Italian police spent Monday combing through surveillance video footage in an effort to apprehend the culprits behind the hundreds of anti-pope posters that were plastered around Rome over the weekend.
On Saturday, Romans woke to a city carpeted in posters picturing a somber-looking Pope Francis captioned with a list of accusations of heavy-handed Church governance along with the words “Where’s your mercy?”
The anonymous protest carried on a centuries-old Roman custom of “Pasquinate”—the posting of criticisms of papal management of the city on walls or well-known local statues.
Ever since his election in 2013, Pope Francis made a name for himself as a non-judgmental, benevolent figure who emphasized mercy over doctrine. Nonetheless, critics have suggested that the Pope’s mercy is selective and that he has enacted a series of autocratic and even vindictive measures targeting those who question his decisions.
The hundreds of posters—pulled down or papered over within hours by an unusually efficient city council—alleged a series of misuses of papal power, including ignoring cardinals, removing priests and “beheading” two Catholic organizations.
The full text of the poster, written in local dialect, read, “Hey Frankie, you have gutted Congregations, suspended priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals… Where is your mercy?”
Critics have suggested that Francis, though publicly saying that he welcomes “resistance” and debate, has hunted down and punished those who criticize him or question his approach.
Even the Pope’s most loyal followers acknowledge that he has reserved his harshest criticism for conservatives, labelling them rigid, doctrinaire and legalistic. He has also rooted out perceived adversaries, leading some observers to speak of an “ideological purge.”
As examples, critics cite the Pope’s “wholesale replacement” of the staff of the Congregation for Divine Worship, the abrupt, seemingly arbitrary dismissal of three clerics serving the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the “contemptuous treatment” of the four cardinals who submitted questions (dubia) about a recent papal letter called Amoris Laetitia, and his efforts to stack the College of Cardinals with progressive prelates while relegating conservatives to the “peripheries.”
According to Francis’ most loyal supporters, however, the latest criticisms of the pontiff’s governance represent a carefully orchestrated plot to undermine his success in reaching the masses.
Father Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit priest who runs the journal La Civiltà Cattolica, said that behind the protest are “corrupt people and powerful forces devising strategies to dislodge the Pope from the heart of the people, which is his great forte. And the result is the opposite effect.”
In his public appearance for the Angelus prayer Sunday, the Pope chose to keep silent about the protest, while inviting the faithful to stay far away from the “polluting germs of egotism, envy and backbiting.”
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