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An Apostate Asks: What Has the Conclave Wrought With Francis?

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At first blush, an American heretic like me would find hope in a south hemi pope who prefers public transportation. After all, during a time of global climate and economic crisis, he chose the name of Francis of Assisi who championed nature and served the poor. Yet, a closer examination gives this girl pause. Granted, only hours into his papacy, I am wont to honor the fresh slate the man has earned, but his record as Cardinal Bergoglio is weighted with some heavy baggage.

Certainly the ascendancy of a Latin Jesuit could signal a Church moving from the 11th century mire to a 20th century mindset when the advent of mass education and collective bargaining dramatically shrunk the chasm between rich and poor, black and white. Sadly, this does not look like a Vatican Spring. Cardinal Bergoglio's strident stance on women's reproductive freedom and marriage equality hints that this new era will advance the Church only as far as the Vatican II doorway.

Funny, but in the warp speed of the Internet, the former Bergoglio's statement, "We have to avoid the sickness of a self-referential church," has become practically apocryphal. Nevertheless, I'm curious. As Pope Francis, will he allow women in to leadership, or will he continue to marginalize us and condemn too many to poverty and violence? Will he acknowledge that family in all gender and blended combinations advances the health and welfare of society?

Will the new pope walk in the footsteps of St. Francis and engage the laity in active theological debate and embrace us as co-equal in the understanding and experience of Christian living? Does his choice of avatar signal a leadership founded on humility, focused on lifting the masses out of suffering, rather than just returning mass to the pre-Vatican II regal separation of the curia and the ecclesia?

Of great importance to so many worldwide, will Pope Francis hold his clergy to a high standard of accountability, or will he continue to hide the sins of the Church like so much art in the Vatican basement, never to be aired in the light?

And speaking of his predecessor, Benedict, will Francis act as if he is the singular holder of all truth, or will he, like John XXIII, open a blank book and welcome the world of truth?

Yes, these are some of the questions held by this affable apostate, a child of God scarred very early by watching the Church treat her mother like a criminal for seeking to annul a marriage to a man who abandoned his vows, his children and all paternal duties. This same child of God grew up to cherish her 14 years of Catholic school education that included two years at a Jesuit college before transferring to and graduating from a public university.

Of course, that education was rooted in the progressive post-Vatican II ideals. It encouraged students to employ the Devil's Advocate approach, even on the dicey subject of Church history. We were encouraged to challenge our own faith, and so understand the difference between "Church" and "church." The emphasis was on critical thinking. And so, despite my early childhood anger at the institution, I grew to respect it as one that was confident enough to stand up to the scrutiny of the faithful. At that time, it seemed to me like a more democratic institution and, therefore, one that might be walking (however slowly) toward reform.

Of course, after Pope John Paul II was shot, all of that seemed to evaporate. The Church became more insular, stressing ancient doctrine and rote education. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger achieved political authority, it ran away from reform. It was made very clear that the Curia was uninterested in a curious flock, preferring them to goosestep in perfect dogmatic synch. It was a posture that hardened when he later donned the white robes.

After what I and many consider to be the disaster of Benedict's papacy, the future of the Catholic Church will be writ large in the coming months. Legend has it that Christ animated on the Crucifix before Francis of Assisi and commanded him to, "Go and repair my church in ruins." My hope is that Pope Francis will be inspired by this waning Lenten season and resurrect the progressive vision of Vatican II. I sincerely wish him and all of us dona nobis pacem.