As for the Americans who have found a leader in Cardinal Burke, many are unhappy with the radical economic view that underpins the synod: one that blames greedy extractive industries and agri-businesses based in the northern hemisphere for the felling and burning of trees whose existence is crucial to the planet.
However, in recent weeks the 82-year-old pope has shown every sign of fighting back hard. On last month’s African tour, he was encouraged by the warm response of ordinary people in Mozambique and Madagascar, counterbalancing the unhappiness over his liberal stance among some African prelates. On the flight out, a French journalist presented him with a book that sets out to document the economic and political interests lined up against him in the United States. The pontiff accepted with a smile, saying: “For me it is an honour if the Americans attack me.” Francis added that, although an outright schism in the church would be highly undesirable, he is not scared of that prospect.
The very fact that Francis mentioned the s-word was seen as a sign of intra-church arguments moving into new territory. In the most extreme scenario, traditionalist prelates might formally declare that Francis had lost all moral authority and start consecrating like-minded bishops without papal approval, as Marcel Lefebvre, an ultra-conservative French archbishop, did in the 1980s. The breakaway group would then be excommunicated. But for now, that still seems far-fetched. In the assessment of Francis himself, “today we have pockets of rigidity which aren’t a schism, but they are [in] semi-schismatic ways of life that will end badly.”