Pope Francis faces Vatican free for all after Benedicts death

Pope Francis emotional during public prayer

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The death of former Pope Benedict XVI could spark a “free for all” in the Vatican with division intensifying between the factions of the Roman Catholic Church, experts say. Benedict’s death, announced on New Year’s Eve, came almost a decade after he stood down as Pope for health reasons – the first to resign since Gregory XII in 1415.

This brought in Pope Francis, seen by many as a more socially progressive and radical head of the Vatican.

However, his attitudes have angered the more conservative figures within the Roman Catholic Church.

As a result, some experts say Benedict’s death could see this divide widen as varying factions grapple for influence.

Sandro Magister, a longstanding expert on the Vatican, believes that the death of Benedict could see Francis follow in his footsteps and resign from the papacy – a previously almost unheard-of move until Benedict did it in 2013.

He also warned of intensified division within the Church, telling the Times: “[Now] there’s likely to be a free for all, without any clear guidelines. We are in a phase of confusion now, the opposite of the clear, limpid, rational thought of Pope Benedict.”

Giuseppe Rusconi, a leading Vatican journalist, said Benedict’s (formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger) will embolden the conservatives within the Roman Catholic Church.

He added: “The conservatives have been weakened by Ratzinger’s death but they will now feel authorised to be more openly critical of Pope Francis, while Francis will no longer feel overshadowed by Pope Benedict and be free to cross new boundaries in his reforms.

“A brake has been removed, both as regards the conservatives’ criticisms and the radical quality of Francis’ reforms.”

The more conservative cardinals within the Catholic Church may struggle to elect a pope more to their liking, however.

Of the 132 cardinals aged under 80, and therefore able to vote, 83 were appointed by Francis.

More conservative-leaning cardinals are also set to lose their voting rights this year.

Mr Rusconi believes Francis will continue his progressive streak: “He wants to continue his work of making the church more acceptable to the contemporary world, an operation not without risk.”

The expert added that Benedict’s departure from the papacy in 2013 could encourage Francis to do the same in the future.

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He continued: “It diminished the sacrality of the figure of the Pope, as it had been handed down through the centuries.

“For a Catholic, it’s not easy to accept the idea that the vicar of Christ on Earth can become a pensioner like any other office worker.”

Mr Magister, however, thinks Francis would be unlikely to step down anytime soon.

He said: “His resignation is more practicable now, but I don’t see it as imminent. His activism is remarkable for a man of his age. His diary is packed with engagements.”

While Francis seems to have a good level of control over the future of the Roman Catholic Church, another expert believes the conservative faction is already trying to ensure that they can “influence the succession”.

Robert Mickens, the editor-in-chief of La Croix International, said: “I know conservatives are working right now, trying to influence the succession. Bergoglio (Francis) has opened a Pandora’s box with synodality [increased democratic debate] and conservatives are alarmed that it could result in radical changes that can’t be undone.”

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