After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, I naïvely thought that the U.S. would undergo a spiritual revival and become united. I thought the Catholic Church in the U.S. could help lead the way. What happened instead was that George W. Bush's divisive and unnecessary Iraq War polarized the nation more than at any time since the Civil War and the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. church exploded into the open in early 2002.

And as if the cosmos were rubbing it in, the scandal exploded in my home state, in the Archdiocese of Boston. And not only that. My own bishop in the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., a man I had met once and found dismissive, Thomas Dupre, resigned immediately in 2004 upon facing credible allegations of abuse from years before.

In my view, things have been pretty much downhill in the Catholic Church since then. The revelations of abuse and coverup are still coming in from around the country - and world - though at a slower rate than before. The U.S. church has instituted a zero-tolerance policy of sorts for abusive priests, but bishops who cover up for them have pretty much gotten a free pass.

One-issue politics

Not cowed by the church becoming a laughingstock because of the abuse issue, some conservative hierarchs in the U.S., such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, now Cardinal Chaput of Philadelphia, and Archbishop Raymond Burke of St.


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Louis, now Cardinal Burke of Rome, among a host of less prominent ecclesiastics, began around the time of the 2004 national election saying and all but insisting that Catholics had to vote solely based on the abortion issue. John Kerry, no - Catholics had to vote to re-elect pro-war and pro-oligarchy George W. Bush. Or so they said.

No other issues seemed to matter than whether a candidate said he or she supported outlawing abortion; whether a candidate supported economic and other policies that would give a poor woman the option not to have an abortion didn't matter.

The one-issue obsession got so bad at one point that a moral theologian I greatly respect asked only partly in jest whether a Catholic would be obligated to vote for a Nazi candidate if such were the only candidate for an office who supported outlawing abortion. It's not that I'm against what the church teaches about what abortion is and what it does. I do support it. But it's not the only life issue, and it's not the only life issue involving so-called "innocent" life. As a bumper sticker I saw during the height of the Iraq War said: "War kills unborn children, too." So do guns, mercury in the environment, hunger, and natural disasters caused by the effects of global warming.

Beyond secular politics, recent years have brought increasingly depressing inner-church developments. The church, at least in the U.S. and Europe, has been hemorrhaging members for years and has largely lost the millennial generation. While one in 40 Americans is a Catholic convert, one in 10 Americans is a former Catholic. The influx of Catholic Latinos from other countries has allowed the U.S. hierarchy to pretend nothing is wrong, but this won't last.

While in their 35 combined years in the papacy, John Paul II and Benedict XVI did much good, they also increasingly centralized power in their office and in the Vatican hierarchy surrounding them - the curia. Over these years, not only have bishops around the world had less say in church governance than was promised by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) but increasingly not only theologians but ordinary Catholics have been called disloyal merely by posing uncomfortable questions.

In addition, many in the priesthood and hierarchy have begun to long for, and implement, retrograde theories of the priesthood, liturgy, ceremonial dress. Some young priests have rejected the role of servant-leader popular in the wake of Vatican II for a vision of themselves as cultic leaders, different, superior, and set apart from the laity.

Moreover, since the end of 2011, Catholics have had to accept awkward and at times bizarre Mass language imposed by the Roman Curia, which overruled an international commission of experts that spent many years devising news Mass translations that fit the requirements of Vatican II for nobility and simplicity in the language of the people.

As part of this retrograde movement, sort of the icing on the cake, certain clergy and bishops - though none that I know of around here - have taken to wearing elaborate liturgical garb - long capes, lace, etc. Things that speak more of the monarchies and courts of the 16th century and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) than they speak of Jesus Christ and the first apostles.

As Jesuit priest James Hanvey writes in the March 18 issue of America magazine, "Increasingly, bishops and priests find themselves acting like chief executive officers, with a strange confidence in condemning and disciplining, enhancing their retro-liturgical plumage rather than living out the sacrament they bear."

Now along comes Pope Francis, and Catholics and those who wish the church well are leaning forward, paying close attention, watching his every move, hoping he means change for the better. I am one of them.

Change of tone, emphasis?

Those who expect a change in doctrine on contraception and gay marriage or the ordination of women priests are likely to be disappointed. What I and others are hopeful for are a change of tone and emphasis, more respectful language in areas of disagreement with both those inside and outside the church, more decentralized and inclusive practice of church management, more emphasis on servant leadership.

Francis does not seem enamored of the trappings of the papacy. After his election March 13, he took the unprecedented step of first asking the people in St. Peter's Square to bless him before he blessed them. He paid his own hotel bill after the conclave; canceled his Buenos Aires newspaper subscription personally by phone. He is dressing simply, and he plans to live in community rather than in the papal apartments..

Three days after his election, Francis explained how he came to call himself Francis. When he was about to be elected pope, a fellow cardinal embraced him and said, "Do not forget the poor."

"And that word stuck here [tapping his forehead]; the poor, the poor. Then, immediately in relation to the poor I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of war, while the voting continued, until all the votes [were counted]. And so the name came to my heart:: Francis of Assisi," he said. "For me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and safeguards Creation. In this moment when our relationship with Creation is not so good - right? - He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man Oh, how I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor!"

Peace, the environment - and a church that is not only for the poor, but is poor itself. The two previous two popes did plenty on peace, the environment and for the poor - but the idea of a poor church, one down off its triumphalist throne - that is new and electrifying. As if to exemplify this new attitude, after personally greeting some of the journalists present, Francis broke with tradition and gave his blessing in silence "to each of you, respecting the conscience of each one, but knowing that each of you is a child of God: May God bless you."

Francis wants to be a bridge builder: "One of the titles of the Bishop of Rome is 'Pontiff,' that is, a builder of bridges, with God and between people. My wish is that the dialogue between us should help to build bridges connecting all people, in such a way that everyone can see in the other not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother or sister to be welcomed and embraced!"

Less centralization?

In addition to reaching out, the fact that Francis frequently refers to himself by this secondary title, "Bishop of Rome," rather than with such titles as Universal Pontiff or Vicar of Christ, indicates that he wishes to de-emphasize the extreme focus on the papacy that has occurred in the past 35 years. Whether this translates to decentralization and more cooperative and inclusive church leadership remains to be seen. In a March 20 Vatican audience with representatives of various world faiths, Pope Francis sat on an armchair rather than on the customary throne.

"The Catholic Church is aware of the importance of the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions," he said. "And we can do much for the good of the poorest, of the weak and suffering, to promote justice and reconciliation, to build peace. But, above all, we must keep alive the thirst for the Absolute in the world, not allowing a one-dimensional vision of the human person, in which humanity is reduced to that which it produces and consumes, to prevail. This is one of the most dangerous pitfalls of our times."

This "one-dimensional vision of the human person, in which humanity is reduced to that which it produces and consumes," is a staple of political discourse in the U.S., whether it be the blunt distinction between "makers and takers" or the more discreet "47 percent," Again, Pope Francis' words struck me like lightening when I read them.

As I write this on Holy Thursday, March 28, news accounts are coming in of Pope Francis washing the feet of 12 inmates at a juvenile detention center in Rome - two were women and two were Muslim. There is a question of whether he was stretching church law by including women in the ceremony.

According to the Associated Press, one of the inmates asked why he had come to visit them. Francis said it was to "help me to be humble, as a bishop should be." He said he wanted to come "from my heart. Things from the heart don't have an explanation."

Reach Mark Rondeau at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com or on Twitter @banner_religion.