(Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

(Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Alison Donohue teaches college writing in Hawaii, but her preference is to be back in a Catholic school, an environment where she spent more than 15 years of her career. “Once I got engaged to my wife,” Donohue said, “I was faced with the reality that being openly married and teaching in a Catholic school were incompatible.” She recalled scanning job posts that sought, “Catholics in good standing,” and thinking to herself, “I am married to a woman, which probably means I’m not.” But today, because of something that happened in Rome seven months ago, she is “hopeful” for her professional, and religious, future.

When 118 men from every inhabited continent gathered in the Sistine Chapel, charged with one sacred task, electing the next leader of the world’s one-billion Roman Catholics, they knew the stakes were high. The next pontiff would confront a shrinking church in its ancestral homeland, with a reputation sullied by sex abuse scandals and suffering from ineffective management in Rome. After the white smoke appeared, a man emerged on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. “Franciscus.” The impact was immediate.

“It’s astonishing that no pope has ever honored St. Francis of Assisi by taking his name, and yet it seems like a no brainer that this great figure of peace and the poor should be lifted up in such a way,” said the writer and historian James Carroll, most recently of Jerusalem, Jerusalem. “And when Pope Francis did it, there was this kind of ‘aha!’ expression that you could feel around the planet.”

Now, under the guidance of this new Francis, is something changing in the Catholic Church? Is a new spirit emerging, one where openness could replace the culture war battles to which the Church has grown accustomed?

Colleen Kerrisk, a retreat leader at Georgetown University, believes so. “I’ve felt a genuine connection with this pope. I want to follow him, his words, his teachings, and of course his Twitter,” she said. She thinks that Francis “has the potential to heal deep wounds” by “making the church’s teachings of mercy and love come alive in a way that is reaching people where they are.”

In an explosive interview published in the United States by America magazine, Pope Francis said that the Catholic Church must be “the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.” He acknowledged that the church has, at times, “locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules” and warned that the Gospel must not  “be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Larry Snyder, the president of Catholic Charities USA, believes Pope Francis “has refocused what the church is about, and he’s really put us back on track with the mission of the church. If you look at the gospel, it’s the messiness of life that Jesus really got involved in. Pope Francis is really having the Gospel take center stage again, where it should be.”

Francis’s openness to the world, and his relentless focus on the poor, has transformed the once unknown cardinal into a media darling: Time dubbed him the “People’s Pope”; MSNBC’s Chris Hayes called him “the best pope ever”; and even BuzzFeed and Reddit have jumped on the papal bandwagon. A Pew poll earlier this month found that 80 percent of U.S. Catholics approved on the pope’s performance. And yet, not all Catholics are celebrating.

Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, a favorite of the Catholic right, gave voice to some of the dissent. He told John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter that the pope will need to “make decisions that won’t be pleasing to everybody. This is already true of the right wing of the church. They generally have not been really happy about his election” and Francis must “care for them.”

Another bishop, Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, put it more bluntly in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic: “I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion, and many people have noticed that.” The Catholic League, a self-appointed watchdog group run by Bill Donohue, has praised Pope Francis on its website, but ran an ad in The New York Times calling for the pope “to lead” on issues important to conservative Catholics, including religious liberty and life, “from the time of conception to natural death.”

It’s true that for all the pope’s talk on the poor, his outreach to other faiths and atheists, and his vocal opposition to war, he rarely mentions issues important to the Catholic right, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and religious liberty. He acknowledged this in the recent America interview, directly rejecting those who say the church needs to spend more time discussing these topics. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said. “This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”

“Francis’s main theme is mercy, and that’s mercy that Catholics direct outwards,” said the Rev. James Martin, author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and contributing editor at America magazine. He said that the pope is focused on encountering the world as it is. “Jesus took people where they were. If you’re a tax collector, he comes to you at your tax booth. If you’re a fisherman, he comes to you on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. If you’re a woman who’s about to be stoned, he kneels down in the dust with you. We need to take people where they are, and that’s exactly what the pope is doing.”

In an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica, Francis again showed his willingness to engage the world as it is. He replied to a letter from an editor, a self-identified atheist, to set up the interview, during which he spoke about conscience. “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good,” he said. The pope also suggested that proselytism “makes no sense,” suggesting that people must “get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us.”  

This shift in emphasis and his openness to the messiness of the human condition—Francis said he wants pastors who “smell of sheep”—appears to be giving liberal Catholics hope and confidence to make their cases, with some recalling a time in the 1960s following the Second Vatican Council that opened up the church to the world. 

Sr. Jeannine Gramick is the co-founder of New Ways Ministry, an organization she started in the 1977 to minister to gay and lesbian Catholics. She said Vatican II promoted an “openness to the world, openness to diversity, openness to all kinds of peoples and issues” that prompted even some bishops to support her work. In fact, when the Vatican first took notice of New Ways Ministries in the 1980s and launched an investigation, she says more than 20 American bishops wrote letters to support her. “But by the early 90s, the complexion of the U.S. hierarchy began to change because of the appointments by John Paul II. So when these more progressive bishops retired, they were replaced by, I would say, reactionary bishops,” she said. 

But in Francis, she sees hope. “To me, he is genuinely more a shepherd than someone who is imperial and hands down edicts or laws. I think he’s a person who takes into account people’s experience, and that’s going to be very important when we deal with the issues of sexuality in general, not just homosexuality, but sexuality in general,” she said.

Carroll, now married, was a Paulist priest in the 1960s during the height of church renewal. He says he and other progressive Catholics aren’t looking to change core Catholic tenets, but “recover from the tragedy of the detour the church took after the reformation, and especially in the nineteenth century, in its rejection of the values of the modern world, especially democracy, pluralism, respect for the other. Vatican II was the beginning of that recovery and it needs to be continued. Pope Francis shows significant signs of being ready to do that.”

Pope Francis is the first pope to come from the Americas, serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aires until earlier this year. Nichole Flores, a Catholic moral theology instructor at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, believes his Argentine roots hold exciting possibilities for Latino Catholics, the fastest growing and soon to be majority demographic in the U.S. church. Flores, who is Mexican-American, said issues important to the Hispanic community, including hunger, poverty, and education, have been marginalized, but noted with enthusiasm how they are now being championed by the pope. “I’m feeling for the first time that we’re being seen, and we’re being recognized, not just within the U.S. church, which has made efforts to incorporate our communities, but in the world church. And that’s really exciting,” she said.

Today, when Donohue, the writing teacher in Hawaii, looks for jobs at Catholic schools, she’s encouraged. “I feel like ‘Catholic in good standing’ means a Catholic who doesn’t judge others, who cares for the poor, who has a deep, humble spirituality. Finally, the good people are in ‘good standing.’ Thank God—and Francis—for that.”

Michael O’Loughlin writes about religion and public life from Washington, DC. Read his writing at Religion News Service and follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.