Pope Francis has told his critics to “say it to my face” in response to a growing chorus of attacks by his conservative adversaries.
The Pope said he was not overly perturbed by the criticism from senior Vatican figures, describing it as “like a rash that bothers you a bit”.
“The only thing I ask is that they do it to my face because that’s how we all grow, right?” he told the Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview.
“You prefer that they don’t criticise, for the sake of tranquillity.”
At the same time it was important that cardinals and bishops felt they had the freedom to speak out and that the papacy did not become a distant “dictatorship”, he said.
His many conservative critics appear to have been emboldened by the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on December 31.
Benedict’s moderating influence on traditionalists who loathe Francis’s relatively liberal agenda on issues such as homosexuality, communion for divorcees and support for migrants has now gone.
The death of Benedict could open the way for Francis to resign, should he decide to, because it removes the unprecedented scenario of there being three popes in the Vatican at the same time.
Vatican insiders publish books critical of Francis
Since his death, several books have been published by Vatican insiders which are highly critical of Francis and his decade-long papacy.
They include books by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Benedict’s former personal secretary, the conservative German cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, and a book by Benedict himself that was published posthumously.
It was also revealed recently that a highly critical open letter that circulated last year in Vatican circles, published under a pseudonym, was written by the Australian cardinal George Pell, another conservative who is at odds with Francis.
In the letter, he described Francis’s papacy as “a catastrophe” and a “toxic nightmare”.
The 86-year-old Pope dismissed speculation that the death of his predecessor had opened the floodgates of criticism from his conservative detractors.
“I wouldn’t relate it to Benedict, but because of the wear-and-tear of a government of 10 years,” he said, referring to his pontificate.
His election as the first-ever South American pope was greeted with delight and “surprise” at first, but then disillusion set in “when they started to see my flaws and didn’t like them”, the Pope said in his first interview since the death of Benedict.
He addressed concerns about his health – he underwent colon surgery in 2021 and often has to use a wheelchair because of a bone fracture in his knee. “I might die tomorrow, but it’s under control. I’m in good health,” he said.
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