ROME – In Morris West’s novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, there’s a scene involving a bewildered new pope struggling to recall an old play that reminds him of his situation. Eventually, it came to him: “The Management of Princes,” a Roman comedy about how to give a man absolute power and then limit his use of it.

Pope Francis might be forgiven for feeling trapped in that play right now, since from Europe to Africa, he’s being offered some hard lessons in the limits of papal power.

Almost exactly two months ago, on Jan. 25, the Associated Press released a long interview with Pope Francis. It was especially notable since Francis rarely grants interviews to American news outlets, and reporter Nicole Winfield delivered a fascinating exchange.

Two points in particular made headlines.

First, the pontiff criticized the German “synodal path,” which at the time seemed to be moving towards several conclusions at odds with official Catholic teaching, such as a 2021 Vatican statement banning the blessing of same-sex unions.

“The German experience does not help,” the pope told Winfield, calling the process “elitist” and “ideological.”

“Here the danger is that something very, very ideological trickles in. When ideology gets involved in church processes, the Holy Spirit goes home, because ideology overcomes the Holy Spirit,” the pope said.

Second, Francis condemned efforts to criminalize homosexuality.

“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” he said in the interview, calling such laws “unjust.” Acknowledging that some Catholic bishops nevertheless support criminalization, he said “these bishops have to have a process of conversion,” adding that they should apply “tenderness.”

Both points, it should be said, build on long-standing positions of both Francis and the institutional church.

What’s happened in the two months since the pontiff delivered these seemingly clear injunctions?

In early March, the German synodal path wrapped up with a resounding vote in favor of blessing same-sex unions, with 176 participants voting in favor and just fourteen against, with 12 abstaining. The vote included two-thirds support from the country’s 67 bishops.

Granted, the Germans agreed to delay implementation of their vote until March 2026. Nonetheless, there are many parishes and even dioceses in Germany where such blessings are already common pastoral practice, and there’s no indication they’ll be suspended in the interim.

In other words, the German response to the pope’s critique, not to mention even more explicit warnings and criticism from top Vatican officials, boiled down to danke, aber nein, danke … “thanks, but no thanks.”

Also earlier this month, the Ugandan parliament overwhelmingly adopted an “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” which, for the first time, criminalizes merely identifying as gay, with a possible sentence of life in prison. It also creates a new crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” including same-sex relations with a person over whom the offender has authority, or anyone having same-sex relations with a disabled person, for which the penalty is death.

“Promotion of homosexuality” would also become a crime, including providing facilities for same-sex relations – for instance, an innkeeper who rents a couple a room – with a penalty of five years in jail and a heavy fine.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has thirty days from the parliamentary vote to decide whether to sign the bill, as many observers expect him to do.

Notably, Uganda is among the most heavily Catholic nations in Africa, with 40 percent of the population belonging to the church. By 2050 it’s projected to have the second-largest Catholic population on the continent, at 56 million.

Though much of the backing for the anti-homosexuality bill came from Protestant Evangelicals and Pentecostals, one of the principal sponsors of the legislation, a Member of Parliament named Charles Onen, is a former Catholic priest who left the ministry to go into politics, and the speaker of the Ugandan parliament, Anita Annet Among, a major proponent of the bill, is also Catholic.

Meanwhile in neighboring Kenya, the country’s bishops bitterly denounced a Supreme Court ruling in early March allowing for the registration of pro-gay organizations, effectively overturning a legal ban on such groups.

“We fault the determination of the Supreme Court of Kenya and declare it as an effort towards the promotion of LGBTQ+ ideology which seeks to destroy life,” the bishops said in a collective statement.

Catholics in two flagship African nations, in effect, thus have ignored the pope’s clear marching orders.

None of this, of course, is in any way unique to Francis.

Catholics have selectively flouted papal teaching since the dawn of time; one of my first experiences in Italy almost a quarter-century ago, in fact, was being invited by an Italian friend to a party in his small village to celebrate the priest’s girlfriend having a baby, at precisely the same moment Pope John Paul II was extolling celibacy as a gift from God.

Italians even have a saying for this sort of benign disobedience: Se il papa fosse qui, ci capirebbe, meaning, “If the pope were here, he’d understand.”

Yet it is nonetheless striking how brazenly Catholics in both Europe and Africa, including a good number of bishops, have openly defied the pope just this month – in both cases, it should be noted, on the highly contentious matter of homosexuality, in one instance from the left and another from the right.

In other words, neither side in the church’s version of the culture wars would seem to have a monopoly on insolence vis-à-vis papal leadership.

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” Yeats wrote more than a century ago, in the aftermath of the First World War … expressing sentiments with which Pope Francis himself might identify today.