ROME — Early in Pope Francis’s pontificate, the sense of expectation was enormous.
He spoke simply and powerfully. He eschewed the typical trappings of papal luxury. He was seen as an outsider and a natural reformer. He stirred some trepidation among conservatives, but not enough to override the global adulation. “The People’s Pope,” Time magazine called him, naming him person of the year in 2013.
On Monday, it will be 10 years since Francis was elected pope. In that time, he has retained many of his personal hallmarks, and he has altered the Catholic Church in important and potentially enduring ways, including by making pillars out of issues such as migration and the environment.
But the sense of possibility has diminished, replaced by greater discontent. Conservative opposition has intensified. Just as important, Francis has also faced criticism from the church’s left, a flank led by Germany, where some leaders say he hasn’t gone far enough in remaking an institution in crisis.
His famous “Who am I to judge?” comment, made months into his pontificate, marked a tonal shift in how popes speak about LGBTQ Catholics — but Francis hasn’t changed official church teaching, which calls homosexual acts “disordered.” Meanwhile, he has opened opportunities for women, but only by the smallest of degrees. His managing of the clerical abuse crisis has been uneven, and he has erred in his handling of cases involving people close to him.
In leading the church, Francis has found himself caught between two poles, transforming too much for one side, not enough for the other. He has been a reformist pope — kind of. He is also a product of an institution that is almost always slow-moving.
Where has Francis made the biggest marks?
Francis’s election as the first Latin American pope nodded to the church’s internationalization, and his moves as pope have hastened that trend. Europe, with its emptying pews, is no longer Catholicism’s epicenter, and Francis has run the church with that in mind. He has traveled to Catholicism’s new growth zones, including in Africa and Asia, and named cardinals from parts of the world that were previously less represented. He has raised the odds that future popes will be like him: non-Western.
Francis has also positioned himself as a sometimes-lonely voice pleading for the world to recognize the humanity of immigrants. While politicians across the West have rebuffed his message, building walls and other barriers to asylum seekers, Francis has washed the feet of immigrants, visited with them on most overseas trips, spoken constantly about their rights, and even flew a dozen out of a dire migrant camp in Greece. He has tried his best to keep a spotlight on the often-overlooked desperation of millions around the world.
He has also positioned himself as a climate change pope, in ways that will probably prove prescient. Rarely before Francis had the environment been a church point of emphasis; now it is. In 2015, he devoted an encyclical — a major papal document — entirely to the environment, warning about the dangers of exploiting nature, and framing protection of the planet in moral and social terms. Lucetta Scaraffia, a historian and former editor of a Vatican magazine who has criticized Francis on some issues, called that document a “work of genius” and a highlight of Francis’s pontificate.
“He made it clear that the poor would pay the dearest price for robbing nature,” Scaraffia said.
Francis has seemed most at ease when vouching for the vulnerable, and he met a global moment, with the coronavirus pandemic, when so much of humanity felt unmoored. Even early in the pandemic, he focused on secondary consequences: the isolation of the elderly, the “catastrophe” of school shutdowns and distance learning. And for a while, he transformed the communication style of the Vatican, appearing alone via live stream, including most memorably during Italy’s lockdown, when he delivered a blessing in a vacant St. Peter’s Square, drizzly and cast in bluish light.
Francis has also done more than his predecessors to foster a climate of inclusivity and acceptance. His “Who am I to judge?” remark resonated around the world. More recently, he has decried national-level laws criminalizing same-sex relationships, including in countries where the Catholic Church holds major clout.
Many members of the LGBTQ community “appreciate no longer being treated as rejects, as it had been under previous popes,” said Aurelio Mancuso, president of Equality Italia, a civil rights group. But Mancuso noted that church teaching still hasn’t changed.
Where has Francis fallen short?
Francis’s tenure has coincided with more bruising revelations about the scale of the clerical abuse crisis. And though he has acknowledged the systemic nature of the problem, and taken some unprecedented steps — like holding a major abuse-related summit at the Vatican — he has also failed to make the church’s response to the issue more transparent. His signature rules for holding bishops accountable are applied inconsistently, with little explanation. The church doesn’t share information about clerics, including high-ranking ones, who are punished. Francis has shown himself reluctant to act forcefully on allegations against people close to him, including Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta.
On abuse, Francis has “basically failed,” said Emiliano Fittipaldi, an Italian investigative journalist. “The practical effect of the actions he took is close to zero, regardless of triumphalist tones.”
Francis has also struggled to build a consistent message on the epochal event of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Especially in the early months of the war, he confused many Catholics with his hesitancy to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, and with his attempts to maintain neutrality, emphasizing that wars have victims on both sides. At one point he appeared to echo a Kremlin talking point, describing the “barking of NATO at Russia’s door.”
Francis would eventually become more vocal in his critique of Russia, comparing its campaign to a “genocide,” but by that point he had already drawn several rebukes from Ukrainians in government or in the church.
“When war broke out, he just improvised,” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian. “And he ultimately managed to make Ukrainians unhappy.”
Francis has also moved slowly in promoting the role of women in the church. The Vatican is not nearly the all-men’s world it was 10 years ago — the percentage of women employed by the Holy See has ticked up slightly during this pontificate. But it is still exceedingly rare for women to hold senior positions. (He has unequivocally stated that women cannot be priests.)
In 2020, he also backed away from making a major new exception to Catholicism’s clerical celibacy rules, declining to allow married men to serve as priests in the Amazon as a way to offset a severe shortage. That left Francis’s liberal allies, including bishops in Latin America who had recommended the change, to wonder whether questions about celibacy might be on hold until at least the next papacy.
What’s next for this pope?
Though knee problems hinder his mobility, Francis still has big trips ahead, including next month to Hungary, and in the summer to Portugal. He’s also floated the idea of venturing to Mongolia and India. He has said he theoretically would be open to resigning if his health were to worsen significantly, but he has also said, in repeated recent interviews, that he has not reached such a point.
He will have a chance to continue to appoint new cardinals who share his vision for the church. The number of conclave-eligible cardinals appointed by conservative predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II will continue to shrink.
Francis could yet release new church teaching documents. (The theme of contraception is one rumor.) Meanwhile, a major, and controversial, church process is underway, focused on enlarging the “tent” of the church. That process, known as a synod, has so far involved consultation with local churches, and will culminate in two assemblies at the Vatican — one this year, one next. The assemblies are shaping up as firecrackers, because the question of how the church enlarges and exists in the world is also connected to hot-button issues, like its stances on family, homosexuality and the role of women. Francis is convening different parts of the church that have very different opinions.
“It’s a moment of internal crisis whose consequences will be seen in the next few years,” said Mancuso, with Equality Italia. “But he must be praised for not censoring this debate.”