Pope Francis is a shrewd reformer – and this US visit could define his papacy

The one thing you could depend on when Pope John Paul II made one of his high-profile overseas trips was that he would hammer home in the most uncompromising terms Catholicism’s opposition to abortion. For the Polish pontiff, who died in 2005 and has now been declared a saint, abortion was murder, a stance which he presented as the keystone of all orthodoxy for Catholics.

This week his successor but one, the Argentinian Pope Francis, will be following in John Paul’s footsteps with his own first visit to the United States after spending the weekend in Cuba. Together, the two legs of the trip promise to be among the defining moments of what has already been an extraordinary two-and-a-half-year papacy.

Like John Paul, Francis will be addressing the United Nations and visiting the White House, but those Americans, Catholic or not, hoping that he too will be speaking out unambiguously on the pro-life/pro-choice stand-off that has so dominated church-state relations in the US for a generation are likely to be disappointed.

The world has responded to the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires with enthusiasm on account of his warmth, humility, spontaneity and habit of going off-script as far as the doctrines of his church are concerned. But Francis is also, in his own words, “a little furbo” – ie, shrewd, clever, an operator. This less remarked-on side has been seen in the way he is systematically reforming the corrupt, bloated Vatican curia (civil service) and straightening out its dodgy bank.

It was there, too, in his instructions on the issue of abortion two weeks before setting off for Cuba and the States. Priests, he ordered, were to show mercy and compassion to women who came to them to confess having had an abortion. No longer were they to refuse absolution (forgiveness of sins) or have their case referred to the local bishop. Instead, Francis said, his priests were to emphasise to the women concerned that, however “profoundly unjust” their choice was, God still loved them and understood there were reasons why they had made such an “agonising and painful” decision. He added that the automatic excommunication decreed by canon law for abortion no longer applied.

It was nothing short of reshaping the Catholic moral landscape, and must have come as a profound shock to many US bishops. They have traditionally taken a “culture warrior” approach to abortion, damning anyone who suggested there might be room for compromise. So when John Kerry, a practising Catholic, ran for the presidency in 2004, Cardinal Raymond Burke, then archbishop of St Louis, later the most senior judge in the Vatican’s highest court, ordered that the Democratic candidate be denied holy communion because of his pro-choice stance.

You can’t but admire both Francis’s human empathy and his tactical nous. His instruction was, above all, a perfectly timed pre-emptive strike, allowing him to say all he intends to about abortion before he even set foot in the US, leaving him free once there to talk about the subjects that he wants to define Catholicism in today’s world.

“We cannot insist only on issues relating to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he remarked in a September 2013 interview with the church magazine, Civiltà Cattolica. So when he addresses a joint session of Congress on Thursday, “Papa Francisco” can tackle what have become the hallmark themes of his leadership: eradication of poverty; the plight of refugees and immigrants against the backdrop of what he has labelled the “globalisation of indifference”; and climate change.

Given this agenda, the papal trip could not have come at a more crucial moment. There is a presidential race under way, with climate change among the disputed electoral territory. One of the leading Republican candidates, Jeb Bush, a 1995 convert to Catholicism, has publicly dismissed Francis’s encyclicalLaudato Si (“Praise be to you”), which sets out in stark terms human responsibility for climate change, with the remark: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”

On poverty, when he stands up before the UN general assembly on Friday, the pope will be speaking to global leaders as they gather to agree international development goals for the next 15 years. It has been Francis’s constant demand as pope that Catholicism must be, first and foremost, “a poor church, for the poor”.

If anyone doubts that commitment, much of the rest of his time in the US will be given to meeting those at the margins – at a soup kitchen for the homeless in Washington, a school for recent immigrants in East Harlem, and, next Sunday, on the final day of his trip, inside Curran-Fromhold correctional facility in Philadelphia. Some may regard such occasions as just photo-opportunities, but that is to underestimate the commitment of a man who spent much time when cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires travelling anonymously on public transport to shanty towns on the outskirts of the city to minister to their inhabitants. This is where, he says repeatedly, the Catholic church must be – not waiting in ornate churches for the faithful to fill the pews, but going out in solidarity to where real life is a daily struggle.

It is a belief that permeates everything Francis has done as pope, right down to his efforts, during the Cuba leg of his journey, to extend the historic renewal of diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington that he brokered into a wider lifting of the US trade embargo (“el bloqueo”) which blights the economic prospects of so many Cubans.

It is an approach that has not always endeared Francis to some cardinals, priests and laity who hanker after the old certainties of the era of John Paul II and its footnote in the reign of Benedict XVI. It is said in church circles that the conservatives are doing their damnedest to delay every reform in the hope that Francis’s legacy will then be easier to reverse once he is gone.

But whatever chill he may feel in the reception he is given by the ecclesiastical bigwigs, many Catholics in the pews will be drawing strength for the breath of fresh air that he represents. Here, after all, is a leader who it has been reported wanted to enter their country not via a red carpet on an airport runway, but by walking across the Mexican border as a show of solidarity with the economic migrants Donald Trump wants to shut out with a wall.

Why this visit to Cuba and America matters so much is that it comes at a time when Francis is beginning to move beyond altering the style, tone and organisation of the Catholic church, to get on with reforming its rulebook. Hence his instruction on abortion, and his directives, which were announced at the same time, simplifying the church’s archaic and costly annulment process. Francis’s new system will make it quicker, cheaper and less about blame, thereby reversing the current exodus of divorced and remarried Catholics from the sacraments.

I should enter a note of caution, lest we all get too carried away with Francis-mania. The 78-year-old pope is many attractive things, but he is not a liberal reformer set to bring Catholicism into line with the modern world. On a recent trip to Argentina, his old friends and colleagues repeatedly told me that, at heart, he is conservative. What that means in practice can be seen in the forthcoming “Year of Mercy” that Francis has announced throughout the Catholic church. While showing mercy towards women who have had abortions, divorced couples or gay Catholics is a huge improvement on condemning them as sinners, it still implies that they have been or are doing something wrong.

For all his charm, integrity and “furbizia”, this is not a Catholic leader who is about to blur the fundamental boundaries between his church and secular values.