Jim:

Claire's solo column last Saturday, concerning the new pope, created quite a stir. In fact, it drew more comments than any other dozen of our columns combined. Most of the feedback was positive, applauding her position that with the Catholic Church, the more things change the more they remain the same.

Some of the reactions were negative. Right-to-lifers were particularly critical. For example, one reader wrote, "I love the phrase 'Women who NEED abortions' just because they don't want the child they are hosting. Nice!!!" I replied to that email, " I just returned from leading a student study tour in China during (my university's) spring break last week. It may not be individual women so much as the world as a whole that needs more abortions and birth control. I could not help but be frequently reminded that, when I was the same age as the 15 students on the trip, there were only half as many people crowding the planet (3.5 billion v 7 billion and still growing.)"

While the selection of a Latin American as the new pontiff may appear at first glance to be a progressive gesture by the College of Cardinals, on reflection an old cynic, such as myself, might be forgiven for seeing pragmatic politics at work. Central and South America are bastions of Catholicism. What better way to keep those hundreds of millions of parishioners faithful than tapping one of their own? Further, keep them producing more and more little Catholics and the Church's future should be secure.

If this is the Vatican's strategy, what hope does this poor, straining planet have? Green is the popular color of the moment. We recycle. We condemn new pipelines and technologies, which could make America energy independent. At the same time, we leave largely unaddressed the single most serious threat to our earthly environment: our sheer numbers.

In the rain forests and the Pampas, expanding populations will continue to crowd out thousands of other species, some we are told as yet undiscovered. Deforestation only temporarily fends off poverty, as the population soars toward Andean heights. A more friendly reader responded, "Well said, Claire. If he wants the Church 'to be poor', he can start by disposing of much of its unnecessary wealth. I was in the Vatican Museum recently and, besides including altogether too many statues of young boys, it contains priceless treasures that could provide quite well for the millions he wants to serve."

Moving beyond the issue of choice v. life, another supportive reader provided this unedited stream of consciousness: "bravo well said and there is one Jewish MAN WHO ALSO THINKS THE POPE IS A POOP _ HE ALSO NEEDS TO SAY LOUD AND CLEAR AND MAYBE YOU TOO CLAIRE _ GOOD WRITER THAT YOU ARE _ THE CRHISTIAN CHURCH MUST REVISE AND REWRITE THE NEW TESTAMENT TO TAKE OUT ALL LANGUAGE THAT SAYS THAT

JESUS DIED FOR ALL MANKIND'S SINS _ NO IN FACT, HE DIED JUST FOR

CHRISTIANS' SINS BUT THE NEW TESTAMENT SHOULD SAY THAT AND SAY THAT JEWS AND MOSLEMS AND ATHEISTS TOO BUDDHISTS TOO WILL ASLO GO TO HEAVEN AS GOD IS A LOVING GOD OF ALL RELIGIONS AND VIEWS AND HE DOES NOT SAVE JUST JESUS FOLLOWERS."

We might also well wonder what the Church might be like if women could be ordained and priests could marry. Might more males and females find they have vocations? And might these new breeds of female and happily married male priests be less likely to harbor child-molesters among their ranks? After all, the Episcopalian Church, which comes closest to the Catholics in rituals, dogmas and sacraments - but permits female ordinations and priestly unions - seems largely to have avoided the costly, embarrassing debacle that has shamed the priesthood and sent a few offenders and their higher-up defenders off to jail.

No, fresh from China, where the one-child-per-couple policy may be a quixotic, but at least a serious, attempt at bringing population growth under control, I find myself favoring Claire and her supporters' positions. The best I can hope - and this is only hope, not faith - is that Pope Francis proves to be for the Papacy what Obama is to the Presidency: a reformer fixed upon uprooting arcane, harmful, and hopeless past practices in favor of real reform. The Church needs its version of Obamacare for its soul, if it is to save itself from history's rubbish heap of dead ideas and save its millions of poor parishioners from additional generations of overcrowded, wasted lives.

Claire:

I've heard you should never discuss politics or religion in mixed company. Few other topics are so divisive and so likely to incite hostility and disagreements. Furthermore, it's fairly pointless for a conservative Catholic and a flaming liberal to argue about anything: one rests on faith while the other is like a dog with a bone, shaking around every statistic in their arsenal.

I won't deny that I'm the latter. I could count off 20 reasons a woman might need - yes, need - an abortion, but I highly doubt it would help our dear reader to see women as more than mere vessels for "hosting" bundles of cells. Because to some people, a potential human life, wanted or not, will always be more important than the needs and circumstances of an already living, breathing human being. I don't expect to change that with a single article.

To the people who continue to push a staunchly pro-life stance, I can only ask this: did you adopt a child this year? Volunteer at a clinic to help single mothers? Become a foster parent? If not, then I'd like to know exactly what you suggest we do with all the needy children your anti-abortion laws produce daily.

Finally, for the record: I never said the Pope was a poop. I just think a lot of his views are crappy.