NPR

After 5 Years As Pope, Francis' Charismatic Image Has Taken Some Hits

The pope has focused on the poor and boosting interfaith dialogue. But he has attracted criticism over his handling of issues including clerical sex abuse and the status of women in the church.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd in St. Peter's Square on Sunday. Recent months have seen Francis become the target of criticism on various fronts, and his image as a charismatic reformer has suffered some hits. // AFP/Getty Images, Filippo Monteforte

Every Sunday when he is at the Vatican, Francis ends his remarks to the crowd in St. Peter's Square with a typical Italian saying: "Have a good lunch and arrivederci."

It's that common touch that has so endeared the Argentine-born pope to millions of people across the world, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, since his election five years ago, on March 13, 2013. But in recent months, Francis has also become the target of criticism on various fronts, and the image of him as charismatic reformer has suffered some hits.

Rather than scolding the faithful on issues of sexual morality — as his two predecessors did — Francis instead stresses the need for mercy. He has championed the cause of the poor and the environment and denounced what he calls the "globalization of indifference" toward refugees and migrants.

He sees the Roman Catholic Church as what he has called a "field hospital after battle, healing the wounds of the faithful and going out to find those who have been hurt, excluded or fallen away."

Francis has led by example, shunning the opulent papal apartment for a room in a Vatican residence and dining with other guests. And he has begun a process to decentralize power away from the Curia — the Vatican civil service.

But the pope has attracted criticism for his cautious opening of Communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics, a move that has prompted charges from some traditionalists that he is altering church doctrine — even committing heresy. Francis has repeatedly ignored their demands for clarification.

Most controversial of all has been the pope's handling of clerical sex abuse, which critics say has been inadequate.

"I was very hopeful in the beginning, when Pope Francis first came into office, but I think as time has gone on, I found myself becoming more and more disillusioned," says Marie Collins, an abuse survivor from Ireland who was raped by a priest when she was a child.

Collins was appointed to the pope's commission for the protection of minors in 2014. But she quit last year over the Curia's opposition to implementing the reforms proposed by the commission, despite the pope's assertion of zero tolerance.

"There is no point," Collins says. "All the words are of no use and the promises are of no use if we don't see real change. That is what has been lacking."

Following sharp media criticism of the pope's handling of the case of a Chilean bishop accused of not reporting a pedophile priest, the Vatican revealed last month that Francis meets "several times a month" with abuse victims.

Hans Zollner, a Jesuit priest and president of the Center for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, says he has been present on occasions when Francis met with survivors of sex abuse. "And I know how his heart goes out," he says. "I have seen him taking on the rage, the sadness, the lament, the tears, the desperation, the loneliness of survivors."

Nevertheless, several commentators have warned about the pope's "blind spot."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for Religion News Service, says Francis recognizes "that any priest involved in sex abuse has to be removed from ministry." But he stresses that bishops must also be held accountable for covering up for pedophile priests. And here, he says, "the pope is still not quite up to speed in recognizing that bishops who don't do their jobs need to be dealt with."

The status of women in the church is another controversial issue for many Catholics.

On March 8, International Women's Day, a group of Catholic women gathered in Rome to demand an equal role in the Catholic Church. One of the most outspoken was Mary McAleese, who served as Irish president from 1997 to 2011.

"I have to say that for me, as a woman, Francis has been a journey that has dwindled into disappointment," she says.

McAleese, who is pursuing a doctorate in canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said she is frightened that "our hierarchy has reduced Christ to this rather unattractive politician who is just misogynistic and homophobic and anti-abortion." She called on Pope Francis to include women at every level of the church structure, including decision-making.

"I think he is not strategic enough," she says. "He doesn't get it. Certainly in relation to women, he doesn't get it."

Reese insists that the pope is concerned about women's issues, including poverty in the developing world and trafficking of women.

But calling women in the church the "strawberry on the cake," as the pope did in 2014, is condescending, Reese adds: "He just does not know how to speak to women in the First World."

A master at blending the spiritual with the political, Francis has become a player on the global stage. Negotiation and reconciliation are pillars of this papacy, helping pave the way to the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations. His anti-war stance has won him goodwill in the Islamic world.

But his latest international foray — into China — gets mixed reviews. Reports that the Vatican is negotiating with China on the appointment of bishops have unleashed a clash among Catholic officials.

The church's goal is to restore unity between two different groups of Chinese Catholics. Seven million Chinese belong to underground Catholic communities loyal to the pope. An additional 5 million belong to the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, whose bishops are government-appointed. The Vatican would like a greater say in appointing the bishops.

The Vatican and Beijing have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1951. It is clear that with China's growing weight on the world stage, the Vatican — which has centuries of diplomatic expertise — does not want to be left behind.

But last month, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, made his opposition to the China-Vatican negotiations known on Facebook. He accused the Vatican of "selling out" and warned that "a church enslaved by the government is no real Catholic Church."

Underground Catholics, who have risked persecution and arrest for worshipping illegally, fear a deal would further curb their independence.

The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a China expert and director of the AsiaNews Agency, echoes those fears. He worries about what will happen if the pope is not granted a greater say in naming Chinese bishops.

"The government choose[s] candidates as bishops among the weakest, those who can be manipulated very easily" — and can be used, he says, as puppets of the government in what would become an official state religion.

Cervellera believes Chinese authorities fear all religions — but they fear Catholicism the most. "We fear you because you are so united. We cannot give freedom of religion to Catholics because it would be like making a hole in the dam and the pressure of the water would destroy the entire dam," he says a Communist Party official once told him.

"They fear their power will be destroyed," says Cervellera.

But Reese, along with several other analysts, agrees with the pope's opening to China. He says similar objections — "you can't talk to people who are violating human rights" — were voiced when Pope Paul VI negotiated with communist regimes in Eastern Europe and when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba.

Reese believes there is no other choice and the pope simply wants to make things better for Catholics in China.

"The Vatican is trying to make the best of a bad situation. The Catholic Church has to deal with the governments that exist, not with some ideal," he says.

Despite the controversies, Francis continues to enjoy widespread global popularity.

Interfaith dialogue is another of the pillars of his papacy, and his watchwords are "encounter" and "build bridges, not walls." He has shown no fear in criticizing Western powers: In his sweeping 2015 document on the environment, he said that behind the harm being done to Earth is what he called the "dung of the devil" — the unfettered pursuit of money.

But as he begins his sixth year as pope, a Pew Research Center poll shows that 58 percent of American Catholics say he represents a change "for the better" — more than half, but still a 10-point drop from four years ago.

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