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Pope Francis waves to the crowd on July 16 at the Vatican. Picture: AFP

The unconcealed disdain from one pope to his successor, delivered in front of the world, was unmissable. Retired pope Benedict XVI, in a message read out by his secretary in Cologne Cathedral last week, likened the church under Pope Francis to a boat that “has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing”.

The occasion was the funeral of German cardinal Joachim Meisner, 83, who was one of four cardinals who had been in direct conflict with Francis over his controversial apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), which has softened church rules on divorce and Holy Communion.

The alarm about Francis extends far beyond theology to politics, immigration, Western relations with Islam, the global balance of power and climate change. Ahead of the G20 in Hamburg, the Pope called in a journalist from Italian newspaper La Repubblica to voice his concern that the summit would not advance the cause of migrants. A proponent of big government, Francis also urged European nations to abandon their sovereign borders and “take as soon as possible a federal structure”.

Far from hiding his anti-Americanism, Francis drew a parallel between the US and totalitarian regimes including North Korea: “I am afraid there are very dangerous alliances between powers who have a distorted view of the world: America and Russia, China and North Korea, Russia and Assad in the war in Syria.” A recent article in a Vatican journal by two of the Pope’s closest confidants took aim at the religious right in the US and every Republican president from Ronald Reagan onwards. Francis’s backing for Marxist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has enraged bishops and citizens.

One prominent figure who is unsurprised by such outbursts is Marcello Pera, a former president of the Italian Senate who co-authored a significant book, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam with Benedict in 2007. “The Pope reflects all the prejudices of the South American regarding North America, markets, freedom, capitalism,’’ he told Il Mattino newspaper in Naples.

Pera’s main concern is Francis’s politicisation of the church, especially his support for illegal immigration, a stance that is alienating much of his flock, including those who support generous but orderly immigration policies such as Australia’s. “Bergoglio just wants to do politics, the Gospel doesn’t matter at all,’’ Pera says, addressing Francis by his surname. Concern is strongest in Italy, the destination of Nigerians, Gambians, Sudanese and others drawn by human traffickers’ promises of a warm welcome and plenty of welfare assistance.

Italy is struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who have sailed across the Mediterranean in recent years; double-digit unemployment; youth unemployment of 40 per cent; and street crime. Another 25,000 newcomers arrived last month, mainly from Nigeria and Guinea. The total number this year will exceed the 170,000 people, predominantly Muslim males, who arrived last year. Some communities are in revolt over the cost of housing them and the criminal behaviour of some of the men towards women. Rome mayor Virginia Raggi recently called on the government not to send any more ­migrants to the city.

Despite community anger Francis has remained defiant, urging young people to be “protagonists of change” in backing mass migration without defined limitations. His attitude has prompted pertinent questions about the kind of religious and cultural melting pot he wants Europe to be.

Pera says: “It’s evident to all that an indiscriminate welcoming is not possible: there is a critical point that cannot be reached. If the Pope does not make reference to this critical point, if he insists in a massive and total welcoming, I ask myself: ‘why does he say it? What is the true end of his words? Why does he lack a minimum of realism, that very little that is requested of anyone?’ The answer I can give myself is only one: ‘the Pope does it because he hates the West, he aspires to destroy it, and he does all he can to reach this end. As he aspires to destroy the Christian tradition, Christianity as it has realised itself historically.’ ”

Strong and extraordinary words from a papal co-author. Pera fears a brutal kickback, through some form of alliance between European nationalists from both right and left with conservative Catholics, who realise increasingly that Francis is out of synch with much of his flock.

The latter sentiment was evident at Cologne Cathedral. The night before Meisner died, he spoke to fellow German cardinal Gerhard Muller, 69, who had just been dismissed as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Francis, six years short of retirement age and with minimal notice. Both cardinals, noted for their doctrinal orthodoxy, were sad. Muller’s departure, and the ­absence of Cardinal George Pell, leaves Francis with a weakened curia. Not that he always consults his cardinals. He has not met with them as a group at the last couple of consistories.

Pera says the world needs a Pope who “does not dream of an impoverished West” and Italy needs a political class that returns “issues of identity and national tradition” to the centre of public opinion. Benedict, just as pointedly in his message in Cologne, spoke of the church’s “pressing need for shepherds who would oppose the dictatorship of the zeitgeist, fully resolved to act and think from a faith standpoint”.