New pope offers tiny glimmer of change in church

A few years ago, quite unexpectedly for a Protestant of completely lackluster, OK zero, participation in any religious activities, I found myself inexplicably Catholo-curious. Something about the ritual of Mass was mysterious and magnetic, and then comforting. The space in Catholic sanctuaries is like none other, simultaneously personal and quiet while offering ornate public tributes to a higher power. Don’t even get me started on St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan or, for heaven’s sake, the Basilica at Notre Dame.

My curiosity, which ran deeper than buildings and rites, brought me dangerously close to pursuing bona fide Catholic credentials, but I could never get past the politics. As much solace I found in the space that attending Mass and imagining participating in the church community, the disconnect that exists between the dogma dictated from the Vatican and the lives most Catholics live was too vast for me to reconcile. So I remain unaffiliated, but still marvel at the glacial pace of church doctrine’s evolution, wishing semi-secretly for a centuries-overdue acceleration of its position on things like contraception, and how women are treated both in the church and, more importantly, in the world.

It isn’t coming any time soon, of course, but there are some signs of ever-so-infinitesimal movement with the selection Pope Francis.

First, there is the mere fact of a conclave not predicated on a papal death. Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement was revolutionary in and of itself, the likes of which has not occurred in 600 years. Then, there is the Vatican’s first look beyond the First World in more than 1,200 years, appointing a pope from Argentina. Never mind that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, was born in Buenos Aires to Italian parents and, therefore, is still fundamentally an old white guy. His selection is a big deal for a church that has in recent years paid less attention than Pope Francis would like to the world’s poorest inhabitants – and changing the conditions that keep them in such poverty.

Choosing a pope who is widely known for his commitment to and connection with those struggling the most, whether in poverty or in illness or in circumstances of oppression, was a big step for the Catholics. That is the best of what the church does, and Bergoglio’s long history of simple living goes far beyond issuing doctrine. He seems to live what he believes.

Perhaps, in a few more millennia, Pope Francis’ priorities will have evolved church doctrine such that it recognizes that poverty is compounded by limited access to contraception, and that women who lack the skills, education or power to change their circumstances will be stuck in a poverty cycle that continues for generations. There are tiny glimmers of hope here and there – the church, after all has softened its position on condom use such that married couples can use them to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS if one spouse carries the virus – but a wholesale leap into the present tense is not likely to be forthcoming. Francis’ and the church’s work to help those with AIDS would be far more effective if there was a prevention component based on widespread condom use.

Those connections can and must come, but for now still exist in the shadows, populated by the Catholic heroes who do not let a little disconnect bring them down.

The nuns in trouble with the church for spending more time on social justice work than on carrying the Vatican’s stale anti-birth control water or those priests and monks and nuns who heed liberation theology’s call to right social injustice care more about how they demonstrate their Catholic beliefs than how the Vatican interprets what those beliefs ought to be. That is the deepest of faith.

Then there are the millions of Catholics who nod obediently at the archaic proclamations and positions held by their church’s leaders and then carry on in their own ways, using birth control, loving people of the same sex, or any number of Vatican no-nos, taking the good with the bad. That is admirable faith.

For a neophyte maybe-sometimes-wannabe Catholic like me, that is too big a leap and so I will for now, remain a voyeur, taking in the moments of beauty and solace found in visiting a church and attending Mass and seeing the selfless work so many Catholics do on others’ behalf.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at

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