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Even an atheist can appreciate the rebel in Pope Francis

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What is with this guy, this new pope, Pope Francis? Some people might say that an avowed, nearly life-long atheist - and someone who knows shit-all about religion - has no business talking about the new Catholic icon. Tell ya what, though, even as an atheist (about which, he said, "Since many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church and others are non-believers, from the bottom of my heart I give this silent blessing to each and every one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you but knowing that each one of you is a child of God"), it's interesting and amusing to watch Pope Francis tear into capitalism (forcing conservatives to bite themselves in angst), drive a used car, and give new meaning to "ministering to the poor." Hey, there's just something a little kicky and cool and cute about a Pope who used to be a bar bouncer. And who loves to tango dance.

He tweets (@pontifex), sneaks out of the Vatican at night dressed in regular old priest clothes to minister to the homeless, wears white threads instead of gold and uses a wooden chair instead of a gold throne, and even invited 200 homeless people to the Vatican for a meal. He referred to priests who won't baptize the children of single mothers - born out of wedlock - as "hypocrites." Is he going to change the Catholic Church, with all its frailties and foibles and falseness? Doubtful. But can he put a nice, clean whitewash on an old, dusty, dirty, dangerously decrepit building? Possibly.

There's something very comforting about a pope who counsels priests that "confession shouldn't be torture," urges priests to "get their shoes muddy and get involved in the lives of their flock", and says priests shouldn't be "defeatist sourpusses." As an Argentinian, he certainly saw enough poverty - and there, too, his compassion for the poor and downtrodden was notable.

He's a Catholic, and a Catholic is still a Catholic, with his anti-choice positions, and most likely other traditionally Catholic stances as well, but, as Shannyn Moore of the Huffington Post noted, "This guy's a rebel." Moore continues, "This pope doesn't prance around in red Prada shoes like the previous quitter pope. He has instructed clergy to sell their newer cars, give the money to the poor and drive beaters like his 1984 Renault . . . He has washed the feet of prisoners in a remarkable display of humility. 'Who am I to judge?' was his response to a question about homosexuals. He wants to focus on issues of poverty and economic justice rather than the church's recent 'obsession' with gays, abortion and birth control. He told the head of Vatican charities to get rid of his desk -- he wouldn't need it because he would be out among the people finding their needs. Germany's 'Bishop of Bling' was fired and his mansion, with its $40 million in renovations, was turned into a soup kitchen."

As Fox begins its season of decrying the "War on Christmas," Rush Limbaugh lost his mind - again - and has kicked off the season with a war on Pope Francis and, particularly, his scorn for naked capitalism. Wrote Limbaugh, "It's sad because this pope makes it very clear he doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to capitalism and socialism and so forth . . . But regardless, what this is, somebody has either written this for him or gotten to him . . . This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope."

Religious nut Sarah Palin was characteristically confused and put off by Pope Francis' compassion for others, saying, "He's had some statements that to me sound kind of liberal, has taken me aback, has kind of surprised me . . . ."

Catholic conservatives moan that "Francis has left them feeling abandoned and deeply unsettled." Among his sins: The message to atheists that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil" and that everyone should "follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them;" referring to proselytizing as "solemn nonsense;" stating that the most serious evils of today are "youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old;" and his refusal to get bogged down in issues like abortion, same sex marriage or contraception, because "the church could not be 'obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.'" A Catholic blogger sounded the alarm to right-wing Catholics by writing, "What kind of a Christian tells an atheist he has no intention to convert him? That alone should disturb Catholics everywhere."

If one looks closely at Pope Francis, one sees a singular message: One of hope and change. And when we think back to where that message was most recently imparted, and by whom, the seas part and we who are blind can now see why conservatives nearly universally find this new Pope to be scary, radical, offensive, dangerous and disturbing. Hope and change, to conservatives, means a fundamental re-working of our social fabric, something they scorn and demean and reject. Both President Obama and Pope Francis, unfortunately, battle the same narrow minds; and if the past is the best predictor of the future, the road to Pope Francis' brand of hope and change will be rocky indeed.

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