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Against a Global Populist Tide, a Pope Is Remaking the Church

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.

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, New York Times

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.

But 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, once 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. They also point to the way the pope has essentially sidelined Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, the conservative leader of the Vatican office overseeing liturgy, and removed the conservative leader of the medieval Roman Catholic order the Knights of Malta.

When it was revealed that Sire, a member of the order, was the author of “The Dictator Pope,” which had been published under a pen name, he was suspended from the order by the new, pope-approved leader.

“It is an example of the way critics are persecuted under Pope Francis,” Sire said.

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.

“They matter: Catholics look to cardinals for moral leadership,” said the Rev. James Martin, an editor at large with the Jesuit magazine America and a papal appointee to the Vatican’s secretariat for communications.

But he said that the cardinals, not Francis, were generating confusion in the church.

“The crashing irony is that some of the same people under John Paul II and Benedict XVI said that any disagreement with the pope is tantamount to dissent,” Martin said.

Francis usually lets his supporters do the trench fighting for him, but he seemed to have his conservative critics in mind for a major document released this month, in which he bemoaned the harsh attacks in Catholic media.

For a Christian, he wrote, helping migrants was no less holy than opposing abortion.

“Christianity is meant above all to be put into practice,” the pope wrote.

Francis appears to be winning the battle with his conservative critics, said Joshua J. McElwee, a Vatican correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter and co-editor of “A Pope Francis Lexicon,” a collection of essays about Francis.

“He is one of the last absolute monarchs in the world, and what’s happening is he has a vision and he has time to put it in place,” McElwee said. “The longer he continues, the more likely these changes will be irrevocable.”

Outside the church is another story. Armed only with gestures and prayers, Francis has often found himself on the losing side.

Donald Trump, who Francis once suggested was “not Christian” for his desire to build a wall on the Mexican border, is in the White House. In Europe, increasingly authoritarian leaders — among them Andrzej Duda of Poland, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Vladimir Putin of Russia — style themselves as defenders of Christian Europe while barring the gates to migrants and refugees.

Closer to home, in Italy, elections in March rewarded the League, an explicitly anti-migrant, right-wing party led by Matteo Salvini. Salvini visits with Burke and makes a point of referring to the pope’s conservative predecessor instead of Francis.

“Happy holy Christmas also to Pope Benedict, who recalled the right not only to emigrate but to not emigrate and defend our history and our culture,” Salvini said at a rally in Rome in December. Francis has also made it clear that, globally speaking, he does not like the way things are going.

On the day Trump was sworn in as president, the Spanish newspaper El País asked Francis if he was worried about populism, xenophobia and hatred. The pontiff responded with a reference to Hitler.

“Hitler didn’t steal power,” Francis said. “His people voted for him and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk.”

Some of Francis’ supporters believe that he is uniquely prepared to face this rising populist tide because he understands it.

“Francis’ election prepared the church for precisely the challenges posed by the rise of populism and nationalism,” said Austen Ivereigh, author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”

He said that Francis’ views were formed in Argentina by a Latin American strain of nationalism and populism focused more on standing up to multinational powers than a European nostalgia for a past of mythic purity.

Nevertheless, his economic critique of transnational powers allowed him to appreciate the grievances of frustrated and unemployed workers.

“He understands why people are angry at globalization,” Ivereigh said.

But whereas Francis sees migrants — from Myanmar to Milan — as the primary victims of globalization and unrest, the nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic see them as a hostile, unsettling force.

For anti-immigrant populists, the pope simply doesn’t get it. Former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, for example — himself a Catholic — likes to call Francis a communist for his economic policy and the pontiff from Davos for his cultural elitism.

In an interview after the Italian election, in which populist parties won the majority of the electorate’s support, Bannon said that the result was “a big no vote to the Vatican, not to Catholicism, but particularly these policies.” He rubbed his hands together as he added, “Which you know I got to love.”

But Francis seems comfortable with his new role as a lone voice in the populist wilderness.

This month in the Casa Santa Marta, the residence he has chosen over the grand Apostolic Palace, Francis gave a homily about prophets.

“Sometimes truth is not easy to listen to,” Francis said, noting that “prophets have always had to deal with being persecuted for speaking the truth.”

“A prophet knows when to scold but knows also how to throw open the doors to hope,” he added. “A true prophet puts himself on the line.”

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