Yes, this is a post about the new Pope. And not because he's got a chemistry degree in his background.
My feelings about religion at any point in time are rarely clear. My skeptical nature and my Catholic upbringing are usually found in either a state of open conflict or uneasy truce. Fortunately, that doesn't matter so much for this post, since I'm not really planning to get too much into theology, and don't need to get into my own feelings and beliefs (and disbeliefs) at all.
Pope Francis does not have what anyone would call a progressive outlook on any number of social issues. He's not exactly a big promoter of women's issues. He's called same-sex marriage "demonic" in origin. We are not going to wake up tomorrow to learn that women can now become priests, or that priests can marry. None of those changes are going to happen under this Papacy.
But they would not have happened under a Scola Papacy. Or a Scherer Papacy. Or an Ouellet Papacy. Or a Dolan Papacy. Or, for that matter, under any of the leading candidates. Or under any of the non-leading candidates, with the possible exceptions of 1000:1 longshots Bono and Guido Sarducci. (It definitely would not have happened under the 666:1 longshot Dawkins Papacy, but for very different reasons.)
Do not get me wrong. I would be very, very happy to see the Church move on homosexuality, on women's equality, or any number of other areas where the Church's position can most charitably be described as "Renaissance" (and where "Medieval" is probably a more accurate fit). But I had absolutely no expectation of seeing those changes to begin with, so Francis' positions on those issues don't really color my view of his unexpected elevation.
In other words, I'll take what I can get. This Pope was the most conservative choice possible, except for everyone else that was remotely likely to be picked.
And there's cause for some real hope that there will be some real, good effects that result from this.
Like it or not (I tend to side with "not"), the Roman Catholic Church is an important player on the global political stage. They have a billion or so believers, and very strong ties with the history and political structures in a large number of countries. They have little power, but great influence. Even if the net impact of that influence is a negative, any shift in the right direction can have a real effect on the lives of real people.
The new Pontiff's personal history suggests that he has a genuine commitment to dealing with poverty. Whether that commitment will survive both his elevation and (more importantly) resistance from the Curia is another matter entirely, of course. But the man is a Jesuit, so if the Curia resists any changes he proposes, they're likely to have a real fight on their hands. (And, after four years at a Jesuit high school, the Jesuit thing alone makes me hope for the best. I learned - painfully, but very quickly - that it's very dangerous to underestimate the members of the Society of Jesus.)
Overall, I'm somewhat hopeful that Francis will be able to effectively begin the process of shifting the Church's focus, particularly in the area of the right to life. The Church has been focused, for far too long, primarily on what happens before birth and just before death. Under Francis, I think there is a real chance that we will start to see that focus shift to where it should be - on the part of life that takes place between birth and death.