By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis marks the 10th anniversary of his election on March 13 having outlasted the conservative opposition that failed to bring him down and which is now at a crossroads, seeking new direction following the deaths of two of its figureheads.
The conservative-progressive divide has been a recurrent theme of the past 10 years, since Francis first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in 2013 wearing a simple white cassock, shunning the red-and-gold coverings used for centuries.
Conservative cardinals and archbishops have accused Francis of sowing confusion by weakening rules on issues such as homosexuality and remarriage after divorce while focusing excessively on social problems such as climate change and economic inequality.
But events have left the conservative movement disoriented and, some experts say, rudderless.
Former Pope Benedict, who resigned in 2013 and became a standard bearer for conservatives who yearned for the return to a more traditional Church, died on Dec. 31 at the age of 95.
"The conservative world lacks a unifying vision, which is something that Benedict provided," said Sandro Magister, a veteran conservative author, journalist and blogger who has been critical of Francis.
"He (Benedict) has no real heir, no one able to inherit his legacy in a substantial way," Magister said.
A senior Vatican official, one of three high-ranking prelates who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many conservatives looked to Benedict "as a sense of security," even though, in the official's opinion, the former pope did not seek that role.
Conservatives also mourned the sudden death in January of Australian Cardinal George Pell, 81, who many had believed would succeed Benedict as chief conservative standard bearer.
Pell's apartment - in the building where Benedict lived until he became pope in 2005 - was a salon for visiting conservative Churchmen.
"In the last years of his life Pell was working to build a unifying network by meeting conservatives and also moderates. He wanted them to reflect on the central issues of the Church looking ahead to the choice of Francis' successor," Magister said.
Pell had written a memo in 2022 calling Francis' papacy a "catastrophe".
The senior Vatican official said: "He (Pell) networked and socialised with a lot of people and that made him a formidable force. Having that network collapse immediately one day probably has people disconcerted."
Two days after Pell's death, Italian bookstores began selling a memoir by Benedict's long-time personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein. It included scathing criticism of another conservative icon, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, exposing more internal fault lines on the right.
The conservative opposition to Francis has become more fractured, in part because of what Magister says is a flourishing of divisive extremism in Catholic social media, which has scared off some once vocal protagonists.
Age has also taken its toll. Two of the four conservative cardinals who became celebrities on right-wing media in 2016 when they launched an assault on Francis' teachings have since died. The other two have gone quiet, possibly because of age and illness.
Another former celebrity of the right was Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the ex-Vatican ambassador to Washington, who became a rallying point for many conservatives in 2018 when he published a broadside demanding that Francis resign.
Vigano has been largely discredited and kept at arm's length by many former backers, including some U.S. bishops, because of his support for political and COVID-related conspiracy theories.
"They (the conservatives) don't have anybody at the moment," said another senior Vatican official.
While most progressives within the Church have cheered Francis, 86, some have accused him of being too timid. In 2019 he held out the possibility of a married priesthood, albeit limited to remote areas in the Amazon with a shortage of priests, only to pull back.
Both sides appear to agree on one thing - that early in his papacy Francis underestimated the persistency of the Church's sexual abuse crisis, and was too trusting of bishops, particularly in Latin America, who tried to downplay it. They say he should have moved faster to implement stricter safeguards and penalties.
A survey of Catholic women in 104 countries taken by the University of Newcastle in Australia and released at the Vatican on Wednesday showed 80% of the more than 17,000 respondents said Church leaders were not doing enough to address sexual abuse and its cover up.
While the conservatives look for a new standard bearer to form a consensus ahead of the election of the next pope, Francis is forging ahead with his vision of a more inclusive and forward-looking Church.
He has now named about 64% of cardinals aged under 80 who would be eligible to elect a successor after his death or resignation. Church law puts a cap of 120 on the number of cardinal electors, although popes have gone slightly over the limit temporarily.
If Francis' health holds out, even for a few more years, he can appoint more electors, increasing the chances his successor will be someone who agrees with his vision.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)