Nicole Winfield

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis has made some of the most important policy speeches of his pontificate in recent days, catching up for lost time after months of attention to bureaucratic reform and a turbulent meeting of bishops on family issues that just ended.

Often speaking in his native Spanish, Francis has focused on the poor and unemployed, the environment and even evolution, seemingly emboldened to speak on topics that might make even some of his closest collaborators squirm.

He has not changed church doctrine. But he is pushing on some issues, raising eyebrows with a blunt speaking style on others, and made clear where his progressive social priorities lie.

He is scheduled to make a major policy speech to the European Parliament next month.

In his most explosive speech to a group of penal lawyers, Francis went well beyond the Vatican’s previous opposition to capital punishment by denouncing life prison terms as a “hidden death penalty.” Francis’ outreach to prisoners is well-known: He famously washed the feet of juvenile delinquents — Muslims and women among them — at a Rome detention center during his first Holy Thursday as pope. In a speech last week, Francis denounced prison systems as “out of control” for depriving people of their dignity, citing recourse to the death penalty, detaining people without charge or conviction and holding inmates in isolation, which he called a form of “physical and psychological torture.” Putting him squarely at odds with the United States, where he is going next year, Francis also denounced extraordinary renditions, which the CIA used after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to take terror suspects to third countries for interrogation.

He also touched on creation and evolution, saying the Big Bang theory doesn’t contradict the Christian belief in creation.

Regarding his concern for the poor, the unemployed and the environment, some might label him a communist. “They don’t understand that love for the poor is at the center of the Gospel,” he said. The remarks were delivered to a meeting of representatives of popular movements at the Vatican. In the audience were farmers, miners, fishermen and Argentine “cartoneros,” who sift through garbage.