Let's be honest, Pope Benedict was a public relations nightmare for the Catholic Church. His aptitude for saying the worst thing at the worst moment made Prince Philip look like a smooth operator.
So Catholics and religious apologists have been jumping for joy at recent sympathetic words from Pope Francis on homosexuality, contraception and abortion and even the possibility that we atheists could be granted an entry visa to that place we don't actually believe in.
But is this papal compassion for real or is Francis just a better spin doctor than his predecessor?
The first worrying sign is that hard line Catholics are not angered by Francis's words. Last week I debated this on Voice Of Russia radio with Peter D. Williams of Catholic Voices, a man who opposes gay marriage and has likened abortion to the transatlantic slave trade. The latest comments from Pope Francis have neither shaken him nor changed his views.popind
Instead he glibly points out that these are conciliatory words and do not signal any change in policies or doctrine.
Any hope that the comments might have been a precursor to a real change - to a Catholic church that welcomes gay marriage, gay adoption and women priests - were roundly dashed a few days later when an Australian priest was excommunicated for holding liberal views on those exact issues.
Contraception and abortion are the most important human rights issues in the world. That’s my opinion, and it's rooted in scientific fact. Ensuring women’s reproductive rights is by far the most cost-effective way of lifting women, families and communities out of poverty, poor education and poor healthcare.
Even a small step like freeing Catholic charities to distribute condoms would have a huge impact. Still it is too much to hope for. The day after everyone’s hopes were raised he urged a group of gynecologists to refuse to perform abortions.
The most frightening story of all however dates back to July when Pope Francis brought in new laws for the Vatican state. Again the superficial story - increasing the maximum sentence for child sex abusers in the state from 10 to 12 years - makes great positive press.
We should first remember though that organisations representing victims of clerical abuse were not best-pleased with the changes, saying “The Church hierarchy doesn’t need new rules on abuse. It needs to follow long-established secular laws.”
Secondly he took the opportunity to bring in a law meaning up to eight years jail time could be faced by anyone caught stealing or leaking information concerning the “fundamental interests” of the Vatican. Sneaking in one law behind another more headline-grabbing one and making it harder for insiders to whistle-blow on corrupt Vatican dealings? Smooth-operating spin doctors would be proud.
He might have been media-unfriendly, hard line, sexist and homophobic, but at least we knew what we were getting with Pope Benedict.
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