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By Mark Gabrish Conlan

April 11, 2013 (San Diego) – I can remember the first time I experienced a Papal conclave. No, it wasn’t a real one; it was the one depicted in the 1969 film The Shoes of the Fisherman. It’s about a Ukrainian archbishop, Kiril (Anthony Quinn), who was tortured in the Gulag, gets summoned to Rome, is made a cardinal and suddenly finds himself in the middle of a conclave when the Pope who appointed him dies. The conclave deadlocks and Kiril is elected Pope as a compromise candidate, then uses his new-found powers to mediate an end to the Cold War and ward off a military threat to the West from China. It was based on a novel by Morris L. West, a potboiler author of religious books, and though it wasn’t much as a movie I found the depiction of the rituals of the conclave absolutely stunning — particularly the repeated puffs of black smoke signaling that the cardinals hadn’t yet reached the two-thirds majority for picking a Pope.

Ironically, the last time before the most recent one that a conclave actually happened, I was reading Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons, the prequel to the highly successful The Da Vinci Code (though when it was filmed it was turned into a sequel instead). In that conclave, the four principal candidates for Pope — the ones referred to as Papabili (literally “pope-able”), were being murdered one by one, by a mysterious killer who left coded messages behind and seemed to be part of a broader conspiracy that the author, being Dan Brown, didn’t reveal the true reach of until the end of the book. I remember being disappointed by the vast gap between the melodramatic conclave Brown brought to life in his novel and the surprisingly short and simple one that actually took place, where the Roman Catholic Church’s cardinals agreed quickly that Joseph Ratzinger of Germany should be the next Pope.

Ratzinger had been on my radar screen ever since 1986, when as head of the church’s Office for the Defense and Propagation of the Faith — an institution you no doubt know better by its former name, the Holy Inquisition — he issued a statement calling homosexuality “an objective moral disorder.” Not many people realized this, but this was a major policy shift for the Catholic Church. Before that the church had preached that it was all right to be Gay as long as you didn’t actually do anything about it — as long as you didn’t have sex with partners of your own gender. Indeed, that’s one reason why, historically, so many Gay men had been attracted to the priesthood as a career option: because it gave them a socially acceptable and even valued reason not to have sex with women, marry them and have families No, Ratzinger said, the very fact of being Gay was now considered “an objective moral disorder” by the Roman Catholic Church.

And just in case anyone might have hoped his anti-Gay attitude might have been softened when he became Pope Benedict XVI, he made it clear it hadn’t been on November 29, 2005 when Benedict announced that his response to the scandals about priests molesting children would be to bar any Gay men from entering seminaries or the priesthood itself. Never mind that at least as many Catholic priests have been disgraced for doing little girls as for doing little boys. Never mind that psychologists who have studied child sexual abuse have said that in most cases it’s far more about power and dominance than it is an expression of sexuality. Never mind that, as Gabriel Longo wrote in his 1966 memoir Spoiled Priest — about why he left the Roman Catholic priesthood to marry a woman and start a family — throughout his years in the seminary the student body had been divided between two groups he called the “flits” and the “non-flits,” and the difference was the “non-flits” spent every waking hour thinking about women while the “flits,” as Longo diplomatically put it, “concealed their real interests under a mask of piety.” And never mind that according to Longo, it was the “flits” who rose through the hierarchy and actually ran the church.

When Benedict’s missive came out, repeating his language from 19 years earlier that “deep-seated homosexual tendencies … are … objectively disordered” and adding that the church therefore “cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘Gay culture,’” I wrote an editorial for Zenger’s Newsmagazine called “Whitewash the Sistine Chapel.” My point was that this church does an awful lot of business (including electing its popes) in a building that’s one of the high points of Western culture because of the work of the Gay artist Michaelangelo decorating its ceiling and its back wall, and until the Roman Catholic Church became Gay-friendly, “it’s time for its Queer members to quit it en masse and whitewash the Sistine Chapel as they go. After all, how can all those good, homophobic Roman Catholics stand to worship in front of artworks made by a man who, if he lived today, they would condemn as emotionally immature and sick?”

So when Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, announced his sudden resignation as Pope early this year I wasn’t at all sorry to see him go. Not that I had any particular hope for his replacement. The Roman Catholic Church still hasn’t recovered from the premature deaths of Popes John XXIII after five years and John Paul I after just two months, short-circuiting their attempts to liberalize the church. The extended papacy of the conservative John Paul II and his replacement by the even more reactionary Benedict XVI means that since 1978 the College of Cardinals, like the overall leadership of the church, has been pulled steadily Rightward. As one commentator noted in handicapping the most recent conclave, the cardinals weren’t about to select anyone who’d even consider ordaining women as priests, lifting the insanity of the celibacy requirement, ending the church’s holy war on marriage equality for same-sex couples or revoking its idiotic ban on birth control.

Still, so far I’m getting a good feeling from the new Pope, Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He’s the first Pope from the western hemisphere and the first to be a Jesuit — an organization that historically has been in an uncertain position, vis-à-vis the Vatican, since Pope Clement XIV officially outlawed it in 1773. Clement’s decree wasn’t repealed until 1814, and the Jesuits got into hot water with a Pope as recently as 1981, when John Paul II vetoed their choice to run the order and appointed his own man instead — sort of like an American labor union putting a local in trusteeship. The number after Francis’ name is “I,” indicating that no previous Pope has used it, and it comes not only from St. Francis of Assisi — who, given the seriousness with which he took his vow of poverty and the fervency of his self-denial, is probably the one figure in Christian history who comes off more like an Eastern than a Western holy man — but Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary who brought Catholicism to Asia.

