Pope Francis is a conundrum.

From a pontiff of glorious colours of liberation and freshness, he suddenly turns into a complacent grey and a very Latin American conservative. He promises much but, it must be said, delivers little.

The world shook just a little when, during a 2013 interview, the leader of more than a billion people said that we shouldn't judge when it came to homosexuality. Could it be, would it be, was it possible? The answer was no. It appears that he wasn't actually speaking of openly gay people but those "struggling" with their sexuality, and under his regime the Vatican has made it even more difficult, if not impossible, for even celibate gay men to be admitted into the clergy.

Authoritarianism vs. reform

Catholic liberals and progressives have certainly felt empowered under Francis, but when they ask themselves what this has actually meant in the parishes, churches and pews, many admit that it's mostly holy smoke and Roman mirrors. It is true that some conservative cardinals and church leaders have been effectively exiled or dismissed, but this may be more of a sign of Francis' authoritarianism than of genuine reform. Observers on the left as well as the right have commented that reactionary Benedict was far more tolerant of dissent than liberal Francis.       

Conservative Catholics may often be difficult and bewildering – I for one have felt their abuse when I left the Roman church and publicly supported equal marriage – but without them in the past 50 years, the Roman Catholic Church would have been in enormous trouble. After the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the church's numbers hemorrhaged, seminaries emptied and teaching was eccentric. It was usually conservatives who held the line, and Francis has been telling them for almost four years that they've got it wrong, that they are superstitious and foolish and that the people they revere are Pharisees.

Vatican Christmas

Recently, when speaking of irresponsible reporting, Francis said that people “have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia.” (The Associated Press)

Indeed he dismisses those with whom he disagrees as being Pharisaic quite often, demonstrating not only a misunderstanding of who the Pharisees actually were, but the same severely judgmental strain of which he accuses his critics. (The Pharisees were, in fact, some of the most faithful and egalitarian of Jewish activist at the time of Christ; it is because they were in direct competition with the new Christian movement they are so harshly treated in the New Testament.) Just recently, when speaking of irresponsible reporting, Francis said that people "have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia." For those who don't own dogs, that's eating excrement. Nice.

One of the few areas where the Catholic Church has at least opened the door to allow change to come in for a chat is whether to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.         

Yet many leading clergy, including a number of cardinals and some of them close to home, have expressed concern not only at the move, but also at how it was carried out. They argue that they were not consulted, and even that canon law is being broken.

Whispering campaign

The result has been a campaign against them that is sometimes quite shocking in its cruelty and its sinister nature. Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, who had experienced the Soviet persecution of organized Christianity, told an audience that the reaction to dissenting bishops, "is a proof of the climate in which we actually live in the Church right now. We live in a climate of threats and of denial of dialogue towards a specific group." He was doubtless referring to the whispering campaign concerning their character and motives, and some of them being demoted.

It is not hyperbole to say that the Roman Catholic Church is at its most divided in 50 years. Highly influential Catholic commentators question whether the Pope is speaking for Catholicism or something entirely different. Reading between the lines – and this is something none of them would say publicly — one wonders if they genuinely accept that Francis is actually a valid pontiff.

Francis is certainly acutely political and has brought harsh Argentinian ways into church debate. But while jettisoning some of the awful pomp of previous incumbents, Francis has reintroduced certain atavistic papal attitudes about power. He is also 80-years-old and not in good health. When it's time to elect a new pontiff, be prepared for a fight the like of which we haven't seen in Rome in centuries. Not a hungry lion in sight, but lots of teeth and claws.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.