Is the Pope Catholic?

I am grateful to have a pope who does not remind me of Emperor Palpatine. This does not exhaust my hopes for the papacy, but we're off to a good start.

The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis, has been a ray of sunshine since his elevation in March. His charm, humility and generosity, and his respect even for gays and atheists, have made him far more appealing than the authoritarian medievalist he replaced. Let's remember that his organization used to burn heretics at the stake. What kind of Catholic leader says, "Who am I to judge?" This one, it turns out.

On the other hand, LGBT people and others have reason to be skeptical. The new pope's considerable pastoral gifts do not erase the Catholic Church's long history of obscurantism, its assaults on intellectual freedom and science, its subordination of women, its anti-gay slanders, its facilitation and cover-up of child rape, its attacks on the use of condoms to prevent AIDS, or its dogma that "outside the church there is no salvation," which fueled great oppression and bloodshed. Redemption requires more than smiles and soothing words.

But let us not be as peremptory as the Grand Inquisitor. Francis is new on the job and deserves a chance to make his mark. Last week he gave an extraordinary interview to Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of Italy's La Civiltà Cattolica. Consider several illustrative quotes:

All the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief. ... When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit.

God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him.

Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal "security," those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists -- they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.

The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

That the bishop of Rome should embrace this "conservatism of doubt," as Andrew Sullivan describes it, is a stark departure from his immediate predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They fought to dismantle the legacy of Vatican II, which represented an opening of the church to the modern world.

The first Jesuit pope is making a good deal of trouble for the bullies in his midst, saying of abortion, gay marriage and contraception, "It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time." It is revealing that some of the anti-gay obsessives he implicitly skewers, like Maggie Gallagher and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, gamely applaud as if that were just what they wanted to hear.

This pope's less imperial and more community-driven approach could bear fruit down the road. Some liberals are dismissive because he covers his right flank and did not instantly issue five revolutionary encyclicals. After he excommunicated Australian priest Greg Reynolds, who advocated gay marriage and the ordination of women, a friend posted the story with the comment, "Actions versus words." But that's not it. It's process versus gimme-everything-now. Even if Francis is open to making changes, he can hardly be expected to let a renegade priest control his timing and agenda. The excommunication is no surprise, though its speed is galling considering that, as an Australian paper noted, it took the same hierarchy 18 years to defrock a pedophile. The organization's blind spots and double standards will not be remedied easily or quickly.

Francis, as he says, is a son of the church. He is not a revolutionary. There is reason to hope that he may be a reformer, but the Curia is a big ship to turn around. Former Catholics like me, who parted ways with Mother Church long ago, do not help her remaining voices of renewal with our haste in passing judgment -- an impulse that, incidentally, suggests that we, as her fruit, did not fall far from the tree.

The hope for change may be only a glimmer, but it is premature to snuff it out. Past wrongs should not blind us to new opportunities, even if they will have to be pursued by others. Francis talks about a collective journey. We should offer our blessings to those prepared to walk with this pontiff who has exchanged the so-called Prada loafers for the shoes of the fisherman.

This piece is updated from a version that appeared in Bay Windows and Metro Weekly.