Pope Francis, the Accusations and the Back Story

Pope Francis, the Accusations and the Back Story

LONDON — For people who are not immersed in the doctrines and politics of the Roman Catholic Church, the uproar over new accusations against Pope Francis can be hard to parse — a mix of the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the church, and bitter factional infighting over its direction.

How closely those two factors are related is unclear, as is the credibility of the allegations against the pope. But at a time when the church is enduring an international crisis, largely over generations of sexual misconduct and cover-ups, the suggestion that Francis was in any way complicit could pose a threat to his papacy.

Here, then, are answers to some of the big questions raised by the controversy.

What has the pope been accused of?

An archbishop, Carlo Maria Viganò, released a letter claiming that Pope Francis, his predecessors and others in the church hierarchy knew of sexual misconduct by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, years before it was made public.

Archbishop Viganò said he told Francis in 2013 that the pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, had ordered Cardinal McCarrick “to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance” because of the accusations against him. But Francis, Archbishop Viganò wrote, empowered Cardinal McCarrick, allowing him to help choose American bishops.

Cardinal McCarrick was forced to resign last month, and Archbishop Viganò said the pope must resign, too. The pope said he would not dignify questions about the claims with a response.

The letter was timed to coincide with the pope’s visit to Ireland, where the church has struggled to fashion an effective response to revelations of clerical abuse and cover-ups that have severely damaged its authority. Francis, after being criticized for appearing to play down similar allegations in Chile and elsewhere, has worked hard in recent months to be seen as taking them more seriously.

Archbishop Viganò, the Vatican envoy to the United States until Francis removed him in 2016, has long been at odds with the pope and has campaigned against what he sees as the pernicious influence of gay priests. His letter not only accused church leaders, by name, of covering up clerical misconduct, but also claimed that some of them are gay.

He has cast the church’s abuse scandals as a problem stemming from homosexuality, claiming that a gay cabal is corrupting the institution from within.

That history, and some inconsistencies in accounts of the events Archbishop Viganò described, have prompted questions about how concerned he really is about the handling of Cardinal McCarrick and whether he is more interested in using the case as a cudgel against a pontiff he opposes.

What are the ideological divisions in the church?

The most volatile disputes have to do with social issues on which public opinion in Western countries has moved away from church teaching — among them homosexuality, abortion and divorce and remarriage.

The pope’s defenders say it is less a matter of changing church doctrine than of how the church treats people who have broken with that doctrine. Critics say Francis is undermining established and immutable principles.

Francis sent shock waves through the Catholic world soon after his election as pope in 2013 by saying, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He did it again less than two months later, saying that the church “cannot be obsessed” with issues like abortion, homosexuality and birth control.

His 2016 statement on the family urged priests and congregations to be more welcoming of people it long castigated as sinners, and to focus more on social missions like caring for the poor. And he broke with tradition in proposing a less centrally governed church, urging elements of the church around the world to find their own approaches to difficult issues.

The church also still has older, simmering ideological disputes dating to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. There are archconservatives within the church who oppose the changes made since then, like having priests celebrate Mass in languages other than Latin and allowing them to place communion wafers in parishioners’ hands rather than on their tongues.

Who opposes Francis within the church, and why?

There is a sizable faction of traditionalist prelates who have resisted the pope’s moves to liberalize the church to accommodate modern attitudes — which they see as a weakening of doctrine. They include Cardinals Gerhard Müller and Walter Brandmüller, who are German; Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an American; and Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, an Italian who died last year, among others.

“There are bishops who like what Pope Francis is doing, bishops who don’t like what Pope Francis is doing and hope he goes to his eternal reward, and bishops who are just confused by Pope Francis,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest who writes for The National Catholic Reporter. “Certainly the ones who don’t like him, who are most ideological, are the most vocal.”

But it is not just bishops who object to what Francis has done. Last year, dozens of Catholic scholars signed a public letter critiquing the pope’s statement on the family.

Much of the opposition is ideological, but the pope’s defenders say some of it is about raw power.

Francis has sometimes ignored the recommendations of conservatives high in the church in appointing archbishops and cardinals, and he has campaigned against “clericalism,” the primacy of the church hierarchy’s authority. He has pointedly rejected some of the privileges of his office, declining to live in the Apostolic Palace.

“He was criticizing the way priests and bishops around the world had been living and operating for many years,” said John Thavis, an author of books on the church and its leaders. “The progressives were very pleased, and the traditionalists were disturbed.”

Haven’t there always been disputes?

There have been doctrinal disputes for as long as there has been a church, but they tended to be kept under wraps.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who led the church for 35 years, not only slowed the pace of change after the Second Vatican Council, but also enforced strict discipline among bishops and theologians in seminaries.

Francis, on the other hand, upending conservatives’ expectations, has repeatedly invited dissent — and they have obliged him.

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