By every tangible measure, Pope Francis is no different from his predecessors. He opposes abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, adoptions by gay couples, and has not called off the inquiry into the social activism of American nuns. And yet simply by saying a few things about gays and atheists that were not outright hateful and that many other Christians had long ago said, and by expressing some gentle criticisms of the current scandalous state of wealth inequality, he has driven the right and the Republican party in in this country into a tizzy. It just shows how much they have assumed that successive popes were Tea Party members in all but name.
But I think the pope has gone as far as he can in softening the image of the Catholic church by words and symbolic gestures alone. These are not insignificant but unless he takes some concrete steps that go beyond what his predecessors did, he risks becoming seen as merely a public relations pope.
There are things that he could do without changing church doctrine, such as cracking down on the clergy who committed sexual abuse and those in authority who covered up for them, speaking out strongly against those nations that are actively persecuting homosexuals and atheists, reining in the lavish lifestyle of some church leaders, telling the leaders of countries to leave gays and atheists alone and not persecute them, because only god can judge them.
I don’t expect his words to have much effect in the US. Religious people here have long become accustomed to doing what they want to do for other reasons and then picking and choosing from religion to justify it. But in some poorer countries where the church still is the focus of local life, his words could be a significant force in easing persecution.
If he takes such kinds of steps, then he could have a real impact on the world, especially in the developing world. Otherwise he risks sliding into irrelevancy.