ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Seven years ago, the Roman Catholic Church elected its first leader from outside Europe since the 8th century. He took the name of the patron saint of animals and the environment. Today Pope Francis is known as a reformer and a global player. And as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, traditionalists are accusing him of leading the church astray.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In his Christmas greetings last year to Vatican officials, Francis delivered one of his blunt wake-up calls.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)
POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Brothers and sisters, Christendom no longer exists. We're no longer the only ones who create culture, nor are we in the forefront of those most listened to. We need a change of pastoral mentality.
POGGIOLI: The Vatican itself has had to change mentality and focus on issues dear to the Argentine-born pope, the first from the "global south."
ALESSANDRA MERILLI: He was the first speaking about inequalities in 2013.
POGGIOLI: Sister Alessandra Merilli (ph) is an economist appointed by Francis to the Vatican. She says this pope is a shepherd, not an economist. But experts in the field, she adds, now share his conviction that no one should be left out.
MERILLI: Now we can see that lots of economists are seriously studying this problem.
POGGIOLI: Francis was elected with the mandate to reform the Vatican administration and clean up its notoriously murky finances, but he's also trying to change the church's mindset.
AUSTEN IVEREIGH: The key element of the reform has been to turn the church away from itself, more - become more outward-looking.
POGGIOLI: Austen Ivereigh is the author of two books about Francis. He believes the pope's key aim is to uproot clericalism.
IVEREIGH: Clericalism is the use of the priesthood - it's the use of that faculty or that power for prestige, for self-enrichment, to use power over people.
POGGIOLI: Corruption fostered by clericalism, Francis believes, is at the very root of clerical sex abuse. Vatican watchers generally agree Francis' handling of the scourge of pedophile priests has been uneven. Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishop Accountability, says this is a pope who was reluctant to believe accusers.
ANNE BARRETT DOYLE: He entered this papacy, I believe, with a bias, for whatever reason, against people who make accusations. And I believe he still sees victims as accusers, not victims.
POGGIOLI: Barrett Doyle believes Francis witnessed how slander was used as a tool by the Argentine dictatorship of the '70s.
BARRETT DOYLE: Where on a strength of an accusation, someone could be killed or tortured.
POGGIOLI: However, she says, the pope eventually acknowledged the scale of the abuse and made a dramatic change of course.
BARRETT DOYLE: I must say it was really stunning to hear a pope use the word cover-up and to basically admit that this is what the church had done. That was a first.
POGGIOLI: But certainly, Francis has his detractors. He has also been the target of ferocious attacks from traditionalists who don't like his environmentalism and his opening to gays. Massimo Faggioli (ph) is a theologian and church historian. He says there are small but well-financed anti-Francis groups based in the United States.
MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: There are sectors that are really seeing this situation as a kind of a civil war, and they are ready to do anything, to say anything. There have been clear accusations against Francis that he's not Catholic; he's a heretic.
POGGIOLI: Journalist Edward Pentin, who covers the Vatican for the conservative National Catholic Register, is well-acquainted with the conservative camp. He says many Catholics distrust this papacy.
EDWARD PENTIN: It's going along very much with the secular agenda and the secular world. And it's forgetting what the church is for, which is really to guide souls to heaven and salvation of souls and not dealing so much with this world and this transitory world.
POGGIOLI: Theologian Faggioli says the pope is focusing on this transitory world because faith is often receding. And that's why, he says, Francis is pushing the 2,000-year-old institution outward.
FAGGIOLI: It's a threshold from the second millennium, European-centered Catholic Church and a more global Catholic Church.
POGGIOLI: A more diverse and complicated church that requires a cultural transformation.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.