When a priest in Italy tried to convince my imprisoned father to fight for Mussolini, he quit the Catholic Church. My own break with the Church was far less dramatic and had to do with my father's insistence that I attend Mass even though he refused, and my unwillingness to get up early on Sunday morning. I was also becoming more conscious of the hypocrisy that works its way through just about every aspect of the Church, most obviously the conspicuous wealth and power that seems to bang right up against the teachings of Jesus Christ at every turn.
The aspect of the Catholic Church that I am most proud of in fact is the ability of so many practitioners to reject what makes no sense. Birth control? Homosexuality? Racial equality and integration? The Church has been wrong before, and will be wrong again. I think I'll deal with this on my own, thanks anyway.
So much to my surprise and wonder, this most conservative group of men select a pope that is very nearly an anti-pope. The world -- my cynical self included -- is enthralled with this pope who does not just preach peace and love but walks the walk. Fellow atheist Bill Maher fondly calls him "Pope Frank."
In a world in which reaching out is seen as weakness, inclusion as the work of the devil, and the poor and meek merely deserving of their bad fortunes, Pope Francis humbly disagrees. He reminds us that he is not God, but attempts to represent God; perhaps the Church is infallible, but the man who represents the Church should not be one to judge.
So this new world leader rolls out some amazing comments. Not only the predictable ones about the poor and war, but about gays and abortion.
That said, let me not appear unrealistically optimistic. Pope Francis will not be likely to ever support a woman's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. But he will not presume to support laws punishing women for having an abortion. He will not be likely to condemn gay men and women for marrying but won't in the near future offer to perform the ceremony.
In fact, hot off the presses, the Pope has just excommunicated a priest for advocating gay marriage and female clergy. Apparently the wheels of the Catholic Church move slowly and this has been in the works for years. Even so, he's the Pope, he could have figured out how to put the brakes on this. But he's said he was fallible, so maybe this is the proof. I don't know, this is a little too much like Obama not being willing to run up against the bad boys in Congress.
So here we are, lapsed and intact Catholics all excited about having a Pope who seems to really care about people and not just perpetuating the power and the holdings of the Vatican. I'm going to keep my eye on him though. The most difficult job he is likely to have will be retraining those who work under him. Centuries of greed and narcissism don't evolve easily into, well, Christianity.