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Pope's 'Person of the Year' award a blessing or curse?

NEW YORK – Pope Francis has been named Time Magazine “Person of the Year” at a time when his favorability, nine months after being elected pope, is at 92 percent among Catholics in this week’s ABC News/Washington Post poll, 16 points above the rating of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Nevertheless, many conservative Catholics continue to wonder if this pope from Argentina is merely riding a wave of public relations as he reaches out to non-believers – even atheists, embraces the poor and shows sympathy with the LGBT community, in a sharp contrast to the theological rigidity and doctrinal strictness of his German predecessor.

What happens when same-sex couples begin to demand the sacrament of matrimony in Catholic churches in America or when non-believers and atheists present themselves to receive Holy Communion at the celebration of Mass?

The new pope has so challenged traditional Catholic views that many conservative Catholics are fear that should his rhetorical tone translated into changes in doctrine and practice, the church will bear little resemblance to the traditional church of Pope Benedict XVI.

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Many traditional Catholics parted ways with Rome after the Vatican II reforms introduced by Pope John XXIII and ratified by Pope Paul VI produced a far-reaching modernization of liturgy. The Latin Mass was replaced with Mass in the vernacular and included a reconciliation that encouraged Catholics to pray openly on equal terms with Christians of other denominations.

Will the fallen-away Catholics brought back to the church by Francis fall away again if he ends up ultimately demanding strict adherence to traditional Catholic moral values?

What happens to the liberal Catholics returning to the church who practice contraception and support same-sex marriage if Francis ultimately maintains that marriage is a sacrament defined as a union between one man and one woman?

Conflict with conservative Catholics

Conversely, what happens if Francis issues new doctrinal re-definitions that make the transformational impact of Vatican II look small in comparison?

Will conservative Catholics that stayed with the Catholic Church because of the theological clarity of Pope Benedict XVI start losing patience and become the new group of lapsed Catholics who have stopped going to Mass or participating in the sacraments?

Having crossed into the territory where Time Magazine and much of the political left in the United States have embraced Francis, millions of conservative Catholics are waiting to see what happens next.

With the Vatican announcing in June that Francis was preparing for a “Family Synod” on the theme “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” could the pope be contemplating redefining Catholic teachings on contraception and divorce, if not marriage?

Already, U.S. Catholic bishops have begun urging Francis to “address more directly the evil of abortion.”

Other traditional American Catholics are wondering whether his apparent tolerance of homosexuals will extend to homosexually inclined priests, or will he take harsh steps to prevent further damage by pedophile priests sexually abusing mostly male teenagers and young boys.

Could Francis, for instance, take his criticism of a “Vatican-centric” Catholicism to the point where the pope shares leadership with a conclave of Cardinals, possibly inviting leaders of other religions to participate?

Pope Francis a Marxist?

As WND has reported, Francis recently issued an 84-page apostolic exhortation titled “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel,” which has been widely praised in establishment media worldwide. The document, however, makes no attempt to hide the pontiff’s affinity with the anti-capitalist themes common to socialist manifestos of the past century.

In reaction, conservatives such as talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh have accused the pope of embracing Marxism, charging he is hypocritical to criticize capitalism, because the church relies on free-market activity to operate and to fund charities for the poor.

Francis is well known for having said to the priests and the faithful of Buenos Aires: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Time Magazine embraced Francis for focusing on inequality, stating the world’s poorest 50 percent barely control 1 percent of the wealth, writing:

You could argue that he is Teddy Roosevelt protecting capitalism from its own excesses or he is simply saying what Popes before him have said, that Jesus calls us to care for the least among us – only he’s saying it in a way that people seem to be hearing differently. And that may be especially important coming from the first Pope from the New World. A century ago, two-thirds of Catholics lived in Europe; now fewer than a quarter do, and how he is heard in countries where being gay is a crime and educating women for leadership roles is a heresy may have the power to transform cultures in which Catholicism is a growing, even potentially liberating force.

Yet, in this first pastoral statement written in his own voice, Francis continued to support traditional Catholic views that women should not be admitted to the priesthood, while stressing that abortion must be rejected on moral grounds.

“The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion,” he wrote.

Conservative Catholics suspect that how Time Magazine will feel about Pope Francis in 2014 and beyond may depend on whether or not there are fundamental changes, including opening the clergy to women and accepting same-sex marriages.

Warnings from the Mafia

WND has reported the Mafia in Italy is considering assassinating Francis for his anti-corruption sermons and his threats to reform or possibly even close the Vatican Bank, according to Nicola Gratteri, the deputy chief prosecutor of Reggio Calabria, the southern across the Straits of Messina from Sicily.

Clearly, the Mafia has to be concerned that a martyred Francis might actually prove to be counter-productive, accelerating efforts to purge the Vatican Bank of money laundering and other criminal financial transactions important to organized crime.

Yet, the effort to root corruption from the Vatican Bank remains a daunting task.

The trial of Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, an accountant in a Vatican department known as APSA, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, a top Vatican financial office that overseas Catholic Church real estate holdings, is scheduled to begin Dec. 13.

As WND reported in August, Scarano, along with Giovani Carenzio, a financial broker, and Giovanni Maria Zito, described as a military police agent deployed to the Italian Secret Service, were implicated in a scheme to sneak the equivalent of about $26 million in cash into Italy. Working on behalf of a Neapolitan ship-owning family, they allegedly evaded international financial controls by hiring a private plane to bring the cash into Italy from Locarno, Switzerland.

Vatican observers note Pope John Paul I, who died in his sleep Sept. 28, 1978, only 33 days into his papacy, was believed at the time of his death to be getting ready to launch a major investigation into Vatican Bank corruption.

The Vatican Bank, also known as the Institute for the Works of Religion, was a major shareholder in Banco Ambrosiano, a major Italian bank that collapsed in 1982 with losses of more than $3 billion.

On June 18, 1982, the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, Roberto Calvi, a banker with close ties to the Vatican Bank, was found hanging from the Blackfriars Bridge in London in what was widely suspected as a murder disguised as a suicide.

At time of Calvi’s death, the Mafia was believed to have been using Banco Ambrosiano for money-laundering purposes.

Calvi was known as “God’s Banker” because of his close ties to the Vatican.

Founded in 1942, the Vatican Bank is one of the most secretive in the world, operating with 114 employees and over $7 billion in assets.

The questions remain: How deep into the Vatican curia does the corruption in the Vatican Bank extend? Can any pope, even one as determined and as popular as Francis, take on the financial corruption at the heart of the Catholic Church and win?