ROME — In an unusual rebuttal to the pope from an official Church source, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Mexico City published an editorial Sunday insisting that Pope Francis had received “bad advice” when he appeared to criticize certain currents among the Mexican bishops during his recent trip to the country.
Although the editorial was unsigned, many observers assumed it was inspired by Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, whose close ties to elites and political power brokers in Mexico is often contrasted with Francis’ call for a “poor Church for the poor,” and whose rapport with Francis during the Feb. 12-17 trip to Mexico at times seemed strained.
Francis addressed the Mexican bishops on Feb. 13, delivering one of the hardest-hitting and most critical speeches of his papacy.
The pontiff ticked off, at length, a host of ways that bishops can fail to express God’s mercy, such as pride, a lack of transparency, materialism that leads to corruption, careerism, indifference, and more.
“We do not need princes,” the pope concluded, “but rather a community of the Lord’s witnesses.”
Sunday’s editorial from the archdiocesan newspaper “Desde la fe” (“From the faith”), however, argued that Mexico’s Catholic Church is actually well-managed.
“What the pope knows, and he knows this very well, is that the Mexican Church is atypical in comparison that of other countries in Latin America,” it said, noting that 2014 statistics show that Catholics still represent 81 percent of the total population.
The editorial stressed the slower growth of Evangelical movements in Mexico compared to the rest of Latin America, and the vigor with which Mexican Catholicism resists secularism and anticlericalism.
The editorial suggested that an unnamed “hand of discord” tried to influence the pope’s speech so that the challenges and temptations Francis listed would be seen not as hypothetical dangers anywhere, but rather an actual description of the Mexican bishops – a characterization, it argued, that is unfair.
“The Mexican bishops have been accompanying the suffering, downtrodden people, devoting their lives to others and not living like ‘princes’,” the editorial said.
Longtime Italian Vatican watchers Andrea Tornielli and Sandro Magister both suggested on Monday that the editorial was a response to Francis from Rivera Carrera, who was widely seen at least in part as among the targets of the pope’s speech.
Rivera’s links with the social elite and the political class of Mexico are well known, and some suggest his days as the head of the archdiocese are numbered. Others believe he was the reason why Pope Benedict XVI went to the diocese of Leon instead of Mexico City when he visited the country in 2012.
Although he’s never been formally accused of a crime, critics charge Rivera Carrera with aiding Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, who was removed from active ministry by Benedict after the Vatican concluded he was guilty of sexually abusing young male seminarians.
Maciel also maintained long-term relationships with at least two women, and fathered several children.
The editorial is particularly critical of something Francis added to his prepared remarks: “I strongly reiterate my appeal to you to preserve the communion and unity that exist among you,” the pope said. “These words are not in my text but come spontaneously: If you must argue, argue; if you have to say things, say them; but say them as men, face to face, and as men of God who then go to pray together.”
The editorial denied that the local hierarchy is out of touch with its flock, and wondered if the pope’s improvised words reflected bad advice from one of Francis’ close collaborators.
The text ends with a question: “Who gave the pope bad advice?”
The editorial said that Francis’ address to the bishops had been misinterpreted by reporters, “more focused on histrionics than the deep meaning of the words.”
During the remainder of the trip, Francis expressed concern over the state of the Mexican clergy in other venues as well.
When he visited a local seminary, he left an inscription in the guestbook praying for “Jesus, the Lord, and his Holy Mother” to form the future priests as “pastors of the faithful people of God and not clerics of the state.”
On his way back to Mexico, Francis told reporters that during the time he spent alone in prayer with Our Lady of Guadalupe, he had prayed for the Mexican people, and he had prayed “a lot” for “priests be true priests, and sisters be true sisters and bishops be true bishops as the Lord wants.”