Romans woke up last Saturday to a disturbing sight. Posters featuring a stern-looking Pope Francis had been plastered all over the historic city centre. “Ah Francis,” they said in Roman dialect, “you’ve taken over congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored cardinals … but where’s your mercy?” Workers swiftly took down the notices or covered them with “illegal advertising” signs, but not before they had sent a jolt through the Catholic world.

The anonymous posters were a nod to the Roman tradition of pasquinate, where nameless citizens criticised the authorities by leaving messages on the city’s statues. Popes were frequent targets during the era of the Papal States, but rarely after the unification of Italy.

As we went to press, the posters’ creators were unknown. Most commentators blamed “conservatives” or “traditionalists”, though one Italian theologian suggested it was the work of “a small but ideologically violent underworld of clericofascism”.

While the posters’ provenance is unclear, their message is easily understood: that the media image of Pope Francis as a gentle pastor belies his true authoritarian nature. The chosen photograph, which shows a glum-looking Pontiff shivering during an outdoor general audience, is widely circulated on the internet by papal critics who see it as evidence that Francis isn’t always the radiant, smiling figure he appears to be.

The posters prompted a debate about the Pope’s popularity. Is the Holy Father less beloved than is widely supposed? Not according to most surveys. A poll in December gave Francis an 85.8 per cent approval rating among American Catholics, up from 84.2 per cent. In 2014 the Pew Research Centre found that 84 per cent of Europeans view him favourably, as do 72 per cent of Latin Americans.

But, as we learned elsewhere in 2016, opinion polls do not tell the whole story. While Pope Francis is much loved outside the Church, his most ferocious critics are lodged within it. Do they form a recognisable group? The veteran Vatican commentator Marco Politi thinks so. He calls it a “movimento del sacro incenso”, a “movement of holy incense” – a pious, clerical-led reaction to Francis’s far-reaching reforms.

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