On paper, the Pope is not a very powerful head of state. He rules over a tiny country, less than one square mile with fewer than one thousand residents. His influence and soft power, however, extend to well over one billion individuals throughout the world. Because Popes rule until they die or resign, the ascension of Pope Francis is an event of global significance, even for non-Catholics.
The Papacy was losing influence in the beginning of the 20th century. Masses, still held in Latin, were alienating it from the modern world, where most religions performed services in the local vernacular. Pope John XXIII’s 1962-1965 Vatican Council helped bring the church into the modern era, modernizing prayers and services and switching to vernacular masses. The church was further invigorated by the innovative leadership of Pope John Paul II, who behaved much differently from Popes before him. He was the first pope to truly recognize the importance of Catholic constituencies in Africa and the Americas, travelling around the world and speaking to peoples who had never been visited by the Pope before. By canonizing nearly 500 saints, many from outside Europe, John Paul sought to bring new life and energy to the church. He also actively campaigned against communism in his native Poland, making the Pope relevant in secular politics. His death in 2005 marked the end of the longest Papacy in nearly 500 years.
However, Pope Benedict the XVI, who followed John Paul II, received a much more lukewarm response from both the Catholic and secular worlds. He was involved in the cover-up of child abuse within the church, and his internal letter instructing church officials to avoid going to the police earned harsh criticism. This, in addition to the fact that Benedict drew skepticism for his childhood membership in the Hitler Youth, meant that he was hardly positioned to make great reforms for the church, and his scholarly attitude coupled with his lack of charisma kept him from reaching the masses. Despite this, Benedict’s decision to resign in 2013 came as a surprise, as no Pope had resigned since 1415.
Pope Francis comes to the Papacy at a strange time for the Church. The largest and most powerful religion in the world, Catholicism is growing much more slowly than other world religions such as Mormonism and Islam. Although it commands many believers throughout southern Europe, enthusiasm for the Roman Catholic Church is at a historic low in countries like Spain and Portugal, where many self-identifying Catholics rarely, if ever, attend masses. The Church’s largest and most devoted populations are now located in Latin America and Africa, as Western public opinion has moved against the Church in recent years. Its conspicuous wealth under Benedict was seen as hypocritical by secular critics. Increasingly liberal public opinion on issues such as condoms and gay marriage, as well as the continued controversy surrounding child sex abuse by clergy, has further alienated many from the Roman Catholic Institution. The College of Cardinals chose Pope Francis II to face these issues in perhaps the direst period in recent Catholic history.
So far, his rule appears to be a resounding success. The US general public views him with a favorability rating of about 58%, up from Pope Benedict’s numbers, which were as low as 40%. He began by greatly simplifying Papal Regalia and the Pope’s throne. He earned praise for this display of austerity, and launched into a series of tours and statements that brought him much positive attention. His professed non-judgmental attitude towards gays have earned him much support amongst progressive groups in the US and Europe, and his rhetoric about poverty, charity, and capitalism has been radical enough to earn the criticism of Fox News. Focusing on eliminating poverty instead of condoms, Pope Francis’ message has been well received globally and has helped the Church experience a resurgence of popularity.
The Church has also been the subject of harsh criticism for a lack of financial transparency over the years, leading to speculation of corruption. Pope Francis has helped address this issue by having the Vatican bank publish its accounts for the first time and beginning to root out bishops and other clergy perceived as corrupt. The most famous case of this involves the “Bishop of Bling,” a cleric named Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany, who spent around $40 million dollars renovating his residence, and was forced to resign in public disgrace.
Pope Francis’ Bishop purging is not limited to issues of corruption. Two important Archbishops from St. Louis, Missouri were also forced away from positions on selection committees, greatly diminishing their power. Both of these clerics were very vocal on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, so it is speculated that Pope Francis removed them in an effort to tone down the church’s message on these very divisive issues. His rhetoric has reflected a desire to make the Church more “friendly,” famously saying “who am I to judge?” regarding gay priests. In another statement that drew global attention, he said that everyone has been redeemed by Christ, “even atheists.” Although these statements do not actually reflect any change in Catholic doctrine, they have nonetheless helped many liberals and humanists see the Catholic Church in a more positive light.
Nor has Pope Francis in any way changed official church doctrine regarding the toxic issues of abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, despite his rhetoric. This reflects the rather conservative ideology that the new Pope espoused during earlier parts of his career. For example, he is vehemently opposed to the idea of women priests, saying “the door is closed.” Although his opinion on contraception is unclear, with many different groups claiming different positions for him, he vocally opposed the Kirchner government’s plan to distribute contraceptives in Argentina when the program began. He also strongly opposes gay marriage, and when the issue was discussed in Argentina in 2010, he said that, “This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan.” He also participated in a pro-life march in Rome in 2013, further aligning him with the views of Pope Benedict.
It is fair to say, however, that Pope Francis has succeeded in revitalizing enthusiasm for the Catholic Church worldwide. His work on fighting corruption is an admirable and positive step beyond what his predecessors attempted. Secular observers have been torn over the new Pope, with many saying that he will bring the Church into the modern era and others saying that he represents a continuation of old trends. Time will tell what his long-term impacts will be.