Half a century after John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and John XXIII created a moment of hope, we face environmental doom, nuclear Armageddon, war between the starving masses and corporate greed served by push-button weaponry and mercenary savagery, and conflicts everywhere to control natural resources.

American blacks are again disenfranchised, the rambunctious in jail. And the Catholic Church’s Vatican II re-engagement with the world has been abandoned for doctrinal parsing, celibate hierarchs’ obsession with sex and renewed clerical domination, indifferent to the greatest exodus in 2,000 years – whole generations lost.

Grass-roots efforts to meet today’s existential challenges have been largely blocked by the powers that be. The only recent prospect of the prophetic leadership that the world and the church desperately need was the appearance last year of Pope Francis, preaching and witnessing love and mercy; embracing the poor, creation, justice and peace, and challenging capitalist greed – urging that we “recover the lost sense of responsibility for one another.”

Might the charismatic pope lead us out of the wilderness in refocusing the church on living the Gospel? Arguably, Francis’ witness, his challenge to “the idolatry of money” in “Gaudium Evangelii” (“Joy of the Gospel”) and his moves toward collegial governance have been laying a foundation both for essential church reform and a worldwide mobilization to save the race from itself.

But lack of movement raises doubts:

 Francis has not challenged the monarchical structure that encouraged patriarchal domination and clericalism and hid widespread sex abuse. No bishop has been held accountable for complicity in abuse. Dubious censures (targeting U.S. nuns), firings and excommunications continue, still with no vehicle for redressing clerical wrongs.

 Francis speaks of the equality of women but uncritically espouses the theologically flawed, even dishonest, concoctions that argue women are not made to lead: “Jesus did not ordain women” – or men. Women’s patience is waning.

 Church leadership must finally get sex right. They must abandon untenable arguments for clerical celibacy and against contraception and the remarriage of people who have been divorced, and the facile evasion of responsible consideration of lesbian, gay and bisexual sexual orientations, transgender identity and LGBT relationships. Little may come from October’s synod on family, with bishops ignoring mutual love as a goal of marriage to argue against contraception and same-sex unions and the Vatican dismissing the sense of the faithful.

 Francis understands that primacy of conscience does not mean obedience to dictation, but the Vatican and bishops continue to ride roughshod over conscience and now argue that religious liberty means governments conforming policy to church teachings.

 “Gaudium Evangelii” is a challenge to growing economic disorder. But is the hierarchy taking the social Gospel – on stewardship of creation, economic justice, the common good and peace – into the pews, schools and the public square? Refugees? Yes. Palestinians? NAFTA victims? Iraqis? Afghans? Tar sands pollution? Wall Street crimes? Indifference. “Pacem in Terris”? Forgotten.

Obstacles to Vatican II reform are formidable:

 Too many bishops, including Francis’ appointees, reject Vatican II reforms and are not about to heed his call to walk among the faithful as “shepherds who have the smell of their sheep.”

 Too many priests are oriented more to status than service. Their answer to polite criticism is “Get out of my church!”

 Too many laity, accustomed to meeting elemental respect in society and despairing of dysfunctional church leadership, have quietly decamped. The remaining acquiesce – settling for praying, paying and obeying.

But the people of God, all, must join the Gospel pilgrimage for the church to be a leaven. Francis cannot make the journey alone.

A year-plus ago, the hope in Francis was well-founded – humble penitent and follower of John XXIII, Archbishop Romero and liberation theology. He may too much trust his own judgment, but his smarts in negotiating the Vatican; the warmth of his appeals to live the Gospel and witness to care; his commitment to collegiality, and appeal to youth thirsting for meaning in an imperiled environment, disintegrating social order and corrupt culture supported that hope.

Today, the world’s existential crises remain – end-game climate change; a morally rudderless, failing economic system; the rapid annulment of human rights – and remain ineffectively challenged. Will and power rule.

Francis could call us to a moral reordering. He could go to Gaza, condemn unjust imprisonments and government temporizing in curbing carbon emissions. It now appears that he may settle for making patriarchy work.

— Special to the Press Herald

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