people, to be honest.”

'A lot of this is pure or impure speculation'

Even some Catholic conservatives are growing impatient with the narrative of unprecedented crisis that is swirling around.

"A lot of this is pure or impure speculation,” said Robert Royal, head of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington and a regular visitor to the Vatican. Royal cautioned that "there is a lot of turbulence in Rome these days.”

But, he said, "some Catholic conservatives assume there is a coordinated network of liberals waiting to take over the church. I don’t, but I think (Francis) has given an awful lot of fuel to critics who want to see some bad things.”

Indeed, the claims are hard to ignore. Traditionalist websites and canon lawyers are openly debating whether the pope is a heretic – and what can be done if he is – while others wonder whether Francis is leading the church into schism, or if such a split has already happened.

Many of these conservative opponents have rallied around American Cardinal Raymond Burke, an outspoken critic of the pope who was a senior Vatican official until Francis moved him into a largely ceremonial role at the Rome-based charitable Order of Malta – where he recently was involved in another uproar over the ousting of a top leader there.

The pope wound up intervening in the situation, providing another opportunity for Burke’s allies to denounce Francis as an "authoritarian” who is mercilessly crushing his foes.

Some group or individual even plastered anti-Francis posters last month around Rome  – a city where such manifestations are part of the daily discourse – leading some Francis critics to proclaim it proof that opposition to the pope was "spilling onto the street.”

In fact, Francis seems as popular as ever (he just made the cover of the Italian edition of Rolling Stone magazine) and in the U.S. polls show his approval rating among Catholics actually increased to near 90 percent.

That hasn’t stopped conservative Catholic media from regularly declaring that the church "is now in a full-blown civil war” or calling the church "drifting and directionless” and the pope akin to a "pathological” father, as Phil Lawler, editor of the Massachusetts-based Catholic World News site, has done.

"But has there ever before been a Roman Pontiff who showed such disdain for what the  has always taught and believed and practiced?” Lawler wrote in a widely shared post titled "This Disastrous Papacy.”

Then this month The Times of London ran a story citing a right-wing Italian commentator’s claims that several cardinals in the Vatican who once supported Francis have turned on him and are leading a campaign to persuade him to resign so they can install the pope’s No. 2, Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin. The article was echoed by other outlets.

"That was a crazy piece,” said one Vatican official, a view echoed by numerous other churchmen in Rome and the U.S.

So, what’s really going on in Rome, and the rest of the Catholic Church?

Part of the explanation is that Francis has welcomed open debate in the church – certainly one of the biggest changes he has made in his four years.

That "has allowed deep-seated tensions within the church to surface,” the Rev. Russell Pollitt, a South African Jesuit, recently wrote. "Tensions have always existed – even though some would never dare to admit this. The difference is that under Francis’s leadership these tensions have not been pushed under the proverbial carpet.”

The complaints of the conservative critics, however, are also magnified by the fact that so much of the conservative opposition comes from the U.S. and Great Britain, and from a core group of Italian traditionalists. That means their critiques are amplified by a media industry dominated by, and geared toward, the English-speaking West. Catholics and churchmen in the rest of the world often scratch their heads at the debates that inflame the faithful in North America.

"This has all the qualities of what you would call an ‘in-house’ story,” Wuerl said. "But that house is located primarily in the United States and it has some participants in Rome. I think those are the only two places I heard any of this. Everyone else seems to be moving along with the church at this very exciting time.”

Three sources of opposition

In addition, different constituencies in the church are upset for different reasons, and they don’t necessarily overlap.

For some, such as Burke and the handful of cardinals and others aligned with him, the chief concerns are about holding the line on traditional doctrine; they worry that Francis’ shift to a pastoral approach focused on mercy could water down the rules and dilute orthodoxy to the point that the church is teaching heresy.

Others are political conservatives who are upset with the pontiff’s focus on the poor and marginalized, on caring for migrants and refugees, and on elevating economic and social justice concerns to the level that sexual morality has usually held in the Catholic agenda. The populist right in Italy and in the U.S., for example, is not at all happy with Francis, and through alt-right-promoting news sites such as Breitbart and the like its advocates are not at all shy about getting those views out there.

Still another camp would be the Vatican bureaucrats and employees who have been directly affected by the unprecedented overhaul of the ancient curial table of organization that Francis has been pursuing.

Resistance to those changes emerged most dramatically this month when Marie Collins, the lone victim of clergy sexual abuse on the commission Francis established to combat that crisis, resigned in frustration over what she said was opposition to change by the Curia.

Collins singled out for chief criticism the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is headed by German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, a holdover from the reign of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

But church sources said the CDF – the guardian of orthodoxy that has long enjoyed status as the premier department in the Vatican – is in many respects an outlier because it has had its wings clipped under Francis and is not happy about the shift.

"It is not a civil war. It is an insurgency by people who find change difficult,” said an American bishop with extensive contacts in Rome.

Francis himself recognizes that there is resistance. He frequently upbraids curial officials for enjoying their perks and privileges too much and exhorts them to remember their chief calling as pastors of souls.

Another aspect of the issue, Royal said, is that Francis has set up his own kitchen Cabinet of advisers and he often makes decisions on his own, circumventing the usual channels and offices. That has created "confusion” even among "loyal foot soldiers” in the Vatican who feel they are "just treading water” even though the pope often criticizes the Curia for careerism.

How will it all play out?

What winds up happening is that all the varying laments and real outrage in these different groups get rolled up into one grand narrative of crisis. Royal said that there is "a fairly large number of people who are nervous about the pope” and noted that he himself has often criticized things the pope has said or done. "But I don’t consider myself an enemy or opponent of the pope.”

That does not mean that the opposition to what Francis is doing may not have an effect on Francis’ papacy and beyond. It all may be, as veteran Vaticanista Robert Mickens wrote in Commonweal magazine, "really just a storm in a sacred chalice.” But the people who hold chalices in the church are influential, and the pope critics are especially numerous in the U.S.

Royal estimated that about 40 cardinals out of 225 total around the world – 119 of whom are under 80 and therefore eligible to vote if a conclave were held tomorrow – "don’t like what they’ve seen” from Francis, and some may be those who voted for him in 2013. But the idea that they are banding together in any organized way doesn’t hold water.

Several U.S. church sources privately estimated that the level of opposition is higher in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where perhaps a third of the bishops are opposed to what Francis is doing, about a third are "on the fence,” as one American churchman put it, and a third are strongly supportive of the pope.

Still, how this will all play out is unclear. The longer Francis goes on, the more cardinals and bishops he can appoint, which will likely increase the number of those who think as he does and decrease the size of the opposition still further.

Then again, the smaller and more embattled the opposition feels, the more vocal it may become, which could create an even greater sense of crisis.

Vatican observers such as Italian journalist Marco Politi have suggested the public protests against Francis are about positioning before the next conclave – creating an air of uncertainty and chaos so the cardinal-electors will opt for a different, safer and more traditional path than the one set out by the current pope, who is now 80.

But that approach could also backfire.

The serenity and good humor with which the pope has spoken about the critics and the criticisms could cast his opponents in a negative light, by way of contrast. And Catholics in the pews don’t seem averse at all to the Roman Curia and conservative hierarchs getting a bit of comeuppance.

"I don’t think this has all done the pope any harm," said one Vatican official. "When people hear that some bishops are against Francis, it plays to his credit."

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters