Pope Francis in the Wilderness

Within the church, Francis, a Jesuit, has been assailed by conservatives threatened by his efforts to undo three decades of their domination, as well as by liberals who had hoped for even more. Both sides complain that the pope is taking the church in the wrong direction and that he has been ruthless with his opponents.

Lucetta Scaraffia, editor of the monthly magazine Women Church World, said that expectations among some secular liberals that Francis would ordain women were “unrealistic,” and that the pope had purposefully taken “little steps” to avoid engendering more resistance. Just this month, she pointed out, he appointed three women as consultants to the church’s doctrinal watchdog.

There has also been more widespread consensus on his failure to hold bishops accountable for clerical sex abuse. It is an issue in which — despite recent notable apologies — critics say he has demonstrated a remarkable tone deafness.

But it is Francis’ prioritizing of social justice over culture-war issues such as abortion that has caused the sharpest internal divisions, with a small but committed group of conservative cardinals publicly suggesting that he is a heretical autocrat leading the faithful toward confusion and schism.

“Dictators usually are not nice,” said H.J.A. Sire, the author of “The Dictator Pope,” one of several new books by conservative Catholics that criticize Francis’ effect on the church. “He is able to present this very subdued image, but people know behind the scenes he works very effectively to hit at his enemies.”


At the time of Pope Francis’s election five years ago, global political trends seemed to be going his way.

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Conservatives, accustomed to getting their way over the past three decades, speak of a culture of fear inside the Vatican — and worry about Jesuit spies reporting back to Francis.

They point to examples like Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, once the top doctrinal watchdog in the Roman Catholic Church.

Last year, the pope ordered Cardinal Müller, an ideological conservative who is often at odds with Francis, to fire three priests in his congregation. He said the pope did not give him a reason.

“I’m not able to understand all,” Cardinal Müller said at the time, when asked why Francis had sent them away. He added, “He’s the pope.”

Then the pope fired Cardinal Müller, and observers say he has since stripped the once-powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the protector of church orthodoxy, of its power, replacing it with his own council of loyal cardinals.

They also point to the way the pope has essentially sidelined Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, the conservative leader of the Vatican office overseeing liturgy, and removed the conservative leader of the medieval Roman Catholic order the Knights of Malta.

When it was revealed that Mr. Sire, a member of the order, was the author of “The Dictator Pope,” which had been published under a pen name, he was suspended from the order by the new, pope-approved leader.

“It is an example of the way critics are persecuted under Pope Francis,” Mr. Sire said.

But the main rallying point for conservatives has been the doctrinal opposition to the pope’s exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which contained a footnote that seemed to open the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive holy communion.

A small group of cardinals demanded a formal clarification from Francis, who has ignored them for years. Two of the cardinals have since died, but the group’s leader, the American cardinal Raymond Burke, has pushed on.

On a recent Saturday, Cardinal Burke sat on a panel in the basement of the Church Village hotel in Rome for a conference about confusion in the church. As he noted that the pope can “fall either into heresy or into the dereliction of his primary duty,” conservative supporters cheered him on.


Pope Francis met migrants at the at the Moria detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016.

Andrea Bonetti/Greek Prime Minister’s Office, via Getty Images

“They matter: Catholics look to cardinals for moral leadership,” said the Rev. James Martin, an editor at large with the Jesuit magazine America and a papal appointee to the Vatican’s secretariat for communications.

But he said that the cardinals, not Pope Francis, were generating confusion in the church.

“The crashing irony is that some of the same people under John Paul II and Benedict XVI said that any disagreement with the pope is tantamount to dissent,” Father Martin said.

Francis usually lets his supporters do the trench fighting for him, but he seemed to have his conservative critics in mind for a major document released this month, in which he bemoaned the harsh attacks in Catholic media.

For a Christian, he wrote, helping migrants was no less holy than opposing abortion.

“Christianity is meant above all to be put into practice,” the pope wrote.

Francis appears to be winning the battle with his conservative critics, said Joshua J. McElwee, a Vatican correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter and co-editor of “A Pope Francis Lexicon,” a collection of essays about Pope Francis.

“He is one of the last absolute monarchs in the world, and what’s happening is he has a vision and he has time to put it in place,” Mr. McElwee said. “The longer he continues, the more likely these changes will be irrevocable.”

Outside the church is another story. Armed only with gestures and prayers, Francis has often found himself on the losing side.

Donald J. Trump, who Francis once suggested was “not Christian” for his desire to build a wall on the Mexican border, is in the White House. In Europe, increasingly authoritarian leaders — among them Andrzej Duda of Poland, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — style themselves as defenders of Christian Europe while barring the gates to migrants and refugees.

Closer to home, in Italy, elections in March rewarded the League, an explicitly anti-migrant, right-wing party led by Matteo Salvini. Mr. Salvini visits with Cardinal Burke and makes a point of referring to the pope’s conservative predecessor instead of Francis.

“Happy holy Christmas also to Pope Benedict, who recalled the right not only to emigrate but to not emigrate and defend our history and our culture,” Mr. Salvini said at a rally in Rome in December.


A number of Chilean Catholics reacted with disappointment and anger when Pope Francis, on a visit to the country, defended a bishop who they say protected a pedophile priest.

Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

Francis has also made it clear that, globally speaking, he does not like the way things are going.

On the day that Mr. Trump was sworn in as president, the Spanish newspaper El País asked Francis if he was worried about populism, xenophobia and hatred. The pontiff responded with a reference to Hitler.

“Hitler didn’t steal power,” Francis said. “His people voted for him and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk.”

Some of Francis’ supporters believe that he is uniquely prepared to face this rising populist tide because he understands it.

“Francis’ election prepared the church for precisely the challenges posed by the rise of populism and nationalism,” said Austen Ivereigh, the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”

He said that Francis’ views were formed in Argentina by a Latin American strain of nationalism and populism focused more on standing up to multinational powers than a European nostalgia for a past of mythic purity.

Nevertheless, his economic critique of transnational powers allowed him to appreciate the grievances of frustrated and unemployed workers.

“He understands why people are angry at globalization,” Mr. Ivereigh said.

But whereas Pope Francis sees migrants — from Myanmar to Milan — as the primary victims of globalization and unrest, the nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic see them as a hostile, unsettling force.

For anti-immigrant populists, the pope simply doesn’t get it. The former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, for example — himself a Catholic — likes to call Francis a communist for his economic policy and the pontiff from Davos for his cultural elitism.

In an interview after the Italian election, in which populist parties won the majority of the electorate’s support, Mr. Bannon said that the result was “a big no vote to the Vatican, not to Catholicism, but particularly these policies.” He rubbed his hands together as he added, “Which you know I got to love.”

But Francis seems comfortable with his new role as a lone voice in the populist wilderness.

This month in the Casa Santa Marta, the residence he has chosen over the grand Apostolic Palace, Francis gave a homily about prophets.

“Sometimes truth is not easy to listen to,” Francis said, noting that “prophets have always had to deal with being persecuted for speaking the truth.”

“A prophet knows when to scold but knows also how to throw open the doors to hope,” he added. “A true prophet puts himself on the line.”

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Doris Burke Has Game

She is particularly obsessed with the end of close games, when she will rewind plays three or four times to make sure she has properly digested them.

By the time she arrives at the arena for a morning shoot-around, Ms. Burke usually has something fairly specific she wants to nail down. On this day, she was interested in defense — specifically, how the Bucks planned to stop Mr. Simmons. Before long, Ms. Burke bee-lined to the Bucks’ 27-year-old assistant coach, Josh Broghamer, who would not have looked out of place at a high school rec league.

Mr. Broghamer seemed almost surprised by the attention. He described how the Bucks planned to pressure Mr. Simmons far away from the basket to make it easier for his defenders to get around screens (essentially stationary blockers) that the Sixers might set.

“How much are you changing schemes?” Ms. Burke asked, alluding to the concept of changing defensive tactics midgame.

“I don’t know that we’re changing schemes,” he said. “But you have to get back and play D.”

You could watch Ms. Burke make her way through game day and forget that a woman, and not one of the dozens upon dozens of men from over the years, was doing this job.

Still, there are some challenges that only she must deal with.

After lunch and a little downtime, she changed into her broadcast attire and caught a car back to the arena. She had set aside more than an hour for her makeup session before a 5:45 p.m. interview she planned to tape. But because of some confusion over where the makeup artist would meet her, the process took a little longer than usual. At 5:35, Ms. Burke had to hustle to a locker room on the other side of the building, where Phil Dean, her producer, and the play-by-play man, Mark Jones, were idly passing the time. Mr. Jones had left the hotel an hour later and looked smart in a gray suit and fuchsia tie.


Ms. Burke typically builds in an hour for her session with a makeup artist before doing her on-camera interviews.

Mark Makela for The New York Times

(And Ms. Burke must endure an additional indignity: “Is anybody in here? Hello?” she called out as she walked around the corner to a bathroom.)

There are also subtle ways that men treat her differently. “I’ve had more coaches in pregame meetings apologize for cursing,” she said. “I’m like, ‘I swear like a pirate. You don’t have to worry about that.’”

Even some who work closely with her can have the occasional blind spot.

In February, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced that it would give Ms. Burke its top honor for writers and broadcasters. A colleague who’s a play-by-play announcer, Mike Breen, promptly sent her a congratulatory text saying she set the standard for women in basketball broadcasting.

When he next saw her, he apologized. “I needed to take out the word ‘female,’ and say she’s the best broadcaster in the business,” Mr. Breen said. “I’m an idiot for using it.”

From Big East to Big Time

In 2003, ESPN approached Ms. Burke with a proposition: How would she like a spot on the network’s top men’s college basketball broadcast?

Ms. Burke, an all-Big East guard at Providence College in the mid-1980s, had been calling games since 1990, when she gave up a career as an assistant coach in order to start a family. She had progressed from calling women’s college games on radio to men’s games on television, even men’s and women’s pro games. By the late 1990s, she was doing dozens of broadcasts each year.

But the offer came with a catch: Ms. Burke would have to work the sideline — conducting interviews and doing short bits humanizing the players — while the broadcasting fixture Dick Vitale did the color analysis.


At the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, a few hours before game time, Ms. Burke and Mr. Jones prepared for player interviews.

Mark Makela for The New York Times

Mark Shapiro, then an ESPN executive vice president, told Ms. Burke that it could be a serious reporting job, not fluff. “There was a notion that sideline reporting was a chance to showcase diversity,” he told me. “The men would be in the booth, and if there’s a place for a woman broadcaster, it’ll be on the sideline. Making the stereotype worse was that sideline reporters needed to be pretty. It was ridiculous. It was overdue to be called out.”

Still, Ms. Burke was hesitant. She had always thought of herself as an analyst. “My whole push was I wanted to do all basketball,” she said.

Other female analysts had the sense that there was a double standard. A man hoping to become an analyst on a major broadcast would typically start off doing less visible jobs and land higher-profile analyst assignments as he progressed. Former N.B.A. players like Tim Legler and Mark Jackson largely followed this path. Female analysts, on the other hand, often seemed to be diverted to the sideline at a certain point — and many stayed there for years.

“I had seen so many women get pigeonholed,” said Kara Lawson, a former University of Tennessee and W.N.B.A. star who started her career as an analyst in the early 2000s.

Ms. Lawson, who became the full-time analyst for the N.B.A.’s Washington Wizards in 2017, said she had rejected numerous offers to work the sideline over the years. “The basketball guys are not doing years of sideline,” she said. “I saw myself as one of them.” (TNT has used former men’s players on the sideline in special “players only” broadcasts since 2017.)

Ms. Burke’s solution to the problem was, in effect, to work two or three jobs at once. She appeared in dozens of games as a sideline reporter, then dozens more each year as an analyst, frequently for regional coverage on lesser ESPN channels.

By the early part of this decade, she had made it by any reasonable measure: She was the regular sideline reporter for the N.B.A. playoffs, including the finals; a regular analyst on ESPN for some of the highest-profile men’s and women’s college games; and an occasional N.B.A. game analyst.


Ms. Burke behind a player getting help with pregame preparations. “The older I’ve gotten, the more I have paid attention to disparities, or what I consider to be different treatment,” she said.

Mark Makela for The New York Times

But the pace of the work was preposterous. “It was three separate jobs,” her adult daughter, Sarah, told me. “The anxiety came with ‘I was so focused on the N.B.A. the past six days, I haven’t had a chance to see this one team’ — going into the game with that kind of pressure.”

Ms. Burke, who is divorced, could have been forgiven for wondering when she would finally get a promotion that allowed her to focus on the premier telecast: men’s professional sports.

Andrea Kremer, a longtime ESPN reporter who now works for HBO “Real Sports” and the NFL Network, said she believed there was a failure of imagination among male broadcast executives. She recalled having lunch with a top ESPN executive nearly 10 years ago, when the network was on the verge of filling its analyst opening on “Monday Night Football.”

“He was saying, ‘ We’re going to go unconventional and blow everybody away,” Ms. Kremer recalled. The executive swore her to secrecy and then revealed the name: Jon Gruden, at the time a former head coach of the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I was laughing,” she said. “Really? If you want to be unconventional, I’ll tell you who to put in the booth. Put me or Michele or Suzy or Pam” — that is, the longtime sideline reporters Michele Tafoya, Suzy Kolber and Pam Oliver.

Susan Bordo, a gender and women’s studies professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of “The Destruction of Hillary Clinton,” said another element was mostly likely at work: Women tend to be viewed favorably when they’re in a supporting role but suspiciously when they’re seen as trying to advance themselves.

The sideline reporter role “provides a certain comfort that the gender roles are in place,” Ms. Bordo said.


Ms. Burke “has the gift for making the complex simple,” the Dallas Mavericks’ coach, Rick Carlisle, said.

Mark Makela for The New York Times

She speculated that, in the same way that many women were able to have accomplished political careers when they succeeded their deceased husband in office, it would be easier for a woman to succeed as an analyst after many years in a supportive sideline role.

“Some women are going to do better in the public imagination when they’re seen as having been devoted wives first,” she said.

For most of her career, Ms. Burke said, she often felt something ranging from indifference to icy skepticism, even outright hostility from certain fans. A picture mocking her swollen eyes, after a brutal travel schedule, once circulated on the internet.

But about three or four years ago, much of the skepticism began to melt. “The reception toward me is fundamentally different,” she said. “It is so fundamentally different when I walk into a building.”

In 2016, the video game NBA 2K, which is beloved by players, promoted Ms. Burke from sideline reporter to color analyst. “I will say they enhanced my body parts in that game,” she said. “I have a fairly significant backyard, but they enhanced it slightly.”

Then, in September, life imitated PlayStation. When a regular position in ESPN’s analyst rotation opened up, Ms. Burke, with a nudge from her friend and colleague Jeff Van Gundy, called ESPN’s lead N.B.A. producer to express interest in the job.

The producer couldn’t give her an immediate answer but did not play especially coy. “I think by the end of the day we’ll have some good news for you,” he said.

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