A culture war is brewing over Pope Francis’s revolutionary tenure, with conservatives and traditionalists pushing back against what they see as a liberal momentum surging within the Roman Catholic Church.
Despite the uproar, the first Latin American pope has not yet ushered in any substantial changes in policy. But he has given space to liberal bishops who are pressing for new policies, including a controversial bid to bend the rules that now technically ban divorced and remarried Catholics from the most sacrosanct part of Mass – taking the Holy Eucharist. In the meantime, he has radically transformed the tone of his office, making a number eye-raising gestures and pronouncements that have liberals cheering and conservatives shaking their heads. Here’s a look at 8 of his most notable statements.
1. Even atheists can go to heaven
When: May 2013
Why: Francis heralded what would be a revolutionary new tone to his papacy by reminding the faithful that even those who do not believe in God can ascend to heaven if they lead good and honorable lives. Later in the year, Francis would give an exclusive interview to an atheist Italian journalist, in which he called efforts to convert people to Christianity “solemn nonsense.” In an earlier homily in May, Francis would famously say: "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! 'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone!"
2. Careerism in the church
When: June 2013
Why: Francis delivered a shot across the bow of traditionalist church leaders soon after taking office, warning against the angling for advancement and position in the hierarchy that seemed to haunt the tenure of this predecessor. In an address to young priests in June of that year, he went as far as to call careerism in the church a “leprosy”
3. 'Who am I to judge?'
When: July 2013
Why: On a flight back from his visit to Brazil, Francis struck a different note on homosexuality than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who had once described it as an “intrinsic moral evil.” In contrast, Francis had this to say about homosexuals: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
4. The globalization of indifference
When: November 2013
Why: Francis hit what would become a major theme of his papacy in his first apostolic exhortation, a sort of papal white paper, that was unsettling to some conservatives, particularly those in the United States. He slammed consumer culture, corporate greed and the notion of trickle down economics. He wrote, “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
5. Transgender audience
When: January 2015
Why: Francis has been criticized by some liberals for once equating theories that gender identity lies along a spectrum with “nuclear arms.” Yet in a quietly arranged meeting at the Vatican, Francis welcomed Diego Neria Lejarraga, 48. Born a woman, Lejarraga later underwent a procedure to become a transgender man. Once called “the devil’s daughter” by a local priest in his native Spain, Lejarraga sought solace from Francis in a meeting privately confirmed by Vatican officials. Francis invited both Lejarraga and his fiancee to the Vatican for an audience. When Lejarrage asked the pope if he had a place in the church, the pontiff reportedly responded by embracing him.
6. Papal encyclical on the environment
When: June 2015
Why: Francis thrust the Church front and center into the climate change debate, effectively calling pollution a sin and citing a moral obligation for a binding international agreement to combat global warming. His public stance jarred some conservatives and climate change skeptics. The socially conservative Australian Cardinal George Pell told the Financial Times, “the Church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters.”
7. Forgiveness for woman who have abortions
When: September 2015
Why: Francis opened a special, temporary “mercy” window to make it easier for women who have abortions and confess to get back into the full good graces of the church. Just as many of his gestures, this one appeared more symbolic than practical, at least in the United States. Technically, abortion is a “mortal sin” in the church, and a priest hearing confession would need to be vested with authority from his bishop to grant forgiveness. In practice, though, most U.S. bishops have already bestowed such authority to priests. But Francis’s call for mercy marked another change in tone.
8. A streamlined annulment process
When: September 2015
Why: Ahead of a major Vatican meeting next month on issues like remarriage and divorce, several procedural changes announced by Francis are aimed at accelerating and simplifying the lengthy end-of-marriage procedure. Among them is allowing bishops, rather than just a church court, to nullify a marriage (a power that they could also push to priests). Last month, the pope asked the clergy to keep "open doors" to Catholics who remarry.