It’s not that Pope Francis speaks positively about gay people, as he did earlier about atheists. Nor is it his simple lifestyle, his accessibility to the press, or his personal modesty. The accumulation of surprises coming from the new pope points to something deeper: the possibility of historic change with implications reaching far beyond the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis seems to have called off the Vatican’s culture war with the modern world, a hyper-defensiveness that dates back to the American and French revolutions. With the brief exception of John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, popes have for centuries been tribunes of negativity, rejecting what one called “the syllabus of errors” that accompanied the arrival of liberal democracy, the emancipation of women, secularism — the whole panoply of values that followed the Enlightenment. Renouncing the positive spirit of Pope John’s Vatican II, the two recent popes were culture warriors of the first order. John Paul II railed against “the culture of death,” while Benedict XVI denounced the “dictatorship of relativism.” Both men seemed to despise most of what they saw around them.