Hope for the pope?

A papal conclave can be a bit like World Cup soccer: an exotic spectacle that makes international headlines every few years, full of colorful costumes and unfathomable rules, capable of rousing great passion in certain parts of the world but little more than a curiosity for most Americans. It all can seem archaic, irrelevant and even a bit comical—until you remember what’s at stake in choosing a spiritual leader for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

As leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination, the pope can have significant impact on a variety of issues, including abortion rights, same-sex marriage, population control and climate change. Whether or not you belong to the roughly 25 percent of Americans who identify as Catholic, you are affected by the appointment of a new pope—for better or worse.

The elevation of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, has been greeted with great joy in some quarters, particularly in his native Argentina. He is the papacy’s first Jesuit and the first to hail from Latin America, a region now home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics. His quick appointment has been viewed as an acknowledgment that the future of the church is in the global south and as a pre-emptive strike against the possible rise of more aggressively reform-minded candidates.

Unfortunately, reform is exactly what the church needs. Around the world, and especially in Europe and the United States, the percentage of Catholics practicing their faith—as measured by attendance at mass, number of priests ordained and participation in sacraments—is in decline. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, including the Vatican’s continued insistence on outdated and unreasonable doctrines, such as its ban on contraception and refusal to ordain women, and the fallout from a sexual-abuse scandal involving more than 6,000 priests in the United States alone and tens of thousands of victims around the world.

Pope Francis’ résumé is a disappointment for everyone hoping for sweeping changes. He is a theological conservative who has vigorously supported church bans on contraception, abortion, the ordination of women and same-sex marriage. And his record with regard to human rights is troubling: During the 1970s, he failed to stand up to his nation’s military dictatorship as it kidnapped, tortured and killed some 30,000 Argentinians. (In fact, there are allegations he secretly aided the regime in some instances.)

But Pope Francis may have little choice but to work for change. The Catholic Church desperately needs to move away from a system of governance modeled on 17th-century monarchies and toward increased transparency, accountability and decentralization of authority. Without simple, common-sense changes in doctrines banning contraception, prohibiting priests from marrying, and barring women from the priesthood, there will be fewer priests and more empty pews with each passing year.

A more reasonable, responsive and relevant Catholic Church could have an enormously positive influence as issues of gender equality, the rights of gays and lesbians, climate change, and other concerns reach their tipping points in coming years. We hope Pope Francis can rise to the occasion and lead the way to much-needed reforms.