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Taking Stock Of Pope Francis After Two Years On The Job


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Indira Lakshmanan. Pope Francis welcomed 20 new men to the College of Cardinals in Rome this weekend. Most of them are from outside Europe, making this one of the most geographically diverse groups in Catholic history. Quietly shaking things up is not knew for Pope Francis. He's been called the reformer, the people's pope, even the rock star pope. Yet, he's largely toed the line on the most controversial issues. Two years into his papacy, it's far from clear how much change Pope Francis will bring to the church. Rocco Palmo is a Catholic journalist who writes the blog Whispers In The Loggia, and he joins us now from Philadelphia. Welcome to the program.

ROCCO PALMO: Anytime, Indira. Thanks for having me.

LAKSHMANAN: Sure. I want to start with Pope Francis's record on social issues like marriage, birth control, tolerance for gay people. Has his stance on those issues been clear and consistent?

PALMO: Well, what you're calling a stance, and you have to be careful because this isn't kind of party platforms stuff that can be changed at will. This is sprung from the 2,000-year-old teaching of Jesus. So, you know, the pope has his marching orders, if you will, the same as the predecessors before him. But what the key to Francis has been over these last two years and the key to any role in the church is that there's the teaching, but there's also how it's lived out. And, you know, all of us being human, we're all sinners, you know. We all fall short in one way or another. And so you have to see the life of the church as more of a journeying together than as that kind of judgmental wagging of a finger.

LAKSHMANAN: He got a lot of attention last fall when he married 20 couples in a ceremony, and some of them had had unconventional family arrangements. There was, you know, at least one woman who had a child from a previous relationship. And, you know, also what he sort of suggested tolerance for people who've been divorced and remarried. Where does he stand on that?

PALMO: Well, again, there's the teaching, but there's also that lived experience. When you look at the stats of the Catholic Church in this country, 90 percent of couples getting married in Catholic Churches today are living together before they get married. So what do you want to do? Turn them all away? So he's basically saying, look, if people are coming, that means they have goodwill.

LAKSHMANAN: So an open door policy in a way.

PALMO: And that's always been the case, but because, again, when you look at the U.S., you have 25 percent of Catholics on average nationwide attend mass on Sundays, which means 75 percent don't, and they don't feel that door is open to them. So he's saying, you know, we really have to be better in terms of how what we say is perceived.

LAKSHMANAN: Can he compel priests and cardinals to follow his example, or is this just him expressing a personal opinion and hoping that they fall into line?

PALMO: As for the leadership of the church, you know, there are many who are on board with him, but one of the perks of being pope is that you have the exclusive power to appoint all the bishops in the world, and especially powerfully this weekend, you know, the members of the College of Cardinals who will elect his successor. And, you know, calling in these guys not from the great prestigious cities in the world, bypassing the United States again for the first time in 40 years, you know. You have new cardinals from Tonga, which has never had a cardinal before; from the Cape Verde Islands, places that never been thought of having a cardinal. And somebody said to me, it's not that these guys are going to elect the next pope, it's that one of them can be the next pope. And if that happens, you know, again, the pope has absolute power in the church. So it's basically, for anyone who wants to go back to the way things were before Francis, it's game over.

LAKSHMANAN: That's interesting. I mean, there has been unhappiness from some conservative Cardinals and traditionalists who have felt that the pope is moving away from church doctrine. I've heard others say, well, you know, this is how the progressives felt for the last 30 years under Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul the II so now the shoe's on the other foot. What is it about Francis that makes the conservatives feel so uncomfortable?

PALMO: I think there's a sense that, you know, because the conservative camp in the church, you know, has emphasized doctrine at the expense of, in many cases, real people and real - were making people feel so judged that they don't even want to give the church any of their time. And he's saying, no, we have to do better than that. You know, Jesus called everybody to himself, and if anything, the people who he judged most harshly were the religious authorities of his day.

And so really, it's kind of an example of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just this week, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a significant moderate in the church, who's the archbishop of Washington, wrote a post on his blog saying that dissent - and that's a very strong word in Catholic context - dissent from a pope, not just resistance, but people actively defying a pope, he said, has always been part of church history. And he didn't name any names, but he basically fired away at the conservative critics of Francis to say what every dissent, progressive or conservative, in the history of the church has had in common it's that people get upset at the pope for not doing what they want him to do. But it's not about them. It's about Jesus. It's about his church. And the Pope is not just the symbol, but the living evidence of the church's unity and its vitality.

LAKSHMANAN: Rocco Palmo is a Catholic journalist who writes the blog Whispers In The Loggia. Thanks so much for joining us.

PALMO: Anytime. Happy weekend, Indira. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.