World First Look

Pope Francis speaks out against 'injurious words'

In his weekly Angelus address, the pontiff said that he 'who insults his brother kills that brother in his heart.'

Pope Francis waves to faithful from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square during the Angelus noon prayer at the Vatican, Sunday.
Alessandra Tarantino/AP
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Pope Francis spoke out against insults in his weekly Angelus address Sunday, in what some interpreted as a response to mounting criticism of the pontiff from conservative Roman Catholics.

The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" applies not only to literal homicide but also to "those behaviors which offend the dignity of the human person, including insulting words," Francis said in his address at the Vatican. "Certainly, these injurious words do not have the same gravity and sinfulness of killing, but they are placed on the same line, because they are the premises of the more serious acts and they reveal the same malevolence."

"Please, do not insult!" he added. "We earn nothing by doing so." 

The remarks followed a week in which the pope faced heightened criticism from conservative Catholics after intervening in the Knights of Malta order. The mounting tensions come as many traditionalists in the Vatican view the election of President Trump and the rise of his chief strategist Steve Bannon as a potentially significant development, as The New York Times reported last week

Until now, Francis has marginalized or demoted the traditionalists, notably Cardinal [Raymond] Burke, carrying out an inclusive agenda on migration, climate change and poverty that has made the pope a figure of unmatched global popularity, especially among liberals. Yet in a newly turbulent world, Francis is suddenly a lonelier figure. Where once Francis had a powerful ally in the White House in Barack Obama, now there is Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon, this new president’s ideological guru.

For many of the pope’s ideological opponents in and around the Vatican, who are fearful of a pontiff they consider outwardly avuncular but internally a ruthless wielder of absolute political power, this angry moment in history is an opportunity to derail what they see as a disastrous papal agenda. And in Mr. Trump, and more directly in Mr. Bannon, some self-described “Rad Trads” — or radical traditionalists — see an alternate leader who will stand up for traditional Christian values and against Muslim interlopers.

Last week, after Francis named a top Vatican archbishop, Angelo Becciu, to be his special delegate to the ancient Knights of Malta order, dozens of posters appeared around Rome featuring a scowling Francis and references to the "decapitation" of the Knights along with other actions the pope has taken against conservative groups. The posters also accused Francis of having "ignored cardinals," apparently referring to Cardinal Burke and three others who have publicly asked the pontiff to clarify whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are allowed to receive Holy Communion. 

Shortly after, a fake front page of the Vatican's official newspaper containing a fake interview with Francis was sent to cardinals and bishops by an anonymous source. In the interview, Francis answers "yes and no" to a question regarding his position on whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive communion. 

The content of the anonymous attacks on the pope is not particularly surprising, observers say. But the delivery is unprecedented. 

"Francis is not the first pontiff to fall victim of rumors and fabrications. Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI were all unfairly criticized at some stage. What's new here is the way the rumors are spread. It's a sign of the times," Antonio Spadaro, the editor-in-chief of the Jesuit newspaper Civiltà Cattolica, told NBC News. "This is the proof that the pope has enemies and his role as a moral and religious leader is unsettling to some."