ROME – Responding to a mini-fracas set off by his recent declaration that he considers it “an honor when Americans are attacking me,” Pope Francis told reporters during an inflight news conference Tuesday that the U.S. is not his only source of heartburn.
“Criticism comes not only from the Americans, they’re coming from all over,” Francis said.
The comment got me thinking: If we take the U.S. off the table, what are the other countries where criticism of this pope seems most robust?
Let’s stipulate two points at the outset.
First, Francis hardly is the first pope to generate controversy, so the mere fact of blowback is both inevitable and non-probative. In fact, resistance is usually a token of relevance. If people didn’t think Francis is making a difference, they wouldn’t bother voicing a reaction.
Second, based on the usual measures – poll numbers, crowd size, media coverage, and so on – Francis remains probably the most beloved leader on the global stage today. Polls also show he commands the support of overwhelming majorities of Catholics, even in countries where he sometimes draws fire.
Herewith, a rundown of the Top Five countries other than the U.S. where this pope seems to bring things to a boil.
Africa tends to be a mixed bag for Francis. The African Church is dynamic, extremely loyal to the papacy, and it resonates with the anti-corruption and social justice message of a “third world” pope. Yet it also tends to be conservative on matters of faith and morals, leery of some of the winds blowing today.
Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, is a good example.
A year after Francis issued his cautious opening to Communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church in Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja declared that “in a world going down the drain through widespread moral laxity, the Church of God cannot abdicate her responsibility to uphold the high standards of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Many Nigerian clergy also have complained about an overly irenic approach to Islam under Francis, wishing he’d be more forceful about threats to Christians from both Boko Haram and largely Muslim Fulani tribesmen.
There’s also a local issue: A standoff in Ahiara, where clergy rejected a new bishop on ethnic grounds and Francis suspended priests who wouldn’t pledge obedience, only to back down and remove the bishop. Some Nigerians believe that’s encouraged further defiance.
In Poland, any pope starts with a deficit simply for not being John Paul II, and some Poles see Francis rolling back aspects of John Paul’s legacy.
When the Polish bishops finally released guidelines for implementation of Amoris Laetitia in June 2018, they side-stepped the Communion issue but stressed that Amoris has to be read in continuity with previous papal teaching.
Beyond intra-Church issues, many Poles are also leery of Francis’s environmental agenda, especially his advocacy of reducing use of fossil fuels as outlined in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’. Poland is the second-largest coal producer in Europe, and coal provides 88 percent of the power grid.
Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party, which prides itself on its Catholic roots, is also known for a hardline stance on border control at odds with Francis’s own strongly pro-immigrant stance. Catholic Poles turned out in record numbers in 2017 to pray for the nation’s survival at its borders, an event that many viewed as a statement against immigration.
There’s a strongly conservative-to-traditional wing in Italian Catholicism which, from the beginning, has been skeptical of this maverick pope.
In 2015, a widely read Italian newspaper reported that Archbishop Luigi Negri of Ferrara had been overheard on a train voicing hope that the Madonna would work a miracle and cause Francis to die, and also offering sharp criticism of Francis’s picks for bishops in Bologna and Palermo. Negri initially denied the report but then admitted having had the conversation while insisting he meant nothing disrespectful.
In 2016, the late Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, another perceived leader of the conservative wing of Italian Catholicism, was among the four cardinals who submitted dubia, or critical questions, to Francis in response to Amoris Laetitia.
Let’s also not forget that although some see accusations against Francis of a cover-up of sex abuse charges regarding ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick as an American operation, it was an Italian cleric who leveled them, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, whose own writings on the subject are about as Italian as such things come.
Among ordinary Italians, however, such intra-Church debates don’t really move the needle.
At that level, the main source of grief about Francis is his pro-immigrant stance, which is often a tough sell in a country resentful over what many believe is an unfair share of the European burden.
