Pope Francis Ruffled Feathers, Excited Catholics In First Year

Audie Cornish reviews Pope Francis' first year with religion writer and blogger Rocco Palmo.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

Ever since Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped onto the Vatican balcony last March as the new pope and then hustled back to pay his own hotel bill, he's raised eyebrows. The images of Pope Francis at work have come nonstop. There he is washing the feet of inmates, spending his birthday breakfast with the homeless, posing for selfies with teens at St. Peter's Basilica. A shift in style, most certainly. But has Pope Francis also brought a shift in substance to the Vatican and to church policy?

We're joined now by Rocco Palmo. He writes for "Whispers in the Loggia," a religious blog chronicling the Catholic Church. Welcome, Rocco.

ROCCO PALMO: Any time, Audie. Happy new year.

CORNISH: So you've called the reaction to Pope Francis unprecedented. But he's not the first pope to be a media figure. I mean looking back to Pope John Paul, certainly. How is Pope Francis different?

PALMO: I think it's a couple of things. First of all, there is the novelty of a Latin American for the first time in over a thousand years; a pope from a place where half the Catholics are now in the world as Catholicism in Europe is declining. But also, while John Paul II was a media star, Francis has the luxury that John Paul didn't have in 1978 of the whole world being able to see him immediately. You know, through social media, through the Vatican's YouTube channel.

People are able to read every text, as opposed to the five seconds John Paul would have gotten on the evening news in 1978. So it's just that sense of immediacy but also that the close-ups don't hurt from the Vatican's TV station.

CORNISH: Going back to a September interview he was quoted as saying we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. Talk a little bit about Pope Francis and the way he parses out some of these hot button social issues.

PALMO: Well, the difference is not so much in substance but in tone and in emphasis. And so it's, you know, the stuff about the social issues I think has been over amplified. But really the other part of that quote that you brought up from the Italian interview some months back, was when he said, you know, the teaching of the church on these issues is clear. I don't need to speak about them because it's clear enough that I am a son of the church - period.

But if anything, again, the change of emphasis, I think. And he said but we cannot forget how often do we hear about stories of pregnant women who have been forced into a choice they didn't want to make and what has the church done for them. He's looking beyond the teaching and saying, look, you have to have a pastoral response to this, too. It can't just be you wagging your finger all the time.

CORNISH: I want to move on to the issue of the church sex abuse scandal. The Vatican's handling of it shocked and dismayed many U.S. Catholics. And what if anything has Pope Francis done to help the church move beyond that?

PALMO: Well, it's interesting because unlike his predecessor - who had supervised the cases in recent years, and actually presided over the defrocking of 10,000 priests from around the world - Francis didn't have much exposure to the scandals. It really hasn't broken in Argentina or really in practically all of Latin America the way it has in the U.S. So he's been, you know, really the last nine months, he's been getting a crash course in the life of the global church just as he was preparing to retire in Buenos Aires.

CORNISH: We've talked about areas in which Pope Francis has made a shift in tone, at the very least. Can you talk about areas that his critics say he hasn't done very much at all?

PALMO: Well, I think, you know, there has been criticism - from within some among the conservative wing of the church - that he hasn't spoken enough about social issues. But the main thing is going to be: What is the reform of the Vatican system of governance going to look like. And I think one thing we can look forward to is until now, you've had cardinals and bishops in the top three posts of all the 20 Vatican offices. But it's been indicated to me that at least one of those offices is going to be headed by a layperson, and probably by a laywoman - giving a laywoman, for the first time, executive power and the universal level of the church. And that's going to shatter every glass ceiling there is.

CORNISH: Realistically, how significant is a move like that? Or are people just really trying to read every tea leaf when it comes to this pope?

PALMO: When you look at the question of women's ordination in the church, you know, people are looking at it in not so much through the lens of priesthood, but because of a concept which Francis has repeatedly assailed call clericalism. It's essentially like a blue wall of silence among police. This sense of, you know, priesthood equals power. And Francis has said that that clericalism needs to be eviscerated from the life of the church. And so, woman holding a job that for a thousand years has been held the cardinals, I think that would be pretty significant.

CORNISH: Rocco Palmo, he writes "Whispers in the Loggia," a religious blog chronicling the Catholic Church. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PALMO: Anytime, Audie. Thank you.

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