Pope finds popularity and dissent at 2-year mark

Published 9:37 am Friday, March 13, 2015

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis marks his second anniversary Friday riding a wave of popularity that has reinvigorated the Catholic Church in ways not seen since the days of St. John Paul II. He’s also entering a challenging third year, facing dissent from within on everything from financial reform to family issues.

Is the honeymoon over?

According to the Pew Research Center, not by a long shot, at least as far as ordinary faithful are concerned: Nine out of 10 U.S. Catholics have a favorable view of Francis, including six in 10 who have a “very favorable” view. Those are rankings not seen since John Paul’s rock star days. And they trump the favorability ratings for Pope Benedict XVI even among more orthodox, church-going Catholics.

Email newsletter signup

“Two years after his election, Francis has made the face of the papacy irreversible,” Italian Vatican analyst Marco Politi wrote recently. “Returning to a doctrinaire, absolute monarch, icon-pope will never be possible, without a dramatic loss in contact with contemporary society, believers and nonbelievers alike.”

Yet opposition abounds, most vocally among commentators but also some cardinals and bishops: Traditionalist Catholics have been joined by more mainstream conservatives who cringe at his mercy-over-morals priorities and apparent willingness to entertain pastoral approaches that might not follow Rome’s rulebook.

And two years on, he’s still an impossible-to-label pontiff, a social justice-minded Jesuit who firmly upholds church doctrine on abortion, but willingly counsels transgender couples. He calls himself a faithful son of the church but dismisses theologians as obstacles to evangelization.

Here are five things to look for in Francis’ third year, one that will take him to Ecuador, Paraguay and Bolivia in July, the United States in September, and a planned visit to the Central African Republic and Uganda at the end of the year.


Vatican reform

Francis was elected on a mandate to bring order and financial transparency to the Vatican administration after years of mismanagement and scandal. Tangible results have been achieved and more are on the horizon.

Francis gave Australian Cardinal George Pell, head of the new Secretariat for the Economy, broad powers to exercise “economic control and vigilance” over all Vatican departments, which have long operated as individual fiefdoms in both operations and budget.

Pell took that mandate and ran with it, reportedly seeking to bring management of some Vatican assets — including its vast real estate holdings — under his belt. That dismayed the Vatican old guard and legal office, which expressed concern about checks and balances. By all indications, Francis has clipped his wings somewhat: The statutes of the Secretariat which Francis approved last month make clear that it oversees, but does not manage, Vatican assets.

As with any reform plan, there has been opposition — from prelates resisting full disclosure and fearful of losing power. Francis didn’t engender much good will (or holiday cheer) with his Christmas dressing down of the Vatican Curia, when he ticked off 15 ailments they suffered, including “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”

While no heads are expected to roll, there will be some reshuffling once Francis’ first administrative reforms take shape, with the creation of two new congregations — one for laity, another for justice and charity — that will absorb a half-dozen smaller pontifical councils.