So we now have a new pope. As expected, Francis has solidly reactionary views on same sex marriage, homosexuality, abortion, and contraception, and opposed the liberation theology of Latin America that was perhaps the only good thing to come out of the Catholic Church in the last half century. These features are hardly a surprise since all the cardinals who elected him were appointed by the two previous reactionary popes.
Is there any hope for any progressive movement as a result of his ascendancy to the papacy? Actually, yes, a few small ones.
First, given that he is from Latin America and has not been part of the Vatican curia, he may feel freer to act against abusive priests and those who covered up for them than insiders like Ratzinger, who had been part of the problem all along.
Second, he seems to be a man of personally humble habits, forsaking the official mansion and living in a small apartment and even reportedly cooking his own meals and taking public transport. The means he might have at least some sense of the pulse of ordinary people and their needs and lives, as can be seen form the fact that he has supposedly spoken out strongly about the needs of the poor and the failures of governments to address those needs. The last pope who had at least some claim to being called a ‘good’ pope was John XXIII who too came from humble beginnings and remained that way all his life. Another pope who was reportedly simple and humble was John Paul I but although he was only 66 years old when elected to the position, his tenure lasted only 33 days before he died unexpectedly, to be replaced by the awful John Paul II, so we have no idea how he might have turned out.
The third is that he is a Jesuit. The priests of this order tend to be intellectually sharp people but this is a sword that cuts both ways. It may be that if he so chose, he might find a way to change the church’s positions to become more humane and in tune with modern times while seeming to not obviously repudiate the doctrines of his predecessors. Or he might become even more rigidly conservative.
To take a parallel with two intellectually sharp people who were elevated to the US Supreme Court, William O. Douglas was conservative when he was appointed to the bench as a relatively young man but as he grappled with major issues he moved towards the liberal end of the spectrum and by the time he retired after 36 years, he was the most progressive judge there, a fierce champion of individual rights and civil liberties against government and corporate power. As a contrast we currently have the example of Antonin Scalia who was also very conservative when he was appointed and has since moved even further right to the point of becoming a caricature, making the most outlandish arguments in support of extreme positions against individual rights.
So, as the cliché goes, only time will tell how Francis will turn out.
But it could have been worse. With the Catholic Church, it can always be worse.