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Pope Francis marks 10 years as head of the Roman Catholic Church

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Ten years ago today, Pope Francis became spiritual leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics. He often speaks about social justice, the rights of refugees and climate change. And he's pushed for greater transparency inside the Catholic Church. But Catholic teachings have not changed on major social issues like LGBTQ relationships, birth control and the role of women in the church. Christopher White covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter. Good morning, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER WHITE: Good morning, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: What is your view on whether Pope Francis has lived up to expectations - and for some people, hopes - that he may bring big changes to the Catholic Church?

WHITE: I think, in many respects, it's a mixed verdict. And it's an unfinished project. I think he's unsettled many of the ways the Vatican has historically operated and sort of dismantled much of the clerical culture, sort of emphasizing service and promoting leaders that sort of share in his pastoral agenda. But I think many of his reforms sort of struggled to get past the middle managers that are hanging onto power. And so even 10 years in, we're just now seeing the pope finally having his own governance and his own constitution to reform the church. And so I think it's very much an ongoing effort.

PFEIFFER: He has seemed to encourage greater acceptance of people who've historically been rejected by the Catholic Church - like LGBTQ people and divorced people and women - but there's still not full acceptance. You mentioned middle managers. What's stopping the church from actually doing that? Is that - is it that middle management layer?

WHITE: Well, I think, you know, on - you mentioned LGBTQ people. And he's walked a real tightrope there. I think, you know, he's never changed church teaching. But he's, I think, radically softened the language in which the church talks about gay people. He's personally befriended gay men and women, and including employing one or two openly gay people to Vatican post as consultors. You know, he's moved cautiously, but always nudging in the direction of greater openness and welcome on this issue and others. And I think, for some people, that is viewed as, you know, compromising the church's moral authority. And for others, it's not change fast enough.

PFEIFFER: Last week, the Catholic Church in Germany said it would allow formal ceremonies to bless same-sex relationships. How likely is that to have happened without Francis being pope?

WHITE: Well, I think it's undeniable that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were much more nervous about starting conversations that they couldn't control. I think, you know, many theologians, many bishops feel free to explore areas of thought that just 10 years ago they perhaps would have been silenced for. And I think that is a direct effect of the Francis papacy.

PFEIFFER: Clergy sex abuse, as you know, has been extremely damaging to the Catholic Church at many levels. How effective do you consider the changes that Pope Francis has made on that front, like the church's system for reporting abuse and trying to prevent cover-ups of abuse?

WHITE: You know, I think, in 2019, when the pope called many of the bishops from around the world to effectively get them on the same page, it was considered a real step forward. I think the law itself has changed in terms of providing, you know, the how-to of holding bishops accountable for both abuse and its cover-up. That being said, we're seeing many cases where there's a lack of transparency, uneven implementation. And I think this is an area in which, you know, even his closest allies would say there's great, great work to be done for greater transparency and greater action.

PFEIFFER: Women. Women are taking, more often, active roles in the church. But there is still no woman at the head of a Vatican office. And there's no indication that the church is any closer to letting women become priests. How likely do you think that is to ever change?

WHITE: Yes, that sort of, you know, stained glass ceiling has not been shattered. And, you know, I think the question of women priests is a difficult one. The pope has continued to repeat the line of Pope John Paul II that it's more or less a closed conversation. That being said, he's initiated a consultation process with Catholics around the world about a number of hot-button issues. And he's at least allowing conversation to take place on that issue. It still seems, for many church leaders, especially bishops and cardinals, a bridge too far. But it is a conversation that, at least at the grassroots level, is free to take place and happen now in a way that we haven't seen in the last, you know, 30 or 40 years, to be sure.

PFEIFFER: There are certainly people disappointed that change has not come faster. But do you assume that at some level the pope thinks baby steps are necessary when you're trying to change centuries of history?

WHITE: I think he's a pope very well aware that he's leading a church of 1.3 billion Catholics, many of whom are in the Global South, that are out of sync with some of the, you know, more progressive values of the Western world. He's trying to move very cautiously and carefully to maintain and preserve unity. And that's a very difficult and daunting challenge, especially for a man who's 86 years old.

PFEIFFER: Oh, that's interesting, isn't it? From - the church sort of shifting from the more progressive Europe to more conservative South America, it plays out in how he is the pope.

WHITE: Yes. And he is the first pope from the Global South, and which I think has brought a new perspective to Rome.

PFEIFFER: Interesting. That's Christopher White. He covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter. Thank you very much.

WHITE: Thanks, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.