Pope Francis’ election was unconventional, and his leadership of the Catholic Church has lived up to the word as well.
While popes are usually chosen after the death of their predecessor, Francis’ election took place because of the retirement of Benedict XVI, the first time a pope has stepped down in 600 years. In the year since his election, Francis has become known for his radical style of leadership, perhaps culminating in his unprecedented demotion of American Cardinal Raymond Burke from his position as head of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court.
Burke will retain his position as cardinal, though his responsibilities will be severely lessened. His new position as the Patron of the Order of the Knights of Malta, a charity organization, is largely ceremonial and is often given to a cardinal nearing retirement. Burke, 66, is nine years away from the age at which cardinals are required to offer their resignation, though many will continue in their posts for several years after this point. It is highly unusual for a cardinal to be removed from a position without being granted a comparable degree of responsibility elsewhere.
Burke and Francis have clashed in the past, with Francis removing Burke from a committee dedicated to selecting new bishops and Burke calling the Catholic Church under Francis’ leadership “a ship without a rudder.” As a cardinal, Burke would have voted in the election to select a new pope after Benedict XVI’s retirement.
Cardinal Burke is known for his vocal conservative views. He has spoken out against pro-choice policies and divorce on multiple occasions, making headlines in 2004 for his refusal to give Communion to Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) because of the Catholic politician’s pro-choice stance. He has also refused to give Communion to divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics. More recently, Burke participated in Pope Francis’ October synod on family and was a leading force in changing a midterm report with conciliatory views regarding gay and lesbian people to one restating the Church’s hardline stance. While the midterm report acknowledged that “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” the published document states that “There are 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.”
Although this is perhaps one of the most prominent waves Francis has made since his ascendance to the papacy in 2013, there have been countless others. He is both the first South American and the first Jesuit pope, and is also the first non-European pope since Gregory III in 741. He has eschewed the elaborate vestments typically associated with the papacy and has chosen to live in a Vatican guesthouse instead of the papal apartments. He has chosen ‘Miserando atque eligendo,” or, “Because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him,” as his episcopal motto and has emphasized mercy as a major focus of his papacy. In a Holy Thursday ceremony shortly after his inauguration, he washed and kissed the feet of twelve juvenile offenders, two female and two Muslim, the first time that women have been allowed to participate in the ceremony. On Nov. 14, 2014, he announced plans to build showers for the homeless men and women living in Vatican City.
Pope Francis also recently spoke publicly in support of evolution and the Big Bang. In a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Francis said, “When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so.” Francis’ remarks echo the Church’s belief that Catholic doctrine and evolution are not incompatible, a position first expressed by Pope Pius XII in his 1950 encyclical “Humani Generis” and upheld by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The Big Bang theory itself was originally posited by Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic priest and former president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
While Francis continues to draw ire from conservatives within the Church, the general consensus seems to be that he is a breath of fresh air for a religious institution often mired in centuries of tradition and bureaucracy. Time will tell if his reforms hold.