From the very first time he appeared on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, in Rome, in 2013, Pope Francis has sought to demystify the papacy and cultivate an image of himself as a humble servant of the faithful. Standing before the multitudes gathered below, who had anxiously awaited the billows of white smoke announcing the selection of a new pope, Francis—formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires—chose not to deliver a formal inaugural address, as previous popes had done. “Brothers and sisters, good evening,” he said. He then joked about his prior distance—geographic and otherwise, perhaps—from the Vatican, noting that the cardinals tasked with naming a new pope had to look “almost to the ends of the earth” to find him. He offered a prayer for his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and then explained, in clear but ecclesiastically impeccable language, the mission of the bishop of Rome: to preside “in charity over all the churches.” Then he bowed to receive the crowd’s blessing and conferred a blessing of his own. And that was that. 

From that moment on, Francis has never wasted an opportunity to project an aura of humility. Images abound of him visiting families in their homes, enjoying a coffee, embracing a sick worshiper or kissing a small child, and even buying new glasses at an eyewear store. In encouraging such coverage of Francis, the Vatican has highlighted one of his principal messages: that Catholics can and should find God even in the ordinary circumstances of human life. It has also bolstered the idea that Pope Francis is not a distant and mysterious figure but a common man like everyone else, just one more follower of Jesus Christ among so many others. 

Despite these efforts—or perhaps in part because of them—Francis has proved to be one of the most polarizing figures in the history of the Catholic Church. He infuriates ultraconservatives and leaves traditionalists uneasy: a number of high-profile church figures have taken to the airwaves and social media to condemn Francis’ teachings. But he delights progressives, who welcomed his selection as pope as marking the end of a more than 30-year ecclesiastical winter during which his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, positioned the church as a bastion of religious conservatism in a rapidly secularizing world. 

Meanwhile, Francis confounds the media and journalists, who remain unsure how to cover him or how to narrate his papacy. The tale began clearly enough, with a wave of positive sentiment on the part of young people, liberals, and many Catholics who had drifted away from the church and who saw the new pope as an approachable, down-to-earth, and open-minded reformer committed to addressing the plight of the downtrodden and to protecting the environment. Such positions, along with the pope’s easygoing manner, earned him a form of pop-cultural celebrity never sought or won by his immediate predecessor, the dour and patrician Benedict. 

But in recent years, Francis’ story has shifted dramatically. “Pope Francis in the Wilderness,” declared a recent headline in The New York Times. “Today, Francis is increasingly embattled,” the article reported. “The political climate has shifted abruptly around the world, empowering populists and nationalists who oppose much of what he stands for. Conservative forces arrayed against him within the Vatican have been emboldened, seeking to thwart him on multiple fronts.” The article quoted Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, saying that Francis holds steadfastly to his goals even though “the world is going in another direction.”

To Change the Church, a new book about Francis and his papacy by the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, captures and in some ways embodies this backlash. Douthat, who identifies as a conservative Catholic, portrays Francis as an intelligent and perceptive man who has nevertheless recklessly endangered the church’s unity and some of its most important traditions. “Francis has not just exposed conflicts; he has stoked them,” Douthat charges. “He has not just fostered debate; he has taken sides and hurled invective in a way that has pushed friendly critics into opposition, and undercut the quest for the common ground.” Douthat predicts that Francis will be remembered for daring to blaze a new path but without giving enough thought to the preservation of the church’s institutions and norms. This mostly critical assessment is tempered with points of praise for Francis. Douthat recognizes that the pope has generated enthusiasm and credits him with helping restore Catholicism’s central place in the Western religious imagination. But Francis’ legacy, Douthat argues, will be marred by the tension and uncertainty his leadership has produced.

