BUENOS AIRES — The Pope's recent declarations favoring gay partnership may have astounded the world outside the Church, but not inside. The surprise may instead come from Pope Francis' decision to adopt a public stance that directly opposes the ideals of most conservative Catholics. Seven years after his accession to the papal throne, the man we Argentines know as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, has indeed taken yet another step on his long-standing journey to open the Church to the secular world.

Strictly speaking, Bergoglio has always been in favor of the "civil union" of homosexuals. Yet while he may have spoken of it in the privacy of clerical circles, he has never made a declaration as Supreme Pontiff. He is deft at timing of course, like a politician — so why make the announcement now, and what reactions would this prompt among traditionalists?

The position Bergoglio took in his own country on the Argentine Law for Egalitarian Wedding is telling. When parliament was close to debating its bill, Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires at the time, addressed around a hundred bishops and urged them to be realistic. He cautioned that an outright opposition could produce a considerable setback for the Church.

He believes there is a reality that must be taken into account.

Bergoglio then proposed a middle way between rejecting and accepting the bill: civil union. It was not just a political ploy, but a real conviction that gay couples were a reality and therefore should have the right to access benefits like social services and inheritance, which civil partnership specifically recognizes. He failed to convince his peers, and it became the only one of the archbishop's proposals that was voted down.

It is true that, at the time, Bergoglio wrote a letter to a group of nuns harshly criticizing egalitarian marriage, but this should be seen as a bid to appease the most conservative sector of the Church and above all, the Vatican. It was also meant to counter pressures from those who wanted him out of his position.

Bergoglio has never spoken in favor of marriage for homosexuals, with good reason: He respects the Catholic doctrine that marriage is matrimony between a man and a woman, and open to procreation. But he believes there is a reality that must be taken into account.

Why make the announcement now? — Photo: Evandro Inetti/ZUMA

In his first months as pope, at a press conference held aboard a plane returning from Brazil, Francis took attendees aback with an unexpected statement: "Who am I to judge a gay person honestly searching for God?" It sounded like a paradigm shift in a Church many see as homophobic.

Bergoglio has, in fact long, spiritually accompanied a good many gay people. Even as pope, he received same-sex couples. Recently, he met with the parents of gay men and advised them to accept and accompany this reality.

Is the Church's unity at risk?

Still, the initial question remains: Why did he make his recent declarations now? Is it a signal to progressive church members pressuring for optional celibacy for priests and female ordination? Is it a way of saying his reformist agenda is not yet exhausted, as some believe?

Perhaps the most relevant question is, how will the most conservative sectors react? Is the Church's unity at risk? To be sure, those who already dislike the pope will now like him even less, and double their efforts to influence the next conclave, to obtain a pope more to their liking.

See more from Opinion / Analysis here