Such challenges are nothing new - Pope John Paul II also spoke strongly about the negative impact of globalization on the poor and castigated "imperialism" and capitalism run amok, while Pope Benedict XVI condemned the "pre-emptive" war in Iraq. But those two popes were better known for their condemnation of Marxist forms of liberation theology and the raising of abortion as the human right par excellence. In their day, politicians were told they could not receive Communion if they had a "pro-choice" voting record, while death penalty advocates or war hawks received no reprimands of any kind. Catholics "in the pews" could have been forgiven for thinking that there was only one party that was safe to vote for.
Yet there has been no radical shift, other than clarifying that both parties are far from perfectly reflecting Catholic social teaching. Pope Francis has not disavowed any of his predecessors' positions, whether on abortion, gay marriage, contraception or any other issue seen by most people as "conservative." The biggest differences seem to be, first, his emphasis on mercy ("Who am I to judge?"), and second, as one writer put it, "which Catholic beliefs he has elevated to the level of communal concerns—public policy—and which he has framed as individual choices. To Francis, sharing wealth and fixing global warming are matters that governments should address, while not committing homosexual acts or having abortions are individual choices he endorses. This is quite different from the American Catholic church, which has poured its political energy into laws banning gay marriage and restricting abortion."
It remains to be seen if the pope's apparent belief that the Church can promote traditional sexual morality more effectively with a merciful, non-judgmental approach will bear fruit, but it does seem to me to be in keeping with the approach of Jesus himself. Meanwhile, I'm elated to see him being more forceful about the proper role of government and the need for all of us to do more about poverty, violence, welcoming the stranger, and threats to the Earth itself.