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Pope Francis: Is the people's pontiff a revolutionary? (+video)

Pope Francis 'gets' the vast Roman Catholic middle – and that, alone, may be revolutionary for a pontiff. He may delight the world by veering from Vatican script on such issues as gay marriage, abortion and contraception, but will he change the ancient church?

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The pope himself has said he is no St. Francis. But he admires him for being "a man who wants to do things, wants to build, he founded an order and its rules, he is an itinerant and a missionary, a poet and a prophet, he is mystical," Pope Francis told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper. "He found evil in himself and rooted it out. He loved nature, animals, the blade of grass on the lawn, and the birds flying in the sky. But above all he loved people, children, old people, women."

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Many Catholics, however, see St. Francis in the pope. He has condemned the "idol called money." He just expelled a German bishop, dubbed the "Bishop of Bling," for his over-the-top spending on a diocesan residence. He urged high clerics not to drive fancy cars and then accepted a 29-year-old Renault 4 from an older Italian priest; he uses it to putter around Vatican City. His preference for a simple white cassock and skullcap led one fashion writer to wonder if it will inspire more austere looks from Italy's designers. He said he decided to live in a no-frills apartment in the Vatican guesthouse, instead of the Apostolic Palace, partly because he wants to be around a community of people.

"He doesn't want the big car or the gold cross, or to be protected by a lot of policemen. He wants contact with the people," says Andrea Tornielli, an Italian journalist who has met the pope. "He is not saying that all the people around the world have to be the same. But he is setting a big example."

The papal mystery: Is he right or left?

When Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, Pope Francis was at the helm of the nation's Catholic Church, which opposed the law. But as pope, on a flight back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro, where he celebrated World Youth Day in August, he said to reporters: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?"

Technically the substance of his words wasn't new: The church has always proclaimed mercy for all. But the statement created excitement among liberals and concern among conservatives, which all intensified when, in a subsequent interview with the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, he blasted an obsession with culture-war issues: "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods."

"It sent a message that didn't sit well with a lot of pro-lifers," says William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who says the pope's off-the-cuff style has confused many conservatives. He personally doesn't believe the pope is a "closet left-wing secularist." Still, he says, liberal American Catholics, who once selectively ignored papal statements that went against their ideologies, now line up behind the pope and point at the right for defending church teachings. "The left smells a certain victory right now," he says.

In many ways, the pope's positions on these issues reflect his origins in Latin America, where the terms liberal and conservative have different meanings than they might in the United States, Africa, or Europe. Latin Americans tend to be conservative on issues of sexual morality, for example, but more liberal on questions of economy, war, and environment.

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