Somewhere across the Tiber, white smoke heralded a new ascent to the Papal throne. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the first non-European Pope since the 8th century. And despite the general apathy with which European media report (or not) just about any religious affair, the Roman Catholic Church arouses some perennial curiosity, whether for mockery, outrage, devotion or something else.
It is quite palpably obvious that most people take any excuse to bash Catholicism. The Catholic Church is the largest private provider of HIV/AIDS care in the world, but all we hear about is their stance on condoms. They spend millions of words on their opposition to poverty, capital punishment, sex trafficking and greed, but all we ever hear is that the Catholic Church is obsessed with sex. What is patently obvious to anyone who thinks for a moment on the matter is that our media is obsessed with the Catholic Church's position on sex and reports it disproportionately, but this serves to prove my point. Almost everything the Church or any of their members says is misrepresented, taken out of context, and quite often isn't even on behalf of the Church - one thinks of the many times we have heard outrage at the 'disgusting views of the Catholic Church' and it turns out to be the personal views of an obscure Cardinal from nowhere near the Vatican.
Enough of that. There is reasonable concern about the Catholic Church, and any Christian will admit that everyone makes grave mistakes. The sex abuse scandal, while it remains unclear what involvement most individuals had in it (it is not hard to find completely unevidenced assertions about Ratzinger's role, for example), was damaging beyond words for the victims and for the Church's reputation. Many in the Church live in great abundance - and while it would be an intolerable loss to get rid of so much history by demolishing the Sistine Chapel and selling the resources, it still seems clear that many in the Church don't take seriously enough Jesus' teaching to identify with the poor.
But I, for one, am quite excited about the new Pope. It is easy to raise questions about his age - he is only 10 years younger than Ratzinger - but there are signs that there is something to like for everyone. For one, he marks the end of a long period of European dominance: it is sometimes hard to remember that half of the early Popes were from the Middle East and Africa. This is a welcome reminder that the Church is a worldwide body with no concern for race. And let's face it, religion is pretty dead in Europe, or at least put under the carpet. Perhaps a Pope from a place where Catholicism is thriving lends some new energy.
Bergoglio seems to take seriously the Church's purpose to take care of the poor. Back when Christian martyrdom was rife, St Lawrence of Rome was arrested and ordered to collect all the church's treasures to give them up. Lawrence collected the homeless of the city and informed the authorities that they were the church's treasures. Bergoglio seems to be reviving this tradition: he travels by public transport, refused a formal residence for a flat and asked fellow Argentines not to fly to Rome to celebrate his victory, but to give their money to the poor instead. He is a vocal critic of governmental policies hurting the poor.
But he is no liberation theologian, and he does not dilute his theology to allow for this. Francis has been described as a theologically conservative evangelical, and given the growth of charismatic Catholicism in South America, his sympathies with evangelicals spark hopes of better relationships in the Western Church as a whole. He is not afraid to take the conservative stance on theological issues, satisfying the growing numbers of conservative Christians in the UK, at least.
Finally, he brings a strong history of intellectualism. Formally trained in chemistry himself, Bergoglio is a Jesuit, an order with a well-documented history of intellectualism ever since the 16th century. In certain countries struggling with the rational status of religious belief, Bergoglio's appointment will be a welcome stimulus to intellectual engagement on these issues.
Our curious fascination with the Catholic Church remains. While the election of a new Pope is fresh opportunity to mock an outdated nuisance of an organisation for some, for others it is an important time for the Church and for those influenced by it. Personally, I see every reason to give this Pope the benefit of the doubt. Whatever we think of Catholicism, its worldwide influence is unlikely to end any time soon, and there are plenty of encouraging signs of positive change to be seen here. This Protestant, at least, is a pleased one.