Listening to AM radio talk in Italy, you’ll hear biting commentary about Francis that would make even his harshest American critics blush. Meanwhile, polls shows that Italy’s far-right League party, led by former Deputy Prime Minister and anti-immigrant hawk Matteo Salvini, is still in first place, and given the country’s demographics, most of those Salvini voters are also Catholics.
Recently Crux’s Inés San Martín spent time back home in her native Argentina, among other things looking for evidence of a “Francis effect”. What she found, she reported, was a mix of enthusiasm and deep affection in some quarters with “vitriol, disappointment, hatred, frustration and finger-pointing” in others.
Aside from the grumbling about Francis one could find anywhere – he’s either too liberal or not liberal enough, for instance – San Martín found a couple of reactions that are uniquely Argentinian.
First, Argentines are angry Francis hasn’t yet come home after six years in office. By way of contrast, John Paul II visited Poland within seven months of his election in 1978, and Benedict XVI was in Germany within four months of taking over in 2005.
Second, Argentines (and especially the Argentinian media) tend to assume that absolutely everything the pope says and does is directed at them, which means they assume he’s forever taking sides in their political and cultural debates. All the divisions that run through society therefore are applied to the pope.
At the moment, Francis is drawing fire for his alleged support of the left-wing ticket in Argentina’s looming national elections, despite the fact that one of his closest allies among Argentina’s bishops has blasted those reports as “science fiction.”
1. Vatican City
In all honesty, this should be the least surprising entry on the list. The Vatican has a higher percentage of residents with strong opinions about the Catholic Church than anywhere else on earth, which means its denizens are always any pope’s toughest critics.
Under Francis, some senior Vatican figures have openly voiced doubts about some of the pope’s statements and decisions, with a few – American Cardinal Raymond Burke, for instance, and German Cardinal Gerhard Müller – losing their jobs, while others, such as Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, soldier on.
It’s well known that many in the Vatican’s “old guard” opposed early attempts at financial reform under Francis, and they’ve proven resilient in fighting them off.
Off the record, you’ll find some Vatican officials on fire with enthusiasm for the direction Francis is leading and driven to get as much of his agenda accomplished as possible. Others will complain of an internal climate of intimidation and fear, low morale, and chronic confusion.
In other words, the CEO’s staff is divided about the boss – which, really, is pretty much “dog bites man” in terms of shock value or news interest.
Here’s a rundown of the other countries I considered.
- Chile: Rocked by arguably the world’s worst clerical abuse scandal, many Chileans were initially angry at Francis for what seemed denial, then grateful for what seemed a change of heart, and now confused and frustrated over what they see as a lack of aggressive follow-through.
- Germany: It’s hard to know sometimes whether Francis’s biggest headaches in Germany come from traditionalist Catholics who see him as too progressive, or progressive Catholics who regard him as a major disappointment. Most recently, Francis has been engaged in a back-and-forth with the German bishops about their plans for a two-year synod, which at the moment seems largely unresolved.
- Kazakhstan: It may seem silly to include a country with only 10 bishops and where just one percent of the population is Catholic, but it’s a fact that Francis’s most vocal episcopal critic in the world may be Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, especially over Amoris Laetitia.
- Hungary: Like Poland, Hungary is governed by a right-wing nationalist party that makes much of its ties to the Church, and often finds itself at odds with Francis over immigration. One Hungarian bishop told journalists in 2015 that Francis “doesn’t understand the situation” regarding Europe’s refugee crisis, while a far-right Hungarian journalist in 2016 called on Francis to resign.
- Brazil: Aside from the sheer fact of being Argentinian, Francis also stirs ambivalence in Brazil for other reasons. Recently the government of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro was compelled to deny that it’s opposed to Francis’s looming Synod on the Amazon, or that it’s spying on synod preparations.
Of course, this is no more than a personal, deeply unscientific assessment of the lay of the global land. Empirically, however, it seems safe to say at least this much: When it comes to papal criticism, whether warranted or not, it’s hardly just the States – even if, admittedly, our money and volume level sometimes can give that impression.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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