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Pope Francis: Confounding the pundits as an agent of change

March 29, 2013|By Susan Brenneman
  • Pope Francis washes the foot of an inmate at the juvenile detention center of Casal del Marmo in Rome.
Pope Francis washes the foot of an inmate at the juvenile detention center… (L'Osservatore Romano /…)

Many American Roman Catholics would like to see their church change. In mid-March, the Pew Research Center delivered this poll: 76% of U.S. Catholics countenance birth control; 59% want women as priests; 64% think priests should be allowed to marry.

We've been assured by Vatican watchers of all stripes that America's liberal Catholics are probably going to be disappointed in Pope Francis; the new pontiff, wrote John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter, is "unquestionably orthodox."

And yet, so far, many American Catholics are not in the least unhappy with their new pope: 73% applaud his election, according to Pew. 

Maybe that's because the relationship between Francis and the faithful is still in the honeymoon stage. Maybe U.S. Catholics are resigned (only 20% think the church will change its position on female priests or married priests by 2050; a slim majority think contraception has a better chance). Maybe Francis is more of a change agent than the pundits realized.

Starting with Pope Benedict XVI's historic decision to resign his office and the conclave's vote to make a New World archbishop pontiff, it's been surprise after happy surprise for some Catholics (for a dyspeptic counter view, read Michael Brendan Dougherty in Slate). Francis may never ordain a woman, but when change has been a long, long time coming, even small steps (especially if they're taken in plain black shoes) can lift liberal hearts -- not to mention a pope's American popularity. What will he do next?

SLIDE SHOW: Pope Francis' small steps to lift liberals' hearts

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