New pope, old question: Can you appreciate and object at the same time?

Conservative views will discourage many, but his character could improve church's standing

The white smoke had barely wafted away from the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday when my friend Courtney, to my surprise, posted on Facebook, "We got a new Pope!"

I bumped into her a while later.

"Are you Catholic?" I asked.


"But you're excited about the new pope?"

She was. How could you not be, she wondered?

Courtney, who is 24, explained that she doesn't consider herself religious, much less Catholic. Contrary to Catholic dogma, she believes in birth control, legalized abortion and same-sex marriage.

And still she was excited.

Her longtime boyfriend, she explained, is Catholic, and she enjoys the "cultural aspects of Catholicism," things like baptisms and Easter, that she shares with his family and which connect her to a larger identity.

"In a world that is constantly changing and shifting," she said, "I like to know that strict traditions exist somewhere."

And then there was the drama of the papal conclave in Rome over the past few days.

Would the new pope be from Brazil? From Africa? How many rounds of the secret balloting before the black smoke turned to white?

"The smoke, the robes, the cardinals, the seclusion, the people gathered in the square, it is all exciting," she said. "Like opening an envelope at the Oscars. Add the history and traditional elements to this story and everything gets even more exciting."

So when white smoke finally puffed from the chapel chimney, arriving like the last scene of a thriller or the final score of a tense game, she made her Facebook proclamation: "We got a new Pope!"

She took some heat for that.

Courtney found herself explaining to friends that, no, she didn't agree with the Catholic Church on some major issues. Yes, the sex scandals were awful.

But wasn't it possible, even so, she wondered, to appreciate certain things about the church, the pope, the process?

"It seems the art of simple appreciation is lost," she said.

Courtney's experience illustrates how tricky it can be to talk about the pope, or about Catholicism in any context.

Can you appreciate and object at the same time?