It would not be an understatement to say Pope Francis has reached rock-star status. His image has graced the covers of Time magazine, Rolling Stone and even The Advocate, a gay-focused magazine. In March, Fortune called the pontiff one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders. Forbes says he is the fourth most powerful person on the planet. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. His approval ratings are sky-high. He even helped broker the historic diplomatic deal between the U.S. and Cuba in December.
But has he lived up to the hype?
“He absolutely lives up to the hype,” Robert Christian, editor for Catholic blog Millennial Journal, told International Business Times in an email. “Francis’ message is not that he’s perfect; it’s that this is who he is: a guy who cares deeply about the poor and vulnerable, who tries to live simply, who tries to build his life around his love of God and others. People can see with their own eyes this is true, and that’s why he is connecting with them.”
Bill Portier, a theology professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in U.S. Catholic history, is a self-professed “Pope Francis fan boy” who has given three talks so far this year on the popular pontiff. Even the most conservative congregations, he contends, have fallen for the so-called Francis effect.
Portier admits he initially wasn’t sure what to make of Pope Francis’ style. News reports said he preferred to live at the Vatican guesthouse over the luxurious papal apartments. After his move to Rome, he personally called to cancel his newspaper subscription in Argentina. He tweets regularly. His selfies have gone viral.
It was during Pope Francis’ visit to Brazil in July 2013 that Portier had a change of heart. When the pope’s motorcade drove off its designated route and got stuck in traffic, Francis rolled down his backseat window, waved to the crowd and kissed a baby a woman handed to him.
“Thank God I lived to see him,” Portier said. “He acts like Jesus and it seems to be real.”
This can be seen from Francis’ prison visits, comments he made denouncing slavery, human trafficking and the “barbaric violence” committed in Islam’s name in Iraq and Syria. He has met children with autism, installed public showers for the homeless in St. Peter’s Square, and thanked exorcists for showing “love for those possessed.”
At the Vatican, he has taken steps to reform the curia, the Holy See’s governing body. To do so, he picked eight cardinals to back him up. One ecclesiastical historian called the move the “most important step in the history of the Church for the past 10 centuries.”
In February, he appointed conservative Cardinal George Pell as the Vatican’s chief financial officer to clean up the Holy See’s finances. In December, Pell announced his office found hundreds of millions of euros “tucked away” in various accounts that had not been included on the Vatican’s balance sheets.
“He wants to go after clericalism and careerism in the clergy,” Portier said. “He wants priests to be compassionate, merciful, accompany people and get the smell of the sheep on them.”
LGBT Acceptance - Maybe
Nicholas Coppola says this is something he has been searching for in the past year. The 49-year-old construction worker is a proud gay Catholic who went to Mass at his local Long Island (New York) parish daily until he married his longtime boyfriend. An anonymous complaint led his priest to bar him from his volunteer posts. While he could still receive the Eucharist, he felt shunned by a church he'd spent more than a decade serving. Now, he commutes to New York City’s St. Francis Xavier Church, one of a handful of Roman Catholic churches in the U.S. that has an LGBT ministry.
Despite this, Coppola says, “This is the most hopeful I’ve ever been about the church in terms of LGBT rights.”
Pope Francis is the main reason for his hopefulness. Three months after Coppola was shunned from his church, the Holy Father said at a , “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
The comment was deemed the year’s “most powerful phrase.” Gay rights groups hailed the fact that the pope did not refer to homosexuality with the term commonly used by past pontiffs, “disordered.” In fact, he left that concept out altogether, signaling a new tone in the Catholic Church. And while the pope did not change his stance on gay marriage or touch any church doctrine, it was enough for The Advocate to name him its Person of the Year.
The new tone was evident earlier this year when the pope convened a synod of bishops. More than 200 bishops debated issues surrounding the family, which included welcoming gays, divorced and civilly remarried couples to the church. Halfway through the two-week meeting a preliminary report known as a “relatio” was released.
The 12-page report acknowledged same-sex couples, describing them as “homosexual unions” that provide “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” for each partner in the relationship. While these unprecedented statements were later scrapped in the final version of the report, Coppola saw it as a sign of progress.
“The fact that we’re at the table is significant,” Coppola said.
