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He’s met with a transgender man, told Catholics not to breed like rabbits and washed the feet of a Muslim woman. While all this may sound like he’s ready to overturn dogma, Pope Francis’s real interest is geopolitics.

In less than two years in office, he’s nudged the conversation away from abusive priests and used the image makeover to wade into conflicts from helping to restore Cuban-U.S. ties to lobbying for a global climate accord. In September, he will become the first religious leader who serves as a head of state to address a joint session of Congress.

He’s capitalizing on the fascination that he exercises,” said John Wauck, a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “He’s gotten the attention of the world and is using it.

By sidestepping the debate on abortion, gay marriage and sex, Francis has positioned himself for a role in world affairs, from the economic crisis to relations with China, according to Father Thomas Reese, author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.

Pope John Paul II was single-minded in the pursuit of ending Communism in the 1980s, and Pope Benedict XVI was a gaffe-prone bookworm fretting over relativism. Francis, by contrast, embraces a broad policy agenda outside Vatican walls.

In an echo of the Obama administration, he is even making his own pivot to Asia. He already has been twice to the region shunned by his predecessor with a view not only to refilling pews but also gaining traction with the rising powers.