Francis, as he has increasingly done at this point in his papacy, did not hold back. He blasted the “strong reactionary attitude” among American Catholics. He described them with an apparently self-created word — “indietristi,” or backward-looking people — and argued that they don’t understand how faith and morals can evolve.
“Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves,” the pope replied, according to a transcript of the Aug. 5 meeting released Monday by the Catholic outlet La Civiltà Cattolica and reviewed by the Vatican before publication. “Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies.”
He added: “If you don’t change upward, you go backward … And the effects on morality are devastating.”
It was not the first time the pope has taken aim at his conservative critics in the United States, who have opposed him on certain theological issues, such as the Latin Rite, and social issues, such as the environment and migration, and whose ranks include a Texas bishop who said Francis “undermines” the church’s “deposit of faith.” But his comments in Portugal highlighted what observers have noted as a growing bluntness from the pope.
Francis may, some argue, feel freer to speak his mind since the death of Benedict XVI, who even as pope emeritus had at times loomed in opposition to him and remained a galvanizing symbol for Catholic conservatives.
The 86-year-old Francis, who recently had intestinal surgery and often uses a wheelchair, may also be looking toward his own legacy and how he can translate his stated desire to make the church more welcoming into real changes in doctrine.
“I think the pope’s bluntness comes from his biography,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, historian and former editor of a Vatican magazine. “He’s sick, advanced of age, feels he has little time and is quicker to say things than he used to. This matters much. Over the years, he also acquired a greater confidence as he has realized what a strong following he has.”
Francis — who turned heads with his “who am I to judge?” comment shortly after becoming pope — has become increasingly outspoken about his outreach to the LBGTQ+ community. In that same session with the Jesuits, he talked about having held frequent, warm meetings with transgender people — and he seemed to dismiss disapproving critics.
“What I don’t like at all, in general, is that we look at the so-called ‘sin of the flesh’ with a magnifying glass,” he said, according to La Civiltà Cattolica’s English version of the transcript. The Argentine pope was speaking in his native Spanish.
Francis throughout his papacy has been known to leave the Vatican scrambling to “clarify” his comments, but it is a ritual that now appears more frequent. On Tuesday, for instance, the Vatican sought to assuage outrage in Kyiv after Francis appeared to glorify Russia’s imperial past — coming close to a Kremlin talking point used to justify its invasion of Ukraine.
“Don’t forget your heritage,” he told Catholic youths in St. Petersburg, in unscripted remarks following a speech delivered by video. “You are heirs to the Great Russia, the Great Russia of saints, of kings, the Great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine the Second, that great and cultured Russian empire, with so much culture and so much humanity … You’re the heirs to the great Mother Russia. Carry on … Thanks for your way of being and for your being Russian.”
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko objected on Monday in a Facebook post: “It is very unfortunate that Russian grand-state ideas, which, in fact, are the cause of Russia’s chronic aggression, knowingly or unknowingly, come from the Pope’s mouth.”
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni responded: “The Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great cultural and Russian spirituality, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and government personalities.”
The statement on U.S. conservatives, however, was particularly significant for its timing. It came as the Catholic Church is gearing up for what some view as an ideological slugfest in Vatican City.
October’s arcanely named Synod on Synodality is set to be a wide-ranging debate on church policy and teachings. The Vatican’s working document in June said the discussion should include how to make the Church more welcoming for LGBTQ+ people and divorced Catholics.
The synod — typically a gathering of bishops — will include additional delegates for the first time, half of them women. (Women cannot be ordained as deacons, priests or bishops in the Catholic Church — though their future roles will also be on the table during the October meeting.)
Conservative cardinals, bishops and priests have lobbied against Francis since the early years of his papacy. One of his fiercest critics — Wisconsin-born Cardinal Raymond Burke — insisted in 2015 that the pope did not have “the power” to change church doctrine. Francis’s reinstatement of limits on the use of the Latin Mass became a flash point of dissent and symbol of conservative protest within the Catholic Church in the United States.
For his part, Francis in 2022 denounced a “significant” number of interest groups — especially in the United States — that he said were seeking to “gag” the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which had sought to make the church more accessible to everyday Catholics.
Rifts in the church have continued to widen — especially as the synod approaches. Texas Bishop Joseph E. Strickland in an August public letter warned of “the evil and false message that has invaded the church.” A cluster of the pope’s critics this month also published a book that called the synod a “Pandora’s box” bent on changing doctrine.
The Rev. Gerald Murray, a New York City canon lawyer and priest who offers church commentary on the conservative-leaning Catholic channel EWTN — a station that Francis in 2021 said produces the “work of the devil” — said Tuesday that Francis’s comments in Portugal appeared timed for the synod.
The pope “said many of these things over the years, but they’re accelerating now because the synod is a few weeks away,” he said. “I think he’s trying to defend his project for the synod against criticism.”
Bisset reported from London. Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.