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OpinionCommentaryPope Francis Visit

From gays to abortion, Francis draws some backlash

Rep. Lee Zeldin on Wednesday surprised a visually

Rep. Lee Zeldin on Wednesday surprised a visually impaired 10-year-old East Patchogue girl "in need of a miracle" with a ticket to be his guest when Pope Francis addresses Congress. Credit: Getty Images / VINCENZO PINTO

Pope Francis remains widely popular in the United States -- but not as popular as he was just last year.

His decision to break from business-as-usual has spurred uncertainty and angst among some people, and it may account for a drop in his overall U.S. favorability ranking from last year. A Gallup poll in July found that his approval rating had dropped 17 points since early 2014.

Papal watchers would admit that Vatican bureaucracy -- the Roman Curia -- has long needed reform. To his credit, Pope Francis has wasted no time in undertaking the task.

But changing the structure and the culture of any large organization would breed resistance, and the Holy Father has experienced his share of it. By challenging those who have safely retreated to their respective comfort zones, the pope is seeking to end the paralysis that too often marks Vatican operations.

Pope Francis aspires to be a populist, a man of the people, and to that end he has shown little patience for high-ranking members of the clergy who have succumbed to a more worldly lifestyle. Whether it is "airport bishops" who bounce from one event to another, or those who are more interested in power and prestige than servicing the faithful, Pope Francis has made it clear that is unacceptable.

Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II addressed the environment, income distribution, sexuality, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but not to the extent of Pope Francis. Frankly, the level of specificity he brings to these complicated matters accounts for both the plaudits he has received and the backlash he has encountered, which has impacted his approval rating.

On climate change. It is wholly uncontroversial to say Catholics are expected to be stewards of the environment. So when the pope casts this as a moral issue, he is on sure footing. But the perception that he is micro-analyzing climate change has not redounded in his favor.

On income inequality. This divide has marked every society in history; sometimes it is justified, other times it is not. Pope Francis has earned a reputation, not always positive, for adopting a more egalitarian approach.

On homosexuality. On a pastoral level, Pope Francis is more vocal in his outreach than his predecessors, and has made it clear gays are welcome in the church. But it is a mistake to say that he condones homosexuality because he does not. Indeed, he has referred to same-sex marriage as the work of the devil.

On abortion. He welcomes anyone involved in procuring abortions to seek reconciliation, and has said priests can forgive women the sin of abortion. However, his unchanged position is that abortion is "profoundly unjust." Many reporters and pundits have misrepresented what he has said.

On Mideast peace. Like popes before him, Francis wants to bring peace to the Middle East, but unlike them he believes the process is enhanced by recognizing a Palestinian state. His position does not sit well with many Israelis, nor with some Americans. His motives are beyond rebuke, but that hardly settles this matter.

It is easy to see why Pope Francis is commended by some for his courage and chastised by others for overreaching. There is more than a measure of truth to both appraisals. One thing is for sure: he is a vibrant leader whose authenticity is questioned by no one.

He should be given a respectful hearing.

Bill Donohue is president of Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.