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Pope Stokes Flames Ahead of US Trip Even as He Ends Problems

FILE - Pope Francis salutes faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 5, 2015.
FILE - Pope Francis salutes faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 5, 2015.

When Pope Francis visits the United States this fall, he can expect the same rock-star adulation that greets him wherever he goes. But his positions on hot-button issues such as the death penalty and climate change could quickly set the stage for conflict. That may explain why Francis has been clearing the decks on a host of less high-profile matters of contention that could also have marred the visit.

In a matter of a few short weeks, Francis abruptly ended the Vatican's deeply contested investigation of U.S. nuns and engineered the removal of an American bishop who failed to report a suspected sex abuser. Had he left those issues to fester, they would certainly have cast a cloud over the historic trip - which will include the first papal address to the U.S. Congress.

On Saturday Francis will try to address another controversy over his planned canonization of an 18th century Franciscan missionary, Junipero Serra, accused by Native Americans of running a genocidal machine that tortured indigenous converts and spread disease. Francis will celebrate a Mass in Serra's honor at the main U.S. seminary in Rome.

While Francis' popularity ratings in the United States rival those of St. John Paul II, he is not without his detractors. Conservative Republicans privately grumble about his views on global warming and immigration, and his vehement opposition to the death penalty.

Here is a look at how Francis has recently stoked flames on some key issues and resolved others.

Climate change

Francis got a big thumbs-up this week for his green agenda from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who said his upcoming environment encyclical could be a game-changer in the run-up to climate change talks in Paris at the end of the year.

Ban was the keynote speaker at a Vatican conference bringing together Nobel Prize-winning scientists, Francis' key environmental advisers and faith leaders. They were unanimous in agreeing that climate change is real, mostly man-made, hardest on the poorest, and a problem that only collective action can solve.

Many Republicans have opposed efforts to reduce fossil fuels and other pollutants that contribute to global warming, and some deny that human activity is responsible.

The conference's host had choice words for such skeptics: “It's the same people who defend the oil industry,” said Monsignor Sanchez Sorondo, one of Francis' top advisers. “It's the lobby of profit.”

Death penalty

Francis has gone well beyond his predecessors - and Catholic Church teaching - in saying there is simply no justification for the death penalty today.

“Inadmissible,” he calls it, “regardless of how grave the crime.”

He has called life prison terms a “hidden death penalty” and solitary confinement a “form of torture” - and said both should be abolished.

The pope's advocacy won him an award this week from the Hands Off Cain anti-capital punishment advocacy group.

The United States is in the Top 10 list of countries that still execute people, along with China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and North Korea.

While capital punishment has many supporters in the U.S. - it's legal in more than 30 states - even some conservatives are coming out against it. Princeton University's Robert George, a leading conservative Catholic intellectual, recently wrote to Kansas' governor urging him to repeal the death penalty.

The bishops of Massachusetts have issued their own appeal for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be spared the death penalty, amid sentencing hearings this week.

Nun crackdown

The Vatican removed a major headache awaiting Francis by cutting short a controversial crackdown on the main umbrella group of American sisters that had begun under Francis' doctrinaire predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Earlier this month, the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious announced a truce, with the Vatican ending its oversight two years early and the sisters agreeing to ensure that their publications and programs had sound doctrinal foundations. The group had been under investigation for allegedly promoting “radical feminist themes” putting it in a “grave” doctrinal crisis.

The sisters had been deeply offended by the crackdown, and they received an enormous outpouring of support from ordinary Catholics who viewed it as evidence of Vatican misogyny. Even Francis' top U.S. adviser, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, said the investigation had been a “disaster” on the public relations front.

Sex abuse

Another potential problem issue that could have marred the papal visit concerned Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri, who remained in office for nearly three years after being convicted of failing to report a suspected child abuser.

Victims and advocacy groups had held up Finn as Exhibit A of how Francis still doesn't get it on sex abuse. That's something no pope would want to answer to on a trip to a country where the Catholic Church has paid more than $3 billion in settlements and fees related to the sex abuse scandal.

On April 22, Francis accepted Finn's resignation following a Vatican investigation. It's unclear if the resignation was offered freely or if the Vatican pressured him into it.

A little-noticed Vatican law issued in November may have had something to do with it: The law included the novelty that higher church authorities could ask a bishop to step down in certain circumstances.

Controversial missionary

The Vatican and the archdiocese of Los Angeles are on an all-out effort to establish more positive vision of Junipero Serra before Francis canonizes the Franciscan missionary at Washington's National Shrine on the first day he arrives in the U.S.

Native Americans say Serra tortured converts and was part of a genocidal missionary machine that wiped out indigenous populations.

On Thursday, in the shadow of St. Peter's Square, the Los Angeles archdiocese hosted the authors of a new biography on Serra that tries to paint a more nuanced picture.

Robert Senkewicz, history professor at Santa Clara University in California, said the historical record is clear that there was “significant mistreatment of native populations” in the missions - and that Serra himself supported flogging natives as punishment.

But he said Serra also genuinely believed he was sparing them from the exploitation of Spanish conquistadores by protecting them on the missions.

“Serra has been treated in binary way: either as totally blameless or a total villain,” Senkewicz said. “What we tried to do was fill in that middle ground and talk about Serra as a complicated and real human being with his strengths and weaknesses.”