by Tess Daniels
On March 1, Pope Francis celebrated the five-year anniversary of his election to the papacy. With this milestone comes an examination of Francis’s accomplishments and controversies. Francis, though a hugely influential and compelling figure, has nonetheless had his fair share of criticism. He is seen by the world as a reformer pope—a humble, highly educated, genial Jesuit who seems to depart from the practices of previous pontiffs. On the other hand, traditionalist Catholics have objected to Francis’ agenda, arguing that a pope should deliver doctrinal and moral clarity, and Francis’s policy has blurred Catholic teachings.
However, even when under fire—or perhaps especially then—Francis remains a magnet for the media. He is often politically relevant, with governments around the world tracking his priorities closely. A recent editorial in the U.K.-based Catholic Herald described his papacy as something radical: “Pope Francis’s enormous media image has allowed him to command attention like few popes before him. When he chooses to, he can get his message across at a volume previous popes would have struggled to reach.”
Several of Francis’s policies have garnered praise from wide-ranging leaders in the Church. Many Catholics applaud his focus on refugees and migrants, for example, as well as his emphasis on stewarding global resources. This approval has been reflected in the general population: a worldwide WIN/Gallup International survey of 64 nations found that Francis enjoyed an overall approval rating of 60%, making him the most-admired leader in the world. Stories of Francis’s extraordinary humility and love have won over the world. People fawn over images of Francis washing the feet of prisoners or embracing a disfigured man. Indeed, Francis’s popularity has led to a phenomenon dubbed “The Francis Effect,” with believers and non-believers alike praising his simplicity, wit, and focus on the weakest of society.
However, the pope has withstood serious criticism throughout his papacy. Interestingly enough, many of these critiques have come from fellow Catholics. They argue that Vatican life is more unsettled than it ever was under Benedict XVI; that in his attempt to make the Church more inclusive, Francis is weakening attention to moral issues. A recent Pew Research Central poll demonstrated some of this disenchantment, with 34% of American Catholics saying that Francis is “too liberal.” One problem many for conservatives and liberals alike believe Francis has failed to suppress is sexual abuse, a scandal which has rocked the Church for decades.
Five years after former Pope Benedict resigned, some traditionalists say he is still their pope. They criticize Francis for being too lenient on divorced Catholics and LGBT issues, as well as being too defensive of migrants. However, Benedict, in a letter released on the anniversary of Francis’ election, wrote that he rejects the “foolish prejudice” that Francis is only a “practical man devoid of specific theological or philosophical formation.” Benedict, who rarely makes public statements, clearly distanced himself from those who use his name in their fight against Francis.
Nonetheless, Francis’ supporters insist he is in complete harmony with Church teaching but is merely navigating a complex and rapidly developing world. Pope Francis marked his fifth anniversary as pope, thus, much in the same way that his papacy has developed: with praise and acknowledgement of his incredible example, as well as notes of criticism about his policies from some of the faithful.