Pope Francis has gotten off to a surprisingly good start. After the stultifying conservatism of Pope Benedict XVI, the new pope is a breath of fresh air.
Francis's ascension was marred by accusations that he had collaborated as a church official in Argentina with the murderous junta that ruled the country in the late '70s and early '80s. So, it's great that his first few months have been marked by encouraging signs.
A major shift from his predecessor has been the Pope's attitude toward gays and lesbians. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" the Pope recently said, quite in contrast to Benedict's censoriousness on the subject.
And, much unlike the previous pope, he takes seriously the church's dedication to social justice and to restraining the excesses of capitalism. "Free market economics had created a tyranny, in which people were valued only by their ability to consume, the pontiff told diplomats in the Vatican," the BBC reported in May.
There's been a related focus on workers' rights. After the April collapse in of the Bangladeshi factory complex that took more than 1,100 lives, the Pope issued a strong statement, calling the workers "slave labor."
"Not paying a just [wage], not providing work, focusing exclusively on the balance books, on financial statements, only looking at making personal profit," he intoned. "That goes against God!"
Francis's lifestyle has been in keeping with his emphasis on social justice. He has dispensed with many of the trappings of his office, such as the cape and the lavish palatial accommodations, leading one Italian commentator to say that "the era of the Pope-King and of the Vatican court is over."
Pope Francis has also reached out to other faiths in an almost unprecedented way, quite the contrast with the way Pope Benedict XVI maligned Islam (while absolving Catholicism of any responsibility for the Holocaust).
"In a message published on Friday (Aug. 2), Pope Francis took the rare step of personally expressing his 'esteem and friendship' to the world's Muslims as they prepare to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fast," reports the Religion News Service. "While it is a long-established Vatican practice to send messages to the world's religious leaders on their major holy days, those greetings are usually signed by the Vatican's department for interfaith dialogue."
And his outreach hasn't been limited just to Muslims. He sent an invitation to the most prominent archbishop in the Eastern Orthodox community for his inauguration, and the archbishop of Constantinople attended the inaugural, perhaps the first time this has happened in history. On assuming office, Francis also sent a letter to Rome's chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, saying he hoped to "contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics" have seen in the recent past.
Progressive Catholics are excited about the new pope.
"The one-word interpretive key to Francis's ... entire papacy to date: 'mercy,'" writes John Allen Jr. in the National Catholic Reporter. "Over and over again, he emphasizes God's endless capacity to forgive, insisting what the world needs to hear from the church above all today is a message of compassion."
That message of compassion is still limited, especially toward women. Even though the Pope has shunned some of the Church's patriarchal condescension (and indeed caused a bit of a scandal by washing the feet of two women), he still has drawn the line when it comes to dissolving the gender barrier in the priesthood. As Sadhbh Walshe points out in The Guardian, the Vatican's attitude toward the 158 female priests who have been ordained in defiance of the church has been an alternation of threats and disdain.
Here's hoping that Pope Francis can break with his predecessor on this important issue, too.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of "Islam" Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Praeger).