Five Issues to Watch in Pope Francis' Third Year

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Pope FrancisCredit: AFP

AP - 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.

"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."

While every pope has faced some opposition, the paradox over Francis' enormous popular appeal and discontent within certain sectors mirrors the paradox of the pope himself.

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. And he insists that mercy — not morals — must guide the church's ministry.

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 of 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 — here 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.


Perhaps no unpublished papal document in recent history has generated more controversy, anticipation and anxiety than Francis' upcoming encyclical on the environment. The first Latin American pope has said global warming is "mostly" man-made, and that he hopes his document will encourage climate change negotiators meeting in Paris later this year to take "courageous" decisions.

That has thrilled environmentalists but alarmed religious conservatives, some of whom are global warming deniers and are cringing at the idea that the pope is taking a theological approach to climate change.

The Vatican official who helped draft the encyclical, Cardinal Peter Turkson, recently offered what was widely seen as a preview of the encyclical in a speech in Ireland. Turkson acknowledged disagreement over the causes of global warming but said "what is not contested is that our planet is getting warmer" and that Christians have a duty rooted in "ancient biblical teaching" to address the problem.

The document is expected in June or July.

Sex abuse

Francis' much-discussed sex abuse advisory commission got off to a slow start and still doesn't have any statutes to guide its work. But commission members are drafting proposals to protect children from predator priests, educate church personnel about the problem, and hold accountable bishops who cover up for pedophiles.

On that last point, Francis has something of a hot potato on his hands: In January, he appointed Bishop Juan Barros Madrid to take over the diocese of Osorno, Chile. In the ensuing weeks, something unprecedented happened: Some 1,300 Osorno faithful, 51 national lawmakers and many of the 35 priests from the diocese urged Francis to rescind the appointment, accusing Barros of having covered up for Chile's most notorious pedophile, the Rev. Fernando Karadima.

Barros has not responded to the accusations but the issue is likely to come to a head before his planned installation March 21.

Francis also has to decide whether to sanction Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to report a priest who had child pornography on his computer. Francis sent a Vatican investigator to the diocese, but has taken no public action.

The opposition

Traditional Catholics attached to the old Latin Mass have been wary of Francis ever since he emerged from the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica March 13, 2013 without the formal red cape his predecessors wore.

They have been joined in opposition by conservative prelates intent on preventing any change in church practice regarding whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion. They have been emboldened by the confusion that reigned during a meeting on family issues that Francis called last year, during which gays, civil unions and a host of hot-button issues were up for debate.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, removed by Francis as the Vatican's chief justice, has become their figurehead, saying hypothetically that he would "resist" the pope if he were to try to change church doctrine.

Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican's liturgy office, said the pope deserves not only respect but trust.

"Reading certain documents or statements, one might get the impression that he does not respect the doctrine," Sarah told the Catholic online network Aleteia. "Personally, I fully trust him and I encourage all Christians to do the same."

A concerted effort to prevent any change on current teaching and practice is expected when Round 2 of the debate gets under way at a synod on the family in October.

Foreign policy

Francis' crucial role in helping push along the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement was the clearest sign yet that that the Holy See aims to be a much bigger international player than under Benedict.

But there have been some hiccups: Francis caused a minor diplomatic incident when he referred in a private email to a friend that he feared the "Mexicanization" of Argentina in terms of drug trafficking. The Secretariat of State quickly doused the flames by insisting Francis meant no offense.

The big question that looms is China, where half of the estimated 8 million to 12 million Catholics worship in underground congregations, and where worship is officially allowed only in state-authorized churches outside the pope's authority.

The Vatican's top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, recently sounded an optimistic note, telling the magazine of the Franciscan religious order that things were "in a positive phase" with both sides willing to talk and that prospects were "promising."

In the Mideast, Francis has sent envoys, money and prayers to Christians besieged by ISIS, also known the Islamic State — and demanded that Muslim leaders take the lead in condemning violence committed in God's name.

His activism has found a fan in a frequent Vatican critic, the Catholic commentator Garry Wills, who said Vatican reform and pastoral ministry were "too narrow an assignment" for Francis.

"His real task, for which he is ideally situated, is to prevent the world's descent into religious war," Wills wrote in The Washington Post.

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