Douthat’s book is well crafted and offers a good deal of lucid analysis, but its primary argument misses the mark. Douthat overestimates the radicalism of Amoris laetitia (The joy of love), an important written work (formally called an “apostolic exhortation”) that Francis released in 2016 and that reflects on, among other things, the family and the status of Catholics who have divorced or remarried. Meanwhile, Douthat underplays the most important aspect of the Francis era: the pope’s effort to restore the poor to a central place in Catholic life

Nuns greet Pope Francis in Haemi, South Korea, August 2014.
Kim Hong-ji / Reuters


Douthat begins by placing Francis in geographic and theological context, which involves examining the church in Latin America and the branch of Catholic thought that emerged there in the late 1960s and which is referred to today as “liberation theology.” According to this school of thought, Catholics should consider the mysteries of faith by first analyzing reality and then applying the precepts of Christian Scripture, always with an eye toward creating what adherents term a “preferential option for the poor.” (Douthat describes liberation theology as “a synthesis between gospel faith and political activism, with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as a blueprint for social revolution.”) This line of thinking took some inspiration from the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, the multiyear reform program initiated by Pope John XXIII in 1962. The most important document produced by that council was Gaudium et spes (Joy and hope), in which the church embraced a mission to address “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted.” Liberation theology sought to make good on that pledge, and Pope Francis’ current emphasis on poverty represents a recommitment to it.

But as Douthat notes, Francis’ relationship to liberation theology is complicated. In 1973, Bergoglio, then only 36 years old, was named provincial superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina—the highest Jesuit official in the country. His predecessor in that role, Ricardo O’Farrell, had thrown his support behind “priests who wished to live as political organizers among Argentina’s poor,” Douthat writes, and had ordered “a rewrite of the Jesuit curriculum in which sociology crowded out theology.” This led to a minor revolt among more conservative Jesuits, and O’Farrell stepped aside. Replacing him, Bergoglio took a more moderate approach. As a result, Douthat writes, more radical priests believed that “their revolution had been betrayed,” and adherents of liberation theology “felt undercut and marginalized.”

But years later, after he was appointed cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001, Bergoglio became a constant presence in the villas, as the extremely poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of Buenos Aires are known. The intensity of his commitment to this population perplexed many observers; by that point, Bergoglio had developed a reputation for centrism on matters theological and political. He had walked a thin line during the “Dirty War” that roiled Argentina in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which saw the country’s brutal military dictatorship and its right-wing allies murder or “disappear” tens of thousands of suspected socialists and dissidents. Some Jesuit priests under his supervision who opposed the junta were imprisoned, tortured, and even threatened with execution. Bergoglio intervened with military authorities in order to secure the priests’ release and arrange for them to leave the country. He also helped a number of left-wing activists escape from Argentina, hiding them on church property, providing them with false documents, and driving them to the airport. But he never publicly criticized the military dictatorship; partly as a result, Douthat writes, “the entire Argentine church was a compromised force during the junta’s rule.” Later, in the years just before he became pope, Bergoglio butted heads with Argentina’s leftist president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, accusing her of corruption and cronyism. And yet, at the same time, he did not align himself with Kirchner’s upper-class, conservative Catholic foes.

Douthat underplays the most important aspect of the Francis era: the pope’s effort to restore the poor to a central place in Catholic life.

Bergoglio’s lack of ideological zeal set him apart from other clergy who ministered in the villas—the so-called slum priests, who were more tightly bound to liberation theology and who were often accused, sometimes by enemies within the Vatican, of being Marxists. But Bergoglio’s time in the villas clearly left a profound mark on him. As pope, he has said that he yearns for priests and bishops who have “the smell of the sheep,” that closeness to the poor is central to living out the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that he wishes to lead “a poor church for the poor.” 

Francis’ commitment to the poor is not solely a matter of words; he has also taken action. In 2016, he announced the creation of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, charged with centralizing the church’s work on “issues regarding migrants, those in need, the sick, the excluded and marginalized, the imprisoned and the unemployed, as well as victims of armed conflict, natural disasters, and all forms of slavery and torture.” The pope himself personally oversees the dicastery’s work on migrants and refugees, an issue of particular importance to him. During the migrant crisis in Europe in 2015, Francis called on clergy and laypeople alike to personally assist refugees. More recently, the Vatican established a fund to assist people fleeing political unrest and economic hardship in Venezuela.


