In Brief

Plot to oust Pope Francis exposes divisions within Catholic Church

Archbishop breaks cover and calls for pontiff to resign as ideological battle lines are drawn

A bombshell letter by a Catholic archbishop calling for Pope Francis to resign has laid bare the deep divisions within the Church between reformists and conservatives.

The 11-page “testimony” was released to conservative Catholic media over the weekend by the Vatican’s former ambassador to the US, Archbishop Carlo Vigano. The missive included an explosive allegation that Pope Francis knew of disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse of seminarians, and even lifted restrictions on McCarrick put in place by his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI.

“In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal Church,” Vigano wrote, “he must acknowledge his mistakes and, in keeping with the proclaimed principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick's abuses and resign along with all of them.”

The allegations come at critical juncture for the church, embroiled in an ideological battle for its future amid the ongoinh storm of allegations of sexual abuse.

Chico Harlan in The Washington Post says “Pope Francis has long faced criticism from traditionalists – a group that includes academics as well as cardinals – who say the church is too willingly following the whims of the anything-goes modern age”.

To this conservative faction, the pontiff's more inclusive message on a range of social issues, from homosexuality and marriage to climate change, “risks undoing the credibility of a religion that is based on immutable ideas and principles” says Harlan.

“Vigano's letter has emerged as a sort of Rorschach test for Catholics” says CNN: “Many conservative Catholics say the Pope must go. Liberal Catholics accuse the archbishop of launching a coup d'etat against his boss.”

The Rev. James Weiss, a religious historian at Boston College, told the Boston Herald there is no evidence for many of Vigano’s claims.

“This is about the most sinful thing a priest or a bishop could do at a time when the church is rocked with uncertainty about this,” Weiss said, adding “it is calculated to damage the church and he should lose his status as a bishop and a priest.”

Others have pointed to the timing of the letter, published at perhaps the most challenging point of Francis’ papacy, as well as Vigano’s own history of anti-Francis conservatism, and the fact he was dismissed as ambassador by the pope, as reasons to disbelieve his charges.

But at the same time evidence in favor of Vigano’s account is trickling out - including a claim of confirmation from people close to Pope Benedict XVI.

However, Ross Douthat in the New York Times says that even if Vigano is fully vindicated, “this doesn’t mean that the pope should resign”.

Instead, the faithful “should press Francis to fulfill the paternal obligations at which he has failed to date” and prove himself “willing to be zealous and uncompromising against what Benedict called the ‘filth’ in the church, no matter how many heads must roll on his own side of the Catholic civil war”, says Douthat.

But amid growing disquiet among the Catholic laity over the Church’s handling of sexual abuse, including unprecedented calls for resignations of implicated bishops and boycotts of Mass and donations, the Washington Post says “even the biggest fans of Francis and his reformist agenda are now questioning whether he is actually part of the problem”.

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