This article is adapted from the new book THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church, published by Time Books.
Since his surprise election two years ago, Pope Francis has electrified and baffled the world in roughly equal measure. He’s launched Roman Catholicism on a reform path—though without altering its traditional teaching—and he’s tried to put a more compassionate and attractive face on its message. He has moved to address scandals and meltdowns that plagued the church under his predecessor and has done so in such a far-reaching and unexpected fashion that some of the Cardinals who elected him may be getting more than they bargained for. But on some fronts, the ultimate impact remains unclear. Here’s where Pope Francis’ reform campaign stands on five key issues.
1. Inequality: A TOUGH STAND ON BEHALF OF THE POOR
Before he became Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was known for his commitment to the villas miserias, or “villages of misery”—the vast slums that ring Buenos Aires. As Pope, he has said his dream is to lead a “poor church for the poor.”
Which makes Francis’ November 2014 text Evangelii Gaudium, or “Joy of the Gospel,” the Magna Carta of his papacy. In it, the Pope blasts the inequities of free-market capitalism. “We have to say, ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” Francis wrote. “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness. This opinion … expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the … prevailing economic system.”
The rhetoric is pointed, and controversial to some, like Rush Limbaugh, who has accused the Pope of dishing up “pure Marxism.” While it may be impossible to show that Francis has actually reduced poverty and inequality around the world, many observers credit him for putting the poor front and center.
2. Women in the church: PROGRESS WITH A CEILING
Francis is the first Pope ever to have worked for a woman—his Paraguayan communist boss at an Argentine chemical lab in the 1950s. Perhaps that’s part of the reason he has appeared passionate about giving greater attention to women’s voices.
So far, Francis has named a handful of women to powerful Vatican positions, including Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, as a member of the supervisory board for the Vatican bank.
Yet he has also firmly excluded the idea of female priests, and critics say he can be tone-deaf in talking to or about women, using terms like old maid, for instance. He has ducked questions about when a woman might be named to head a Vatican department, and in general he has been vague about what his pledge of “greater roles” for women in Catholicism means. He has also urged a “deeper theology” of women without explaining what that would look like in practice.
3. Sex Abuse: PROMISING BUT INCOMPLETE
Pope Benedict XVI left behind a mixed legacy on Catholicism’s child-sexual-abuse scandals. He was the first Pope to meet victims and the first to embrace a zero-tolerance policy. He moved aggressively to weed abusers out of the priesthood, removing more than 400 in his final two years alone. Yet critics say Benedict fell short of holding bishops around the world accountable for failing to deal with the scandals.
Francis has taken steps to try to complete Benedict’s unfinished business, including the creation of a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which is led by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston and includes two survivors of clerical abuse as members.
He has also launched a Vatican criminal trial for a former papal diplomat charged with abuse in the Dominican Republic, insisting that there will be no special privileges on his watch. In early February he dispatched a letter to all bishops saying “everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors.”
Critics nevertheless charge that progress under Francis has been halfhearted and slow. In 2014 he approved an investigation of Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City—to date the only American bishop found guilty of a crime for failure to report a charge of child abuse. Until victims see a prelate like Finn disciplined, many will argue that the Pope’s efforts deserve a grade of incomplete.
4. Vatican Finances: THE NUMBERS WILL TELL
Over the years, money has been a recurrent source of Vatican scandal. The roll call runs through the Vatican bank crises of the 1970s and ’80s all the way up to the arrest in summer 2013 of “Monsignor 500 Euro”—a onetime Vatican accountant indicted by Italian authorities as part of a cash-smuggling scheme.
Francis began his reform by creating an ambitious three-part structure: a Secretariat for the Economy with power to impose fiscal discipline and accountability; a Council for the Economy composed of heavy-hitter Cardinals as well as business professionals to oversee operations; and an independent auditor general to keep everyone honest.
To run it all, Francis brought in a tough-as-nails Australian prelate named George Pell. In mid-February, Pell reported to all Cardinals that his team had discovered $1.5 billion in hidden assets and a shortfall of almost $1 billion in the pension fund.
Pell and his team have their critics. Some members of the Vatican’s old guard believe it’s a reform in the spirit of the classic Italian novel Il Gattopardo: “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.” More will become clear when the secretariat submits its first audited financial statement later this year.
5. Diplomacy: A RETURN TO RELEVANCE
Late in Benedict XVI’s tenure, one of Italy’s best-known political writers compared the Vatican to the Republic of Venice in the late 18th century—a nation-state with a proud history, reduced to diplomatic and political irrelevance and standing on the brink of extinction.
Nobody’s making that comparison today. Francis has restored the papacy and the Vatican to a level of political relevance not seen since the 1970s and ’80s, with the role John Paul II played in the collapse of communism. A few examples: On Feb. 16, Francis condemned the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by ISIS-affiliated militants and called the slain hostages martyrs. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro credited Francis with paving the way for a deal to end tensions between their nations. And in 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Francis for helping to slow a rush to war in Syria by the Western powers.
While few doubt Francis’ political punch, some question how he exercises it. His line on Ukraine, for instance, has been faulted by many Ukrainians, including members of the Pontiff’s own Eastern Catholic flock there, for being overly deferential to Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church. And hawks on Syria wonder if the Pope’s main accomplishment there has been propping up a thug. That’s the problem with acquiring political capital: everyone now has an opinion on how Francis ought to spend it.
Allen, a former senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, covers the Vatican for the Boston Globe and its website devoted to Catholic coverage, Crux. This article is adapted from his new book THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church, published by Time Books.
This article originally appeared in the March 16, 2015, issue of TIME.
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