While hardly taking it to the levels of St. Francis, Francis I has earned a reputation for turning down the quasi-imperial trappings of the church and living as simply as possible. In Buenos Aires he took the bus to work instead of using the chauffeur-driven car the church put at his disposal. When he got elected Pope he went to the hotel where he’d been staying during the conclave and paid his room bill himself. For his first public appearance as pontiff, he wore the plain white vestments of an ordinary priest instead of the fur-trimmed red half-cloak available to him as Pope, and the cross around his neck was made of iron, not gold. And when he went into a church in Rome for his first public prayers since his election, he used an ordinary sedan instead of the papal limousine. So far it’s reminded me of the late, much lamented Princess Diana, similarly refusing the perks of a royal position and going out as jes’ plain folks. People’s Princess, meet the People’s Pope.

Francis I has his flaws. He’s still mistrusted in Argentina by liberals in general — including the adherents of the “liberation theology” movement for social justice for the poor, which flourished in the 1960’s and 1970’s until John Paul II denounced it and effectively shut it down. That’s partly because he mostly stayed silent during the years of the so-called “dirty war” the Argentine generals who ruled brutally in the 1970’s and the 1980’s waged against their own people — though after the military government fell he advocated canonizing three of the priests who had been killed. Argentina’s current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, clashed with the new Pope when she was working to get the Argentinian legislature to legalize contraception and same-sex marriage — and he was working, ultimately unsuccessfully, to keep that from happening.

But within the limits of a position in the hierarchy of a church whose last two Popes have moved it quite far Rightward from the heady days of Vatican II in the early 1960’s, Francis has staked out some interesting positions. He’s called Latin America “the most unequal part of the world.” Even more impressively, he’s called out priests who grant or deny parishioners the church’s sacraments on the basis of whether or not they follow the hierarchy’s definition of orthodoxy. In a speech last year he accused fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and befriended prostitutes.

“In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage,” Francis said in 2012 when he was still plain old Cardinal Berdoglio. “These are today’s hypocrites: those who clericalize the church, those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized.” After comparing this sort of Catholicism to the Pharisees of Jesus’s time, Berdoglio told the priests under his supervision to “go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.”

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but a Pope that asks the what-would-Jesus-do question instead of wondering what’s best for the church’s damage control sounds like what the fractious Roman Catholic Church really needs right now. I was particularly struck by the comment in Berdoglio’s speech about the “poor girl” who carries her pregnancy to term “rather than returning the child to sender.” If that’s an indication of the attitude he’ll take as Pope, it’s a good sign that Berdoglio — unlike a lot of other people on the so-called “pro-life” side of the abortion debate — understands that it’s not enough just to preach to women dealing with unwanted pregnancies that they’ll be damned if they don’t give birth. You also need to be aware of what problems both the woman and her child are going to have in the real world, and be willing to reach out with love and some level of material support.

Pope Francis I takes over a troubled church. Much of the coverage of the conclave repeated the church’s claim that 1.2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people are Catholic — which would make it the largest religious denomination on earth (only Hinduism and Sunni Islam even comes close). But a lot of them, especially in the developed countries, have become what the church’s conservatives contemptuously call “cafeteria Catholics,” picking and choosing among the church’s dogmas and ignoring the pronouncements from Rome with which they disagree. It’s been estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of all U.S. Catholics practice some form of birth control even though their church leadership continues to say that’s a big no-no.

The new Pope will have other problems, too. He’ll have to deal with the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy which runs the church’s day-to-day affairs and has been accused of both financial and sexual corruption. Italy’s tabloids have been covering the so-called “Vatileaks” scandal, which claims that members of the hierarchy have been blackmailed by male prostitutes whose services they used. Francis will have to handle the continuing fallout from the priests who regularly abused children sexually, and the others — including cardinals like Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who went to Rome and voted in the conclave despite an uproar back home — who allegedly covered for them by moving them from parish to parish and not reporting their crimes to the police.

What’s more, he’ll have to deal with a world in which all the old established religions are losing relevance, especially among young people. Between the inroads Protestant evangelists are making, even in the Latin American countries that are the most heavily Catholic in the world, and the number of young people in the U.S. and Europe who aren’t going to church at all and are declaring their religious preference either as “none” or as “spiritual” — convinced that there’s something out there beyond our material reality but unsure of what it is and quite sure that no really existing religion comes close to describing it — it’s going to be harder and harder for hierarchies like the Catholics in Rome and the Anglicans/Episcopalians in Britain to maintain the members they need to support themselves financially and have both political and ethical clout.

But the speech Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, made to the Argentine priests a year ago suggests that at least he’s aware of the problems. Telling off priests who refuse to baptize the babies of single mothers sends the message that though Francis may be a conservative, he’s not a troglodyte. He seems aware that the decisions he and the Vatican hierarchs make behind closed doors have real effects on real people’s lives. He also seems to know that the church he’s going to be the absolute ruler of was based on the teachings of someone who went out of his way to reach out to the humblest, the poorest, the lowest of the low, the outcasts of his time and place. If Francis can put some of Jesus’s spirit into action, instead of just paying lip service to the poor and their needs the way John Paul II did, he may be able to bring the Roman Catholic Church into the 21st century in more ways than just knowing how to use Twitter.

The opinions in this column reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine.