Every time a new Pope is elected by the conclave of cardinals, we see a number of different reactions (except when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected — I don’t think anyone had high expectations for him).
First, there’s indifference. I’m pretty sure a lot of people fit into this category. It’s the, “I really could care less, dude, religion is a joke” apathy that comes from many folks I know. I totally get it, but there’s a reason why you should at least pay attention. We’ll get to that in a little bit.
Second, you have a lot of people who believe that no matter what, the Church is incapable of changing its ways.
Third, there’s the high hopes people. Since we (myself included) aren’t a part of it, we’ll just roll our eyes at this group. Whenever black smoke comes out of that chimney, it’s like a Catholic version of Beatlemania. Liberal Catholics hope that the new guy will finally lift the ban on women as priests, stop saying that contraception is a sin and leave gay people alone. Conservative Catholics hope that the new resident of the Vatican apartment will reverse the Second Vatican Council, make all masses Latin again and for the love of God, get those altar girls back in the pews where they belong.
I think Pope Francis (the first Pope to ever take Francis as a name) really got liberal people in category three’s hearts all aflutter with thoughts of a Church that they’ve always wanted. How nice would it be to have coffee and donuts in the church hall after Mass with that lovely gay couple down the street? It would be a welcome change of pace to sit in your pew on Sunday morning without feeling guilty about the birth control you’re on, wouldn’t it?
If you were hoping for any of the above, it’s not going to happen. If you thought there was a chance that your daughter could grow up and be a priest, don’t hold your breath. The Catholic Church is not going to change its position on any of these things any time soon, if ever. This is not “Extreme Makeover – Vatican Edition.”
Why should those of us who aren’t Catholics actually care what the Pope says or what the Church’s doctrines are? Because approximately one-sixth of the world’s population and one-fourth of the US population is Catholic. While quite a few Catholics (especially those in Europe and North America) don’t live their lives in lockstep with Church teachings, there are many (members of my own family included) who do.
Pope Francis isn’t changing the Church’s rules, he’s just softening the tone. He is moving the primary focus away from obsessing about people’s sexuality and placing it instead on the poor. If we can get 1/6 of the world’s population and a quarter of the US population to care more about economic justice and less about keeping people from getting contraception, that’s a huge accomplishment. This will never be the Church you want, but at least for a little while, this may just be the Church (and Pope) we need.
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