Pope Benedict and Francis ‘on collision course’ as Vatican on brink amid health panic

Pope Francis’ doctor dies from COVID-19 ‘complications’

Francis was once again forced to cancel a number of public appearances on Sunday, with his sciatica battle continuing to hold back the 84-year-old. Despite his struggles, which also saw him swerve his New Year’s Day Mass address, Francis is still expected to take on a historic trip to Iraq in March. It will be the first time a pontiff has visited the Middle Eastern country, where the topic of how Christianity can be accepted in the predominantly Muslim nation will dominate discussions.

But the health fears surrounding Francis have left some experts, including author Lynda Telford, concerned about who the next Pope will be.

Ms Telford is worried that Francis’ successor could tear up the incumbent’s strategy to modernise the church, and follow a more traditionalist view, similar to Benedict.

Reports of a fallout between the two have remained fierce since Benedict became the first living Pope to stand down from office since the 1400s in 2013.

He remains within the Vatican, and has spoken out in the past about decisions Francis has undertaken, including on the row over whether married men should be allowed to become priests.

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In an unprecedented move, Benedict spoke out about the need for celibacy, as it “allows a priest to focus” on his service to the church.

The debate came after pleas from worshippers in the Amazon were made to ensure more priests could be ordained.

Benedict’s entrance into the conversation was highly controversial as the 93-year-old had previously vowed not to speak out on Vatican policy.

Martin Bashir, the BBC’s religion editor, described the row as a “collision” of ideals, which would no doubt split the traditionalists and liberals within the Vatican.

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He wrote that despite Benedict’s desire to “remain ‘hidden from view’, it is difficult not to regard his intervention as strategically timed.

Francis was debating whether to make the move away from celibacy last year, when Benedict’s comments emerged in a book he co-authored alongside Cardinal Robert Sarah.

Mr Bashir added: “This is also a collision between the ancient belief that celibacy is exemplified in the life of Christ and the ministry of Apostle Paul, who wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that ‘I wish all people were like me’, and the demands of a modern church that is growing across the Amazon region but where there is a severe shortage of priests.

“But Pope Francis has indicated, through Papal visits and his appointment of cardinals, that he recognises where the Roman Catholic Church is growing and wants to respond to its needs.”

He would eventually bow to Benedict’s request, leaving liberals frustrated at their leader.

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This led observers including Ms Telford to believe that the power Benedict still possesses within the church will see a traditionalist uprising when the next Pope is selected.

Speaking to Express.co.uk, the writer of Women in the Vatican – Female Power in a Male World, said she was unsure who would replace Francis, but added: “At a time when I think the church needs to change, it is losing the faithful in many countries now, it needs desperately to change and accept the differences in the change of position of women throughout the world.

“I’m sure Pope Francis is aware of this and he’s also extremely popular with the people.”

Although some share Ms Telford’s view, a Catholic Culture report two years ago argued that Francis was now in a powerful position to ensure his legacy within the Vatican continues after he leaves office.

By naming 13 new members to the College of Cardinals, Francis commanded a majority of Cardinals, who will select the next Roman pontiff.

According to Father Adolfo Nicolas, a former leader of the Jesuit order, Francis wanted to remain as pontiff until “the changes he made were irreversible”.

His aim was to “pack out the College of Cardinals with like-minded electors”, a clear sign of Francis’ intentions to protect his life’s work.

The plan was described by Father Thomas Reese as the “most revolutionary thing Francis has done in terms of church governance”.

He added in a 2016 column for the National Catholic Reporter that Francis’ scheme would no doubt cause widespread anger among his opponents.

Father Reese wrote: “But then I had to be honest with myself by asking the question, ‘How would I have reacted if Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict had done the same thing?’

“Frankly, I would have been outraged. Progressives would have seen it as another example of papal centralisation and of the old guard clinging to power.

“Put another way, suppose the next conclave is the mirror opposite of the last one. Suppose it makes a mistake and elects someone the cardinals think is a progressive or moderate and in fact is a reactionary.

“He will then be able to use the Francis precedent to fill the College of Cardinals with reactionaries.”

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