Is the pope (still) Catholic?

Lorraine V. Murray’s latest books include a biography of Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, “The Abbess of Andalusia,” and a laugh-out-loud mystery, “Death of a Liturgist.” Her email is lorrainevmurray@yahoo.com.

The last wisps of white smoke had hardly left the Sistine Chapel chimney when people started wondering: How will the new pope change the church?

Later, when Pope Francis stood on the balcony, an answer started taking shape.

He began by asking for prayers for the emeritus pope, and then for himself. Since there is nothing more vital than prayers, he began his ministry on exactly the right note.

Still, people were clamoring to know: Is he pro-life? And will he allow women priests?

As for pro-life, he definitely is, and would have to be, since defending the sanctity of life is at the very heart of Catholic teaching. In his days as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he gave special blessings to pregnant mothers and their unborn children, and never wavered on rejecting abortion.

He has also condemned what he called “clandestine euthanasia” in Argentina, where social services cover medical care for elderly people up to a certain age, and then stop.

As he put it, “The right to life means allowing people to live … to grow, to eat, to be educated, to be healed, and to be permitted to die with dignity.”

What about women priests? In fact, the all-male requirement isn’t something the pope can change, because it is based directly on Scripture, which can’t be altered.

In Catholic teaching, on the night before his death, Christ instituted the priesthood at the Last Supper, which is celebrated on Holy Thursday. He chose 12 men as the first priests and humbly washed their feet as a sign for them to serve others.

Obviously, he could have included women that night, but he didn’t, for reasons of his own. This doesn’t mean he didn’t love women, because clearly he did.

He rescued a woman from death by stoning, raised Lazarus from the dead after the man’s sisters begged him to — and dined with a woman of ill repute.

People who accuse the church of being anti-woman may not be aware of the deep veneration Catholics have for the lady called the Blessed Mother.

She is a mere footnote for other Christians, mentioned only at Easter and Christmas, but in Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, Mary is extremely special and greatly loved.

Long ago, I disdained the teaching about male priests because I saw the church as another civic organization, where everyone gets to do the same things. But the church is a spiritual entity, and it functions differently.

The secular world may not like this particular teaching about the priesthood, but those who believe in the divinity of Christ trust that he knew what he was doing.

The new pope took the name Francis, from a humble friar in the 13th century, who heard God tell him: “Repair my church.”

Today that doesn’t mean tearing down fundamental teachings, but rather healing the wounds of the flock, protecting the weak and bolstering the basics, starting with prayer.