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Why This Atheist Has a New Hope in Pope Francis

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As an atheist, I should not have any interest in the matters of the Catholic Church. I should not care about the pageantry of Conclave nor should I care about the pontiff that arises out of the aforementioned ancient election. But I do. I care about who is the head of the Catholic Church because similar to the way that one country's economy can have drastic effects on another's, what direction the world's 1.2 billion Catholics take affects the rest of us.

Let's start with the most obvious change that Pope Francis brings. Pope Francis -- formerly known as Jorge Bergoglio -- is of Argentinean nationality. He is not -- as many people were quick to claim after his election -- truly Hispanic as he is the son of an Italian parents but the fact that there is a non-European pope has massive ramifications. This is a pope who has grown up around the poverty that has pervaded many parts of Argentina and who once called for his peers to remember that Jesus Christ himself bathed lepers and dined with prostitutes. He reportedly lives frugally, takes public transportation and cooks his own meals. He is, if anything, one of the people who understands how to relate with the poor because he actually knows the poor. If his election signals nothing else, it signals a possible shift in policy within the Catholic Church where there is a larger emphasis on church leaders knowing and understanding their people. Perhaps these church leaders will encourage politicians to know their people better in countries where Catholicism and politics are closely related.

What of the new pontiff's name choice though? Why "Francis" and what does this say about the direction the new pope hopes to take the church in? St. Francis of Assisi -- who was born Giovanni di Bernardone -- was a man who is immortalized and praised for living a simple life of frugality and humility. He is widely regarded as one of the most iconic religious figures in Christianity and so the decision to take up such a revered name was obviously quite the daring move on the new pope's part. St. Francis is perhaps best known for rebuilding a decrepit church and later realizing that when he reportedly heard Jesus Christ telling him to "rebuild my church" it meant through reform and was not meant to be taken quite so literally.

Does this mean that Pope Francis plans to follow in his predecessors footsteps and rebuild the Catholic Church through new doctrine? One would hope so. The sex abuse scandal, a lack of roles for women, and antiquated policy and PR have all drawn the ire not only from non-believers like myself, but Catholics as well. Many argue that in order for the Catholic Church to remain relevant they must become more accepting of women and must change their harsh rhetoric towards the LGBTQ community. The simple fact is that while the Catholic Church -- which is run by a decidedly older population -- has so far held steadfast to arcane beliefs many of their followers -- in particular, the youth -- are moving in the opposite direction. It was reported last week that a recent Quinnipiac University poll found "54 percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage while just 38 percent are opposed, compared to a 47-43 percent margin among all American voters." This is a big deal. Pope Francis' country of heritage, Argentina, is one of the 11 countries globally that recognizes same-sex marriages on the national scale. Although the then-Cardinal Bergoglio vehemently opposed same-sex marriage being legalized in Argentina -- going so far as to deem it a "real and dire anthropological throwback" -- it is clear that a sizeable majority of his followers did not agree.

So what does all of this mean for the papacy of Pope Francis and why do I care? I care because the Catholic Church is one of the oldest religious institution in the world. There are 77.7 million Catholics in the U.S. making them the largest religious denomination in the country. If attitudes within Catholicism on women and women's rights, poverty, and the LGBTQ community change on the global scale starting with the Vatican, then they will gradually change on the country-by-country scale as well. Attitudes in the Catholic Church affect policy in countries with high Catholic populations because it is such a gargantuan entity; and like it or not, that is just a simple fact. I predict a papacy full of change in some areas and a severe lack of it in others. I think that the new pontiff will deal with the sex abuse scandal in a much more active way than his predecessor for one thing. I also think that we may perhaps see women deacons in the future but I would not go so far to say that we will see priestesses any time soon. Pope Francis' attitude towards abortion and contraception will be something to watch as many women in his homeland of Argentina cannot afford contraception and the country was reported to have one of the highest abortion rates in the world in 2010. I do believe the pontiff to be a genuine man when it comes to taking care of the poor and perhaps we will see an increased interest in combating poverty from the Catholic Church. On attitudes towards the LGBTQ community, I doubt there will be any change, however.

Change will be difficult and slow for an institution that has done things in a largely hidebound way for little over 2,000 years. But change is something worth fighting for. I might not believe in God, but I believe that Catholics and atheists can work together just as all of humanity can work together towards equality and justice when we put the needs of modern people first and the arcane doctrine second. Traditions like Conclave are good, they help preserve the Catholic Church's identity, but that does not mean that traditional attitudes that were relevant 2,000 years ago are still relevant today. He might not be the one to approve doctrine condoning same-sex marriage or approve doctrine changing global attitudes towards women and their rights, but Pope Francis certainly has all of the makings to shift the Catholic Church in a progressive direction; that is, if he wants to.