03/26/2013 01:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2013

Pope Francis Could Be a Game-Changer

By all accounts, the world's 1.2 billion Catholics have a new pope who wants to humanize the Church, reach out to other religious groups, and serve as a personal example of how one should live one's life in accordance with the teachings of Christ. Humility, caring for the least among us -- by our specific deeds, not just words -- and placing spiritual values above material gain were all among the Lord's defining characteristics and seem to have long been how Pope Francis has lived his life and demonstrated his faith.

What a welcome and refreshing return to what we all -- Catholics, non-Catholics, and even nonbelievers like me -- learned from our Bible studies. Let us hope that these are early signs of how the new pope will lead his flock and, by example, cause all self-professed people of faith to re-examine what it means to live a truly Christian life on Earth.

For way too long, we have had many Church leaders and their most avid followers behaving like American versions of the Taliban. They have promulgated the most extreme versions of supposed Christian doctrine and sought to impose it on everyone else. Not only have they condemned anyone who dared to deviate one iota from their baleful judgment, they have tried -- and often succeeded -- in having the Christian equivalent of Sharia law enacted at various levels of our country's government. Heaven help the lawmaker who dares resist their will. This, mind you, in a country whose Constitution includes provisions that are intended to protect people from bullying of this kind by Catholics, Protestants, or any other religious group.

Based of what we hear about Pope Francis, there is reason to hope for better days ahead. He seems to be a very good person, in all senses of that word. He is a man who identifies with ordinary people, refusing to elevate himself above them, and choosing to minister personally to the most needy and vulnerable among us. Furthermore, he has given every indication of being an inclusive and forgiving person. If these assessments are correct, I believe that a sense of optimism is justified.

Does he come with some baggage? Yes, he does. A potential blot on his record is his reported failure to speak up more forcefully against the brutal "dirty war" -- mass kidnappings, torture and killings -- that Argentina's military dictators inflicted upon suspected leftists in the late-1970s. He and the 18 million other Argentines who failed that test must live with their consciences, as must I. I was in Argentina on several occasions during that period and also failed to speak out, believing that adding my name to the 30,000 people who were eliminated -- caused to "disappear," as they put it -- would, almost certainly, have made no difference.

Another shadow over what Pope Francis brings to the papacy is his longtime adherence to Church orthodoxy prohibiting abortion, birth control, divorce, women priests, and gay rights. Realistically, he would not have been elected pope, if his history on these matters had been different. So, is revisiting these issues out of the question for the foreseeable future? Probably. But, maybe we should allow this good man, this humble man, this accepting man, this forgiving man time to find his feet and determine which actions are needed to make a real difference to his flock. We could be surprised. In his first appearance after the white smoke rose from the Vatican chimney, he asked everyone to pray for him. Praying that he does the right thing in regard to these retrograde, destructive and inhumane doctrines might be a good idea. Who knows? It could work.