March 15, 2013
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?
As the kind of Catholic typically categorized as lapsed — meaning I don't consider myself Catholic despite a rigorous childhood regime of Mass and rosaries — I object strenuously to the church's positions involving sexuality.
And yet I still appreciate the best of what the Catholic Church does, most notably its work to educate and help the disadvantaged, and I appreciate the clergy and laypeople who make that happen. Without them, Chicago and many other places would be materially and spiritually poorer.
When I express my bifurcated view to certain friends, they react the way Courtney's friends did, confused and dismayed.
But many so-called practicing American Catholics — most, in fact — have mastered the art of holding two thoughts at once about the church.
As the cardinals headed to Rome, a New York Times/CBS poll showed that a majority of American Catholics wanted a younger, more liberal pope, one who would approve of artificial birth control, married priests and female priests.
And surprise: Almost two-thirds of those surveyed approved of gay marriage. That's more than in the general population.
Meanwhile, 8 in 10 said they think it's possible to disagree with the pope on such issues and still be a good Catholic.
Such numbers make it tempting to call the pope irrelevant and to view the election of a new one as little more than an HBO drama destined to win an Emmy for best costumes.
But the pope still matters, even in societies that don't strictly follow his edicts. He sets a tone in the world's most powerful church. That church's doctrine still shapes societies. Think Obamacare and contraception.
Pope Francis, a conservative, will give many Catholics plenty to disagree with, but his tone may improve the church's standing in the world. He is known as humble, frugal, humorous and he has dedicated his life to improving the lives of poor people.
You can think he's wrong on some matters but still appreciate that.
Is it possible to simultaneously appreciate and object?
The day it's not is the day the Catholic Church gets a whole lot smaller.
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