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Pope Francis, superstar

He has raised expectations that he can bring major change to the Roman Catholic Church

Updated: March 14, 2014 9:11:12 am

Pope Francis marked the first anniversary of his papacy on Thursday having become so globally celebrated that he recently felt compelled to deflate his own “superman” aura. He is a star of magazine covers and social media, praised for his welcoming, non-judgemental persona, his embrace of the poor and his decisiveness in moving to reform an ossified Vatican bureaucracy. Year 2, however, is likely to prove more challenging, if partly because of Francis’s own success. He has raised expectations that he can bring major change to the Roman Catholic Church — even as opinions differ on what changes are needed, and which ones Francis actually supports.
He has become one of the most recognised and popular figures in the world yet his public comments are often deliberately ambiguous, as he is careful not to get pinned down on ideologically charged issues. “What he is really trying to do is change the culture of the church,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter. “To reform an institution like the Catholic Church, you don’t just move boxes around in an organizational chart.”

The church agenda for 2014 is framed on the theme of family, which includes social issues that have alienated many followers in the US and Europe: the treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics; the church’s positions on homosexuality and same-sex marriages; abortion and contraception, and more. It is a highly politicised list, and Francis has encouraged debate and discussion rather than seeking to tamp it down as the church prepares for two major meetings, or synods, with the first in October. Yet in a global church of 1.2 billion followers, Francis faces a daunting challenge in trying to reconcile divisions and build a consensus for any changes that might be coming.
In February, Univision, the Spanish-language broadcaster, released a poll of 12,038 Catholics in 12 countries that revealed sharp geographic differences. Asked whether a Catholic who has divorced and remarried outside the church is living in sin, a strong 75 per cent majority of Catholics surveyed in Africa answered “yes”. By contrast, 75 per cent of Catholics surveyed in Europe answered “no”. It is the sharpest of divides that also touches on another pressing issue: Church attendance has been declining for years in Europe and the US, while it is rising in Africa and also in Asia, where the Univision poll also showed more conservative attitudes on some questions. Even so, the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics should continue to be barred from taking communion has emerged as an issue where many analysts believe Francis may try to steer change.
Many Vatican watchers noted Francis’s selection of Cardinal Walter Kasper, known for more liberal social views, as the main speaker for last month’s gathering of cardinals at the Vatican. Cardinal Kasper said Francis would not change Catholic doctrine but that he has also brought major change to the church’s culture, the perception of the public and the emphasis on tolerance and respect. And pushing change on social issues will take time and tact, even for a pope, the cardinal added.
Francis, an Argentine, is the first non-European pope in centuries and his election alone signalled major change for a church long dominated by Europeans, especially Italians. A majority of his first batch of appointed cardinals came from poorer or non-Western countries. And in a signal of the rising importance of Asia, Francis will visit South Korea in August, after a trip to the Holy Land in May. He has also talked about visiting Africa. This is the bigger tent of which Francis is a symbol, and which he hopes to expand, even as many are fervently hoping he can somehow create a consensus for change on social issues.
So far, Francis’s huge popularity has largely inoculated him from critics on the left and right, but criticisms may gather more sting as the pope wades more directly into social issues. Many conservatives in the US have felt disillusioned with how Francis has de-emphasised issues like abortion. Some women pushing for a greater role in church affairs — including the possibility of female priests — have been underwhelmed, while advocates for victims of clerical sex abuse were furious with the pope’s recent defence of the church’s handling of the crisis.

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