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The year of Pope Francis

The pontiff has big plans to reshape the Catholic Church in 2015

December 30, 2014 2:00AM ET

In January 2014, Italian sculptor and pop artist Mauro Pallotta explained the inspiration behind a series of paintings depicting Pope Francis as a Marvel-esque superhero, cape and all. “I thought of representing this pope, Francis, as a superhero,” he said, “simply because, according to me, he is one of the few people who, having a real power as a pope, he uses it for the good.”

This year saw further realization of Pallotta’s depiction: Francis established himself as a crusader against economic exclusion, perpetrators of violence and clergy who flaunt wealth and abuse power. Still, Francis’ most impressive gambit is his farthest ranging: a genuine effort to challenge rigidity and cynicism both inside and outside the church.

In March, Francis and President Barack Obama met for the first time. The two leaders expressed similar thoughts on the problem of income inequality and the need for immigration reform, but departed on the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate. That Francis held the hard line on the politics of life didn’t do much to redeem him in the eyes of congressional Republicans, who hesitated to honor him in summer because of his many remarks about the failures of trickle-down economics.

But Francis has remained suspicious of gross accumulations of wealth within the church as well. In the same month as his meeting with Obama, he ousted Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the “Bishop of Bling,” who boasted a $43 million residence in Limburg, Germany.

For the pope, genuinely pro-life politics are rooted in a powerfully inclusive vision of economics, a point he hammered home in a May meeting with officials from the United Nations. Francis called for global leaders to direct their attention to the “structural” causes of poverty, protections for working-class families and dignified labor for all.

“Specifically,” he said, “this involves challenging all forms of injustice and resisting the economy of exclusion, the throwaway culture and the culture of death, which nowadays, sadly, risk becoming passively accepted.” Needless to say, Francis’ remarks served as a direct affront to the bizarre marriage of anti-abortion and consumerist free-market ideologies in the United States, and his conservative American detractors were as vociferous as ever.

Addressing the U.S. immigration crisis, Francis was adamant that the rights and dignity of immigrants, especially unaccompanied children, be respected. “This humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure,” he wrote in a letter to the Mexico–Holy See Colloquium on Migration and Development, “these children be welcomed and protected.” He was equally censorious of the role played by racism and xenophobia in social and political hostilities to immigrants.

As violence in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq intensified during the summer months, he ventured into the role of peacemaker. Popes before him have taken up this mantle, including John Paul II, who campaigned for the protection of Bosnian Muslims facing genocide in the 1990s. Likewise, Francis’ approach centered on a dedication to the lives threatened by conflict rather than to partisan preferences for outcomes. In July he phoned Israeli and Palestinian leaders to plead for peace, and in August he stressed restraint and a multinational collaborative response to the persecution of religious minorities by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Pope Francis’ approval ratings remain stellar, with 67 percent of Americans (and 88 percent of U.S. Catholics) rating him favorably and only 13 percent unfavorably.

Francis’ conciliatory efforts have been just as powerfully focused inside the church as outside it. In early August he reinstated the Rev. Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, who was suspended from clerical activities for his involvement in Nicaragua’s Sandinista movement in 1985, pursuant to a Vatican ruling against clergy holding political office — a move that sought to cripple the activities of Latin American Catholics committed to liberation theology. A class-based popular movement started by Latin American Catholics in the 1950s, liberation theology has been criticized over the last several decades by Vatican officials for its socialist politics and association with leftists in the region.

Along with supportive remarks made about the beatification of Oscar Romero, the assassinated archbishop of San Salvador and a major figure in the rise of liberation theology, Francis’ outreach to former activists has some wondering if the pontiff’s gestures might signal reconciliation with many of the positive, fruitful aspects of the movement.

September proved a monumental month for progress in accountability for the church’s history of child sex abuse. Francis placed former Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski under house arrest in Vatican City in late September, pending an investigation of Wesolowski’s alleged abuse of children in the Dominican Republic. Shortly thereafter, Francis removed Paraguayan Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano pursuant to accusations that the bishop protected an Argentine priest accused of committing sex crimes in the United States.

Meanwhile, Francis has continued to add victims of church sex abuse to his advisory council on the abuse crisis, indicating an ongoing commitment to rooting out the rot in the church while seeking forgiveness from its victims. External groups, such as the U.N.’s Committee on the Rights of the Child, have nonetheless found fault with the church’s response. An early February report released by the committee criticized the secrecy with which sex abuse cases have been handled so far and called for the Vatican to establish clear, consistent mechanisms to respond to cases of abuse in conjunction with legal authorities.

Some Catholics have expressed displeasure with Francis’ approach. October featured the first half of the Synod on the Family, a meeting of church officials meant to hash out questions of divorce, remarriage, the role of gay and lesbian Catholics in the church and other “pastoral challenges” in the context of the family. Francis’ affinity for flexibility and honest contemplation on matters affecting modern families led to all manner of paroxysms in the church, a tendency augmented by the reassignment of a popular conservative cardinal near the end of synod proceedings. Nonetheless, Francis’ approval ratings remain stellar, with 67 percent of Americans (and 88 percent of U.S. Catholics) rating him favorably and only 13 percent unfavorably. In fact, his popularity among Catholics and non-Catholics alike has continued to grow over preceding quarterly polls.

As a kind of year-end culmination of the pope’s commitment to collaboration and reconciliation, the recent announcement of a normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba appears to be indebted to Francis’ efforts. The pontiff reportedly wrote letters to American and Cuban leaders some time ago and hosted delegations from both countries at the Vatican for talks in October. In a now familiar pattern, congressional Republicans have already expressed outrage over the restoration of relations with Cuba. But if the pattern holds, Francis once again executed a masterstroke that will withstand the censure of reactionaries.

Francis does not appear to be resting on such laurels. Since the outstanding impact of his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” in November 2013, Vatican officials have hinted at an upcoming encyclical penned by the pontiff on the subject of climate change. Now it appears that the release of the document is imminent. In a lecture last month, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences announced that Francis will publish an encyclical on the environment ahead of two summits on climate change in the upcoming year.

The encyclical will arrive on the heels of an essay published in the journal Science by professors from the University of Cambridge and the University of California at San Diego arguing that religious leaders have a vital role in effecting a concerted global response to threats to the environment. Francis appears to agree.

With stellar approval ratings among U.S. Catholics, Francis has the influence and moral credibility to shatter Christian reticence on climate change. At this point the backlash is predictable — especially among American conservatives — but the critical momentum of his campaign against structural injustices just seems to keep growing.

Since the inception of his papacy, Francis has provided a Catholic viewpoint that calls into question political alliances that ignore key Christian commitments — to succor the poor, abhor violence and protect the environment. Having recently delivered a withering critique of Vatican bureaucracy, Francis’ willingness to move outside traditional venues for reform, coupled with his influence among his flock, spells a powerful potential for change in the coming years. 

Editor's note: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified Pope Francis' approval rating with U.S. Catholics. We regret the error.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is a Ph.D. student in religion and critical thought at Brown University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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