Francis’ 10 years as Pope; conservatives confront post-Benedict era

Pope Francis marks the 10th anniversary of his election on March 13 having outlasted the conservative opposition that failed to bring him down and which is now at a crossroads, seeking new direction following the deaths of two of its figureheads.

The conservative-progressive divide has been a recurrent theme of the past 10 years, since Francis first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in 2013 wearing a simple white cassock, shunning the red-and-gold coverings used for centuries.

Conservative cardinals and archbishops have accused Francis of sowing confusion by weakening rules on issues such as homosexuality and remarriage after divorce while focusing excessively on social problems such as climate change and economic inequality.

But events have left the conservative movement disoriented and, some experts say, rudderless.

Former Pope Benedict, who resigned in 2013 and became a standard bearer for conservatives who yearned for the return to a more traditional Church, died on Dec 31 at the age of 95.

“The conservative world lacks a unifying vision, which is something that Benedict provided,” said Sandro Magister, a veteran conservative author, journalist and blogger who has been critical of Francis.

“He (Benedict) has no real heir, no one able to inherit his legacy in a substantial way,” Magister said.

A senior Vatican official, one of three high-ranking prelates who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many conservatives looked to Benedict “as a sense of security,” even though, in the official’s opinion, the former pope did not seek that role.


Conservatives also mourned the sudden death in January of Australian Cardinal George Pell, 81, who many had believed would succeed Benedict as chief conservative standard bearer.

Pell’s apartment – in the building where Benedict lived until he became pope in 2005 – was a salon for visiting conservative Churchmen.

“In the last years of his life Pell was working to build a unifying network by meeting conservatives and also moderates. He wanted them to reflect on the central issues of the Church looking ahead to the choice of Francis’ successor,” Magister said.

Pell had written a memo in 2022 calling Francis’ papacy a “catastrophe”.

The senior Vatican official said: “He (Pell) networked and socialised with a lot of people and that made him a formidable force. Having that network collapse immediately one day probably has people disconcerted.”

Two days after Pell’s death, Italian bookstores began selling a memoir by Benedict’s long-time personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein. It included scathing criticism of another conservative icon, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, exposing more internal fault lines on the right.

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  • Philip Pullella is Reuters Senior Correspondent in Italy and at the Vatican.
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