Pope Francis coronavirus shock: How Pope Benedict ‘forced strict measures’

Francis made the surprise move to relax the rules on confession last week, to protect priests and worshippers from the deadly coronavirus, which has swept through large parts of the Catholic world. The Vatican, where the Pope resides and delivers his impassioned Sunday mass speeches to thousands, is at the heart of Italy, which recently became the world’s epicentre for the infection. Thousands of lives in the country have been claimed by the coronavirus, leading to Pope Francis’ move.

But calls for him to relax other laws in this most testing of times have fallen flat, with Francis seemingly unwilling to change the church’s standpoint on traditional aspects of the faith such as contraception and celibacy.

Lynda Telford, author of ‘Women of the Vatican: Female Power in a Male World’, told Express.co.uk that she felt Pope Francis would be happy to make alterations in a bid to modernise Catholicism, but Pope Benedict was working with a clique of determined traditionalists who did not want to see any sweeping changes.

She argued that Pope Francis wanted to continue Pope John Paul II’s work in allowing worshippers to use contraception.

Ms Telford said John Paul II “saw first hand the appalling poverty for many of the faithful,” who were unable to use contraception and as a result were forced to raise large families they could barely afford to feed.

She explained: “He was strongly opposed to that and numerous other issues. And people feared his commitment to change at that time as he was a comparatively young pope of course in 1978.

“And they feared he might make some very serious changes, which he did intend to do.

“Consequently he lived for a very long time and they were worried he would be a great threat to them.

“The church is highly bound by traditionalists, including I’m afraid Pope Benedict, who is presently leading a clique of traditionalists against Pope Francis on various matters.”

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The author added: ”I’m afraid that Pope Benedict is rather an opponent of any change. He is a very strong traditionalist and in the Vatican there are far too many of them, these backward-looking traditionalists who don’t want any kind of change.

“I think of course it is all leading to the fact that if you free women of contraception, with a marriage to a priest even, you’re leading inevitably to the female priesthood or at least a part-female priesthood, which is a terrifying thought for most people who are in the higher echelons of the church right now.”

Pope Benedict was the head of the church between 2005 and 2013, before he stood down due to the mental stresses of the role and the deterioration of his health.

The move was unprecedented as he became the first Pope to resign since the 1400s – and his decision saw Pope Francis become the new leader of the Catholic Church.

Many have argued that while he is still alive, Pope Benedict is able to exert an unusual amount of authority over those in the higher echelons of the church, which has led to Pope Francis being unable to fulfil his modernisation mandate.

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One example was whether celibacy could be relaxed in the Amazon regions where the number of male priests had dropped to devastating lows.

It had been hoped that the liberal Pope Francis would back a move to allow married men to become priests, thus allowing more priests back into the fold.

But to the surprise of many, Pope Francis – who according to the Washington Times in February had initially supported some relaxing of the rules – dismissed it, leading to much rejoicing from the traditionalist wing of the church.

Despite his decision, many in the Amazon regions believe Pope Francis had wanted to push ahead with the change but was unable to as the church “wasn’t mature enough”.

Atilio Battistu, a Franciscan friar in the Brazilian rainforest state of Para – which has around 600 Catholic communities – told the newspaper: “I had high hopes about this, even if it would not solve all the problems of the Amazon and of the Church.

“I do not believe Pope Francis was against this decision.

“It is not the moment yet. The church is not mature enough for this.”

But as the coronavirus threatens to decimate the globe, and many who look to Catholicism as a route to keeping faith, question marks remain over whether it will ever make the changes some say are needed to encourage the next generation of worshippers.

Ms Telford admitted that the church “had to face up to the face it had to modernise” or it could fear for its future.

She said: “At a time when I think the church needs to change, it is losing the faithful in many countries now, it needs desperately to change and accept the differences in the change of position of women throughout the world.

“I’m sure Pope Francis is aware of this and he’s also extremely popular with the people.”

Ms Telford added: “It does seem a pity that Pope Benedict is still living in the church and being able to influence people against the present Pope like this.

“I think it is very worrying and the fact they might bring down Pope Francis at some point is already in the back of my mind.

“He is a man who is working for change.”

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