VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis marked his fifth anniversary as pope Tuesday by receiving votes of confidence from his predecessor and from the current Vatican No. 2 — as well as faithful around the globe — seeking to rebut criticism about his reform-minded papacy and encouraging him to push the envelope even further.
First out of the gate was Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, whose historic resignation paved the way for Francis' election on March 13, 2013. In a letter released on the eve of Francis' fifth anniversary as pope, Benedict publicly dismissed as "foolish prejudice" those who say Francis has no theological heft and represents a rupture from his own papacy.
Welcoming the release of a new Vatican-curated volume on "The Theology of Pope Francis," Benedict said the books "show Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological training and help to see the interior continuity between the two pontificates, with all the differences in style and temperament."
Francis frequently downplays the work of theologians, and his critics point to his simple speaking and writing style as evidence of a doctrinal deficit. Many of those critics have pointed to his cautious opening to allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion as a sign that dogma under Francis is adrift.
Francis' supporters insist he is in complete harmony with church teaching and continuity with Benedict's doctrinaire papacy. They say Francis is merely emphasizing "discernment" to navigate complex pastoral situations.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, acknowledged Francis had his critics, saying Tuesday it was only natural that a papacy that has prized opening up the church to all will bump up against those who think otherwise. But he distinguished between "destructive, aggressive, really bad criticisms" that have to simply be accepted as a cross to bear, and "constructive criticism" that can be helpful.
Aside from doctrinal questions, Francis has come under the most criticism for his handling of clerical sex abuse cases. He has intervened in canonical cases to reduce sentences for priestly offenders, has defended a Chilean bishop accused of ignoring abuse and has dismissed complaints by victims against the bishop as mere slander.
He reneged on a plan to create a tribunal to judge negligent bishops, allowed his advisory commission to lapse and didn't renew the mandate of several of its most outspoken leaders to new terms.
And yet, in the streets, he remains beloved.
"I think he's an extraordinary person," said Juliana Galeano, a 46-year-old geographer who was picking up her son at a Catholic school in Sao Paolo. Unlike many church leaders who "think it's the Middle Ages," Francis wants to move the church forward, she said. "You have to evolve."
Gerald Bareebe, a Ugandan academic who described himself as a progressive Catholic, said he wanted Francis to push the envelope further on the thorny issue of priestly celibacy and married priests.
"In Uganda, not a year passes without media houses carrying stories of priests who are caught in marital affairs," he said. "And these cases have become common partly because priests are forced to take mandatory celibacy. The church should save its face and allow priests who want to marry and continue serving God to do so."
The issue is likely to feature in some of Francis' initiatives in the future, including a big church meeting in 2019 on spreading the faith in the Amazon, where the acute priest shortage has led to calls for married priests.