Pope Francis’ Catholicism has been questioned by a group of extremist theologians in their latest attack on his reforms.
Since his election in 2013, the pontiff has implemented a series of reforms, which have updated the Catholic Church’s official doctrine and practice.
Among his more notable changes are a softer stance on homosexuality and allowing divorced people receiving Communion.
But traditionalists have been angered by the reforms.
Now an extreme conservative branch of theologians have claimed that there has not been a true pope since the death of Pope Pius XII and the subsequent implementation of Vatican II – which ushered in a wave of liberal reform – in 1959.
The Tradition In Action group, based in Los Angeles, have pointed to a prophecy reportedly made by a vision of the Virgin Mary which appeared to a group of children in the Portuguese village of Fatima in 1917 on their website.
They claim the third section of a prophecy made by the apparition said there would one day be a rise of apostasy which “will begin at the top”, The Times reported.
The website also claimed the apparition – now known as Our Lady of Fatima and is a venerated image within the church – referred to a fake Pope with a “devilish gaze” – including 12 photograph close ups of the Pope’s eyes.
But Pope Francis’ rule has also provoked the fury of more mainstream conservative circles – particularly in the Curia, the administrative wing of the Vatican.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American conservative who has spearheaded much of the opposition to the Pope’s reforms, told a Kentucky conference that it was important to note the differences between Francis’ teachings as a man and his teachings as the Bishop of Rome.
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The cardinal, who was ousted from his role as the president of the Vatican’s most important council in 2014, said there were currently “many troubling manifestations of confusion, division and error in the church”.
In a veiled attack on Pope Francis’ leadership, the told the conference on church teaching in Louisville: “In a diabolical way, the confusion and error which has led human culture in the way of death and destruction has also entered into the church, so that she draws near to the culture without seeming to know her own identity and mission, without seeming to have the clarity and the courage to announce the gospel.”
He said it was therefore crucial to distinguish between the off-the-cuff remarks made by Pope Francis and his encyclicals and more other formal writings as well as recognise the authority of the Church to establish his own teaching.
“It is simply wrong and harmful to the church to receive every declaration of the Holy Father as an expression of papal teaching”, he said.