Pope Francis is actually taking the Vatican and by extension the Catholic Church to its popular base that has been diminishing partly because of scandals, but also because of the increasing secularization of society that deems religion anachronistic in the age of space travel when there are scientific explanations for everything. Pope Francis has deliberately decided to sideline the conservative leaders of the Catholic Church, including US bishops historically reactionary and opposed to social justice, largely because the decadence and corruption of the institutions rests with the conservative elements of the Church hiding behind the veil of respectability.
It is unrealistic to assume that the Catholic Church has the power to transform the politics of any nation, though it is equally absurd for politicians to go against a strong religious institution. With 1.2 billion faithful behind it, of which 78 million are Americans, the Papacy is a powerful institution but under the leadership of Pope Francis it is only expressing the concerns about the decadence and injustices of capitalism that people already know. Catholics live in the real world and see what is happening around their neighborhood as well as around the planet, where human life has no value but money is the new God to worship.
American talk-radio show hosts known for their extreme right-wing propaganda have devoted a great deal of their work to defame Pope Francis as a Marxist, merely because he speaks of human-centered values, instead of capital-centered ones; because the Pope warns against the hypocrisy of clergy in a manner not that different from Martin Luther 500 years ago; because he argues that the Church is not the walls of the cathedral or its clergy, but the people and their daily needs. Is there any doubt that the critics of Pope Francis would crucify Jesus Christ because he too would dare question the unjust institutions of our time?
Besides attacking the injustices of the political economy and social structure, Pope Francis has also tackled the controversial issues of women's rights and sexual orientation. Conservatives, preferring to live secret lives of hypocrisy while openly advocating rigid restrictions on woman's right to choose and sexual orientation, are upset that Pope Francis has addressed abortion and gays by deviating from the traditional condemnatory position of the church. Preferring to have scandals involving clergy swept under the rug and to turn a blind eye to the reality of abortion, conservatives question where the "populist Pope" is headed when he goes out of his way to reexamine the church's position on such issues while embracing the prostitutes, prisoners, the poor and even non-Catholics as though they were human! In short, conservatives are confused why Pope Francis is acting in the manner Christianity calls him to act. Why deviate from a centuries-long tradition of popes aligned with dictators, the very wealthy, the corrupt elites for interested in having the masses remain docile under the cross.
Pope Francis is sending the message that religion is not a tool for keeping the masses docile and accepting of the existing social structure and political economy, instead of questioning it. This in itself terrifies the political and financial elites because the message is transmitted to other faiths around the world at a tie that social justice has been sidelined in favor of capital accumulation. If Pope Francis continues along the lines of social justice and does not cave to internal and external pressures to eulogize the status quo, then the Catholic Church could potentially play a role in parallel secular struggles for social justice.