Pope Francis has been Pope for little over a year. As the head of one of the largest institutions in the world, his message has softened the general tone of the Catholic Church as he attempts to reorient the Church to speaking less about social issues.
Opinions around the world of the pope were high from the beginning of his papacy, and even now, approximately eighty-five percent of American Catholics, at least, view him positively1. It is notable, however, how many media outlets have examined Pope Francis as a “problem” within the Catholic Church (for example, “Pope Francis the Troublemaker” in The Washington Post2, “Pope Francis, Troublemaker?” in the Orange County Catholic3, “The Promise and Peril of Pope Francis” in the New York Times, etc.)
That is not to say that Pope Benedict IX never received any scrutiny over his position as pope. But the attitude towards Pope Benedict IX would have considered him conservative, especially in light of the relatively-liberal Pope John Paul II’s tenure.
Pope Francis’ popularity in the United States comes at a time when organized religion is becoming less popular4, with many Americans believing that religion is too oriented around power, money, and its own bureaucracy, rather than a message of faith. In the United States (and around the world), Pope Francis is the leader but simultaneously the largest troublemaker of the Catholic Church, by making the entire institution more transparent and overturning tradition.
So far, his changes have been more talk than actual substance–despite being the Pope, he can’t actually cause a bureaucracy as large and old as the Catholic Church to turn on its head. But it is telling that so many Americans have found him to be a refreshing change. In a time when both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party dug up feelings of anti-establishment in the United States, the support of a populist pope, a man close to the people who is not afraid of shaking down an insititution via the appointment of relatively liberal cardinals, is a natural extension of American individualism and skepticism of institutions. Whether Pope Francis will be the rebel that so many hope for remains to be seen.