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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"[W]e should be thinking [this church] is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people," he told La Civiltà Cattolica. "We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Pope Francis: a unique pontiff
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He is also moving toward more transparency for the Vatican bank, which has been plagued by scandals and recent claims of money laundering. In October, the 126-year-old bank published its financial accounts for the first time.
Catholic reformists are also anticipating changes in women's leadership, and permission for divorced and remarried Catholics to take the Eucharist. They also have some hope that the Vatican will address strict rules on priest celibacy, says Rene Reid, who organizes the global Catholic Church Reform group.
Lucetta Scaraffia, a scholar of Catholicism in Rome, hopes a woman could be named president or vice president of the pontifical councils – a monumental shift that, she says, could stem scandals in the future. "The sex abuse scandal might not have happened if more women were in chief positions," says Ms. Scaraffia.
Those Catholics seeking more radical change could be in for disappointment, says Ms. Reid. "Some in our group wish [more leadership for women] would lead all the way to the ordination of women. That's not going to happen."
The skeptical compatriots
Others are less anxious about the future, because they're still riddled with doubt about the past. While Pope Francis enjoys immense popularity – a new Pew poll of American Catholics, for example, shows that 79 percent have a positive view of him – his reputation was tarnished in Argentina by claims that the church was silent during the military reign from 1976 to 1983 when an estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped and murdered. Some of the victims' families have condemned him for not taking a public stance. "Bergoglio has not cleared his name yet in Argentina. There are many things to which he has a moral obligation to respond," says Estela de la Cuadra, whose sister was "disappeared" in 1977.
He has also been criticized by those who say his talk of the poor today is not genuine. While liberation theology, which championed the poor but was also entwined with Marxist politics and armed insurgency, took root across Latin America, Bergoglio stood apart from it, earning a reputation as a right-winger.
In his interview with the Jesuit magazine, he addressed some of his past mistakes: "My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative.... I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems."
While Catholics hailed those statements as proof of courage – a man able to learn from mistakes – it did not ring true to all. Rubén Rufino Dri, a philosophy professor at the University of Buenos Aires and a former member of the Priests for the Third World, says Pope Francis is using the poor as part of a discourse to strengthen the Catholic Church in Latin America. "He's a great actor, trying to make us think this is a revolution. But he is not humble. He is simply leading the Vatican's attempt to win back the streets in Latin America, where popular left-wing governments and Pentecostals here have taken power and followers away from the church."
'Fun' to be a Catholic again
Another point that might seem incongruous to observers today is Pope Francis's rise as a media darling from his austere – even shy – style in Argentina. Suddenly he makes headlines for making impromptu telephone calls and writing letters. He phoned Carlo Petrini, the president of Slow Food, to speak about rural farming, and wrote to the cofounder of La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist.