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What is the future of the papacy?

Francis didn’t replace a pope who had died. He succeeded Pope Benedict XVI, a conservative, who was the first pontiff to retire in 600 years.
Posted at 7:15 PM, Mar 02, 2023

To understand why the Roman Catholic Church is at a crossroads today, it helps to look back at the 10 years since Pope Francis was selected.

The papal elections of 2013 were highly unusual. 

Francis didn’t replace a pope who had died. He succeeded Pope Benedict XVI, a conservative, who was the first pontiff to retire in 600 years.

David Gibson is the director at the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 

"The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was really an earthquake in the church in so many ways. He gives a speech in Latin and they’re all saying, 'Did he say what I think he said?'" Gibson said.   

Then behind closed doors, cardinals debated for 28 hours. 

"The main issue, arguably, was someone who could clean up the Roman Curia," Gibson said. "After all these scandals, especially under Benedict, we want someone kind of tough who can reform things and also get Rome off of our backs. And they turned to a tough-minded Jesuit from Buenos Aires, Jorge Cardinal Mario Bergoglio, the son of Italian immigrants, to do that job."

Pope Francis, as Mario Bergoglio named himself, was the first Pope in the church’s history chosen from the southern hemisphere.

"You knew things were different even the day after he was elected, when he went to the to the Roman pension where he had been staying to pay his own bill. That's kind of kind of new," Gibson said. 

Not only did Francis have a unique personal style, but he took new positions on divisive social issues in the church. 

"For so long, it's been this kind of rigid law that if you're divorced, you don't get an annulment, which is a problem. And then you go remarried. You can't take communion because technically you're living in sin. And in one of these meetings the pope convened, he said, 'we've got to talk about this,'" Gibson said. 

In 2018 the pope wrote that caring for the poor and immigrants was as important as preventing abortion. And in January of this year Pope Francis called homosexuality a sin, but also denounced laws that criminalize homosexual behavior. 

"Being homosexual isn't a crime, it's a human condition," Francis said. 

Supporters of the pope say these positions make a more inclusive, caring church.

Sarah Kate Ellis, head of GLAAD, an organization devoted to LGBTQ rights, said "his historic statement should send a message to world leaders and millions of catholics around the world. LGBTQ people deserve to live in a world without violence and condemnation, and more kindness and understanding."

The coffin of late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is carried away after a funeral mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican

Pope Francis presides over Pope Benedict's funeral in Vatican City

Benedict was the leader of the church's conservative wing and is considered one of the world's greatest theologians.

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But Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, is among the conservative Catholics who have strongly criticized the pope.  

"What Francis has decided to do instead, I think, is basically seek a kind of truce with the post-sexual revolution culture. If the church makes this shift, it basically means that the church's claim to teach the indesolubility of marriage is sort of empty," Douthat said. 

In 2019, a group of Catholic scholars went further, accusing Francis in a 15 page letter of "heresies" and a "comprehensive rejection of Catholic teaching on marriage and sexual activity, on the moral law, and on grace and the forgiveness of sins." 

Critics of the church’s handling of the clergy abuse crisis have been unhappy with Pope Francis too. 

Tim Law is the co-founder of Ending Clergy Abuse.

"This Pope has been great on words, great on image. But has done nothing to protect children," Law said.   

Since the death of Pope Benedict in late December, it’s become clear that the Vatican contains factions supporting the current pope and in opposition.  

First a senior Vatican aide, Monsignor Georg Ganswein, published a book revealing how much Benedict had disagreed with Pope Francis.  

"Then this cardinal Pell, a retired Australian, very conservative cardinal, a real opponent, drops dead of a heart attack," Gibson said. "It turns out that Pell had been the author of anonymous memos blasting Francis that had been published in recent years, and he was basically the campaign manager of the underground, behind the scenes campaign manager to elect someone in the next conclave whenever it happens, who would undo everything that Pope Francis has done. This is just a just a stunning series of revelations worthy more of an, you know, an HBO drama then than what you normally expect from the Vatican or even even the Catholic Church."

Pope Francis is 86 years old and recently admitted having intestinal issues, though overall he said he was in good health. 

The cardinals, though, will eventually have to gather again to select the next pontiff. 

But Francis recently made one thing clear: he believes the pope’s ministry should be ad vitam, which in Latin means for life. 

So the world will have to wait a little longer to see what direction the next Pope takes the 2,000-year-old Roman Catholic Church.