Photo courtesy of Reuters/Kham
German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich, blesses Catholics before a Sunday Mass on Jan. 10, 2016, at St. Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi during a visit to Vietnam.

VATICAN CITY — Vatican heavyweight Cardinal Reinhard Marx said there may be tensions within the Roman Catholic Church but stressed Pope Francis has the full support of his senior cardinals.

The German cardinal and archbishop of Munich and Freising was asked at a news conference on Wednesday (Feb. 15) why nine cardinals who advise Francis on the Vatican’s economic and structural reforms felt the need to defend the pope in a statement issued on Monday.

“We didn’t want to make a great drama but it was time to repeat that we support the pope and we are together with him,” said Marx, who is a close papal ally.

The Council of Cardinals, known as the C9, appeared to be responding to a spate of attacks from conservatives challenging the pope’s authority.

Marx acknowledged there were “tensions” within the church but stressed differences of opinion always existed.

“We have discussions in the church, normal discussions, tensions,” he said. “It will be forever like this.”

Marx said support and loyalty for the pope within the church was “substantial” and evident in the positive reception the cardinals received to their statement.

In that statement, the cardinals expressed their “full support for the pope’s work” and guaranteed “full backing for him and his teachings.”

The cardinals — from Australia, Austria, Chile, Congo, Germany, Honduras, India, Italy and the United States — customarily issue statements at the end of their two-day meetings but expressing solidarity for the pope was highly unusual.

On Feb. 4, anonymous activists plastered posters around Rome criticizing the pope for moves seen as targeting conservatives in the church.

The posters, which have since been removed, questioned the pope’s decisions and featured a stern-looking image of Francis with the question: “Where’s your mercy?”

They accused Francis of “ignoring cardinals” and ordering “the decapitation of the Knights of Malta,” an ancient lay Catholic religious order that runs hospitals and clinics around the world.

In September last year, four conservative cardinals, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, wrote to the pope seeking clarification of certain aspects of his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia.”

(Josephine McKenna is RNS’ Vatican correspondent)