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mainlogoforsite-1ROME (RNS) Since the moment he was elected in 2013, Pope Francis has sought to steer the Catholic Church away from a focus on doctrinal rules and formulas and toward a more pastoral ministry – a campaign that has sparked widespread hand-wringing among traditionalists and unusually public opposition to the pontiff.

In recent weeks, however, the critics have grown bolder and more demanding than ever as several conservative cardinals and various pundits have issued warnings that Francis may be leading the church into heresy and schism.

They have openly speculated about how Francis could be disciplined, or if he should resign for incompetence – basically, the sort of topics that haven’t been bandied about in Catholic circles in the last 1,000 years or so.

So far, Francis himself has declined to engage his foes directly, preferring to let his writings, periodic interviews and daily sermons speak for themselves.

Pope Francis talks with Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, as he meets journalists aboard his flight from Rome to Nairobi, Kenya, on Nov. 25, 2015. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Pope Francis talks with Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, as he meets journalists aboard his flight from Rome to Nairobi, Kenya, on Nov. 25, 2015. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

 

 

 

Yet Francis is hardy without champions in what some are calling a “Catholic civil war,” with perhaps the most prominent and vocal among them a soft-spoken Italian priest, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro.

Indeed, Spadaro is so ubiquitous in his mission to defend the pontiff that critics like to call him “the pope’s mouthpiece” – a label seemingly designed to undermine Francis by denoting Spadaro as a kind of papal puppet master, as well as making Spadaro a target in his own right.