Douthat acknowledges Francis’ “constant stress on economic issues,” especially “the crimes of the rich, the corrupting influence of money, the plight of the unemployed, the immigrant, the poor.” But Douthat is ultimately more interested in other aspects of Francis’ papacy. He focuses in particular on the clash between liberals and traditionalists produced by Amoris laetitia. Liberals embraced the document, which calls for priests to exercise “careful discernment” when it comes to family and marital issues and to “avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations.” The document proposes training priests in how to better understand and deal with family dysfunction and marital discord and encourages pastors to be supportive of single parents. Although it affirms that the church sees “absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,” the document also denounces violence against gay men and women, stating that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration.”

The document also states that priests have a duty to “accompany” divorced and remarried Catholics and to help them “to understand their situation.” It suggests reforming the slow process of obtaining a marriage annulment, which makes it difficult for divorced Catholics to remarry within the church. It also makes a passing reference to the fact that Eastern Catholic churches allow priests to marry, suggesting that “the experience” of those churches could “be drawn upon”—which some read as a tacit suggestion that perhaps Roman Catholic priests should also be able to marry.

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, November 2017.
Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, November 2017.
Max Rossi / Reuters

A number of conservative cardinals have expressed dismay at some of these passages. Douthat harshly criticizes what he characterizes as the document’s ambiguity on such core moral issues. Multiple interpretations are possible, Douthat argues, “and because the pope . . . declined to choose explicitly between them, all of them were embraced” in different ways by different people. Douthat worries about the factional divisions this has produced, which he fears will polarize the church, pitting “bishops against bishops, theologians against theologians” and risking an ecclesiastical war unlike any the church has experienced in decades. He faults Francis for allowing this damaging division to fester by refusing to respond to pointed requests from a number of cardinals to clarify some of the more controversial passages in Amoris laetitia. The pope, Douthat wrote in a New York Times column last year, has chosen “the lesser crisis of feuding bishops and confused teaching over the greater crisis that might come . . . if he presented the church’s conservatives with his personal answers” to their questions and charges.

There is no question that Amoris laetitia touched a nerve. But overlooked by much media coverage of the document, and to some degree by Douthat, is the fact that for many Catholics, the text represented a long-awaited invitation to renewal, allowing them to reconcile with a church from which they had distanced themselves. Amoris laetitia puts forward a vision of an inclusive church that stresses mercy and integration over judgment and excommunication. Without in any way disavowing traditional doctrines, such as the indissolubility of marriage, the exhortation clearly communicated to divorced Catholics that they should not see themselves as excommunicated from the church, that they still have a home in the ecclesiastical community. Amoris laetitia responds with openness and empathy to the enormous and radical societal changes of recent decades. It reveals Francis as a religious leader sensitive to the challenges faced in day-to-day life by Catholics who want to start families and raise children. It rejects a cold, bureaucratic morality, paralyzed by rules. 

As for the pope’s reluctance to engage with dissenting priests, Douthat’s cynicism is unfounded. A better understanding of Francis’ silence would take into account the pope’s Jesuit background. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, taught that when one makes a decision before God and with a feeling of inner peace and serenity, one ought to soldier on rather than shrinking from or altering the charted course. 

Such resoluteness, however, should not be confused with stubbornness. When Francis believes he has erred, he says so—as he did in April when he admitted that he had made a “grave error” in initially standing by Juan Barros, a Chilean bishop who had been accused of covering up sexual abuse. The pope expressed regret for his earlier statements in support of Barros, which he lamented as “a slap in the face” to abuse victims. To make amends, he invited Chilean bishops to the Vatican and met at great length with victims. This is clearly not a man convinced of his own infallibility or uninterested in an exchange of views but someone with the ability to reevaluate his point of view and his decisions.

Francis believes that the church is not an end in itself but exists to serve humanity. To carry out that mission, he has generally sought dialogue in the face of difference. Still, Francis’ church is a missionary church, and the pope is less interested in protecting tradition and institutions than in shaking things up: he has called on Catholics to “hagan lío”—“make some noise”—even if doing so risks dissent and even division. He aims to leave behind a stronger, more resilient church, and his efforts to do so in the coming years will likely continue to surprise the world.

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  • MARIA CLARA BINGEMER is Professor of Theology at the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro. This essay was translated from Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker.
  • More By Maria Clara Bingemer