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In a letter, anonymous prelates criticize Pope Francis as ‘autocratic, vindictive’

While the Catholic pontiff has been struggling with health issues, his opponents outline who should be his successor.

(Gregorio Borgia | AP) Pope Francis waves before delivering a Christmas blessing at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Dec. 25, 2023.

Vatican City • A letter criticizing Pope Francis for promoting “ambiguities in matters of faith,” and at the same time ruling the Catholic Church with an iron fist, is circulating in the Vatican after being published anonymously this week.

The document appeared in the Daily Compass, a conservative Catholic outlet in Italy, and was translated into six languages. Directed at the cardinals who will vote in a conclave for the next pope after Francis’ death or resignation, the letter offered seven priorities for his successor to undo what it asserted is the damage done by the current pontificate.

The text, according to the article, was allegedly written by a cardinal “after he collated the suggestions of other cardinals and bishops.”

In March 2022, a similar document, describing this pontificate as a “catastrophe” and simply signed “Demos,” the Greek word for “people,” was circulated among prelates. It was later revealed that Demos was Cardinal George Pell, who died in January 2023 of cardiac arrest after hip surgery in a Roman hospital.

The new letter pays homage to its precursor by adopting the signature Demos II. The author explained that anonymity was essential given the allegedly hostile environment in Rome.

“Candor is not welcome,” the letter read, “and its consequences can be unpleasant.”

The letter briefly praised Francis’ outreach toward the poor and marginalized and his concern for the environment before listing his “shortcomings,” among which it included the pope’s “autocratic, at times seemingly vindictive, style of governance,” citing Francis’ frequent use of decrees, known as motu proprio, to speed or bypass the application of canon law.

Francis has long frustrated some in the church with his reorganization of Vatican departments and institutions, from the Catholic charity network known as the Knights of Malta to the Pontifical Academy for Life, a think tank whose composition and purpose he remade soon after becoming pope. The office in charge of church doctrine has seen its leadership change three times in Francis’ tenure.

But, while calling for a church that is less “autocratic,” the letter also stated that the church is not a democracy. Only those “who genuinely believe and actively practice, or at least sincerely seek to practice, the faith and teachings of the Church,” can influence doctrine.

Francis’ approach to doctrinal matters has put him at odds with conservatives since at least his famous question “Who am I to judge?” in answer to reporters asking about LGBTQ Catholics in his first months as pope. Three years later, at a tree planting ceremony at the Vatican with Indigenous peoples from the Amazon region, the presence of statues representing an Andean fertility goddess rankled his critics who to this day cite the “Pachamama incident” to condemn Francis as “idolatrous” and “heretical.”

Most recently, in December, under the current head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, the Vatican approved the blessing of same-sex couples, setting off a new controversy over doctrine. Conservative prelates have opposed the pope’s brand of ecumenism, which tends to focus on what religious traditions have in common rather than stressing doctrinal differences.

The confusion over Catholic doctrine, the letter said, “breeds division and conflict,” and charges the next pontiff with the “recovery or reestablishment of truths.” The return to a traditional understanding of doctrine and limiting the influence of the pope, the author said, go hand in hand.

“From the start, the current pontificate has resisted the evangelical force and intellectual clarity of its immediate predecessors,” the document read. “As with ambiguity of doctrine, disregard for canon law and proper canonical procedure undermines confidence in the purity of the church’s mission.”

The letter also criticized Francis for how he has selected new cardinals, giving red hats to prelates outside the church’s traditional home countries in the West. “The current pontificate has placed an emphasis on diversifying the college, but it has failed to bring cardinals together in regular consistories designed to foster genuine collegiality and trust among brothers.”

The letter didn’t fault the diversity of the current College of Cardinals, suggesting that it was not as coherent or controlled a body. “As a result,” the document stated, “many of the voting electors in the next conclave will not really know each other, and thus may be more vulnerable to manipulations.”

The text demanded that cardinals today “be proactive in getting to know each other,” not just in terms of their personalities but also concerning their views on the church, “which impact their consideration of the next pope.”

The document was published as Francis has been struggling with “mild flu-like symptoms” that have forced him to cancel recent appointments and briefly visit Il Gemelli Isola Hospital in Rome after his usual Wednesday audience.

Despite his health issues, the pope had dismissed rumors that he might follow the path laid out by his predecessor, the late Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned after eight years. Resignation “is not a thought, a concern or a desire,” Francis told Italian television reporters in mid-January, “but a possibility open to all popes. But at the moment, it is not at the center of my thoughts…. As long as I feel like serving, I will continue to do it.”