ROME — Something strange is happening in Vatican City.
Over the weekend, dozens of inflammatory posters showing a dour-faced Pope Francis were plastered in central Rome. Under the picture of the frowning Francis, written in Roman dialect, was what seemed like a not-so-veiled warning.
“Ah Francis, you’ve taken over congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals… but where’s your mercy?”
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the anti-pope propaganda, which was swiftly covered up with “illegal posting” signs by Roman cops. But most Vatican insiders and followers of the papal press have surmised that it has something to do with American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a man who would impeach the pope if he could.Burke, an ultra-conservative who seems fond of the good old days when cardinals could condemn sinners for even the slightest infraction while living large at the Church’s expense, is the frugal pope’s most vocal opponent. He and three other conservative cardinals are behind the filing of what are called dubia or doubts about the pope’s interpretation of Catholic doctrine.In a letter signed and delivered to Francis last November, the four threatened to launch a “formal act of correction of a serious error” against the pope for his perceived leniency to divorced and remarried Catholics, gays and other previously taboo topics.The pope responded by telling a local journalist he “wasn’t losing sleep over it” and had no intention of responding formally.Burke was the Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura under Benedict XVI, a lofty post that oversaw all matters of Vatican law that afforded him respect and more than a little power. But when Francis was elected he cleaned house, and clerics like Burke, who would often be seen roaming around Rome in opulent attire like velvet capes and ornate hats, were marginalized and replaced by men with ministry, not diplomatic, experience. It was then that Burke was sidelined to oversee the Sovereign Council of Knights of Malta where, under his guidance, Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, the Grand Chancellor was canned over a condom distribution “scandal” aimed at helping to prevent HIV/AIDS transmission. Francis intervened and asked for the resignation of the Knights’ Grand Master Matthew Festing.
Burke and other conservatives balked, reportedly trying to get Festing to refuse to resign since the Knights of Malta enjoy sovereign status and are one of the oldest Catholic orders around. Festing did resign and Francis put one of his own men in place, who quickly reinstated von Boeselager as Grand Chancellor and effectively replaced Burke as the liaison between the order and the Holy See.
It must be said that there is no proof that Burke has ink on his hands in the anti-papal poster scandal, but there is even less indication that he doesn’t. Calls to the Knights of Malta for a comment were left unanswered.
Gianni Riotta, a prominent journalist in Rome, cried conspiracy against the pope. “They were concocted, paid for, and posted by a very shady, rich and powerful network,” he told The Daily Beast. “This is not a childish prank.”
Still, the public display of venom against one of the most-loved popes in anyone’s memory, has sent shockwaves through the city. “The posting in some neighborhoods of Rome of anonymous posters irreverently critical towards the work of Pope Francis has aroused sadness and disapproval,” Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the pope’s vicar for the diocese of Rome said in a statement. “The faithful of the Christian community, along with all the inhabitants of the city, do not identify with these unjust insinuations and renew their sentiments of esteem, respect and filial gratitude to the Bishop of Rome, Successor of the Apostle Peter, for his personal witness to the Gospel and to his work of evangelization and closeness to humanity, especially to the poor.”
A fan and friend of the pope, Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica summed up the popular consensus in a tweet: “The derogatory posters of #PapaFrancesco posted in Rome are threats. They are detached from the hearts of the people. And the effect is the opposite!”