But some marginalized groups within the church beg to differ. The pope appointed 14 married couples to speak at the synod. None of them were gay. None of them were divorced. Since women cannot be ordained, they were vastly underrepresented at the meeting. Just 15 percent of the 250 participants were women, according to advocacy group FutureChurch.
“The media has portrayed Pope Francis as pro-LGBT, but he has not changed any of the church’s official documents,” Ellen Euclide, director of programs at progressive Catholic advocacy group Call To Action, told IBTimes. “He has outright said he’s not for women’s ordination -- that women have their own separate roles in the church. That’s not what most U.S. Catholics believe. It doesn’t make sense in our real lives.”
In fact, lay Catholics in the United States constitute one of the most progressive groups in terms of acceptance of same-sex marriage. A recent Pew Research survey found 57 percent of U.S. Catholics are in favor of gay marriage.
Despite the attitude on the ground and what the pope has said, the language in the books has remained the same. Catholic catechism calls homosexual acts “intrinsically disordered" and “contrary to natural law,” and adds that such acts do not “proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.” And canon law states that "only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination" since Jesus Christ chose male apostles, which priests represent, and because of the fact that when God chose to take on human nature in the incarnation, it was as a man, not a woman.
“One thing Pope Francis has repeatedly said is that he is not changing Church teaching or doctrine,” James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College, told IBTimes. In fact, his positions are aligned with his predecessors. What has changed is the tone.
“One of the pope’s primary jobs is to provide moral leadership, so a change in tone or focus can be a substantive change,” the Millennial Journal's Christian said. “This is what we are seeing with Francis. His focus on the poor and vulnerable, on going to the peripheries, on welcoming those who feel isolated and alienated -- these aren’t doctrinal changes, but they are incredibly important nevertheless.”
Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis
The clergy sexual abuse crisis -- where thousands of priests have been accused of abusing children over a span of 60 years -- is arguably the largest problem the modern Catholic Church faces. It is also the area where Pope Francis has been lagging, according to David Clohessy, the national director of SNAP, or the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests -- a 12,000-member U.S.-based organization representing victims of clergy sexual abuse. He has wanted doctrinal change for just as long. But he is met with the challenge that most advocacy groups have: Dealing with a 2,000-year-old institution that moves at a very slow speed.
Between the ages of 12 to 16, Clohessy has memories of his childhood priest molesting him during overnight skiing, hiking and boating trips. He suppressed the memories for years, he said, until they flooded back in his mid-30s. He later discovered three of his siblings said they were abused as well.
One of those siblings -- his younger brother Kevin -- later became a priest. When Clohessy went public with his claims in 1992, one of the youth supervisors in his diocese came forward with a list of names of clergy who teenagers told her “made them feel uncomfortable” during overnight trips. One of those names was Kevin’s. He reportedly would get drunk with the boys and make sexual advances. An 18-year-old said Kevin fed him alcohol and carried him to bed.
In 1993, Kevin was removed from his post and entered a treatment program. Church officials said the allegations against him were “inappropriate and serious” but the sexual behavior was “not criminal, in that it did not involve anyone below the legal age of consent.” He was relocated to a different parish. To the best of Clohessy's knowledge, Kevin is currently working at a funeral home. He was not criminally prosecuted or defrocked.
“With each new pope it seems that there’s more talk, promises and apologies, but little to no decisive reform,” Clohessy said. There are roughly 6,400 priests who have been publicly accused of sexual abuse in the U.S. Clohessy suspects there are more who have been protected by their bishops.
It was only in the past six months or so when Pope Francis began speaking about the crisis. In May, he met with sex abuse victims and called the allegations an "ugly crime" akin to performing "a satanic Mass." In June, Polish Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski was defrocked after a Vatican tribunal found him guilty of sexually abusing minors. During a homily given in July, Francis called for “zero tolerance” of sex abuse by clergy and met with six more victims. In November, he created a panel of clergy and sex abuse victims that will advise the Vatican on child protection policies. They will meet for the first time at the Vatican on Feb. 6-8.
For Clohessy this isn’t enough.
“In so many other areas the pope’s word is all he has. In terms of peace, hunger, inequality -- the pope can’t do anything about those things except exhort. He has incredible power with the abuse crisis,” Clohessy said. Catholics, he added, should “judge him by his deeds and not his words in every area of his papacy.”