Rooting for Francis
Pope Francis keeps doing Franciscan things. And however gently he rotates the apple cart, the bouncing fruit makes noise. Last week, he kicked up sand with, of all things, a tweet:
"My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost."
Which got him tarred as a wooly-headed socialist or worse by some in the Twitterverse. NBCnews.com quoted this:
"And John MacDonald, managing director at the JMAGroup accounting firm in Oakville, Ontario, shot back: 'blah blah blah... it's always the capitalist....what about self indulgent employees who never retrain or take control of their options?'
From my seat on the sidelines, I continue to enjoy the papal actions and resultant reactions. And I got to thinking: Why do I care? Yes, I have a professional stake in tracking the leader of a billion Catholics. But I'll admit to having developed a bit of a rooting interest in seeing what he comes up with next.
Partly, its because he's been confounding prognostication since the moment he was elected. In a column in the American Spectator this month, RealClearReligion editor Jeremy Lott was kind enough to point out one of my early wrong guesses. The day former Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope, commentators wondered whether his name choice was an acknowledgment of Francis of Assisi or Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuit order to which the new pope belonged.
While the early explanation was that he was honoring the saint of Assisi, I figured the easy thing for him to do would be tip his mitre to the Jesuits' founder. I wrote: "I won't be shocked if eventually the Vatican issues a statement with a nod to that saint, as well."
Nope. The new pope cleared that up by Day Two. The name was only to honor the saint who famously rejected all luxuries, took humility to an astonishing extreme, and helped a woman found her own holy order. And whose name had never been chosen by a pope. He was, in fact, the first pope to choose an entirely unused name in 1,100 years.
Day after day the stories filtered out about how he was rejecting other reasonable expectations about how a new pope would fit into the grand and long tradition.
Here's a secret about reporters: We always want to get the facts right. But only slightly better than making accurate predictions is getting those predictions confounded for interesting and unexpected reasons. Which we can then write about.
Francis has been the gift that keeps on giving in that regard. Paying his own hotel bill, rejecting the papal palace apartment, washing the feet of women -- including a Muslim woman! And his repeated emphasis on the poor, the poor, the poor. Just as if he was taking his name seriously. Not to mention taking seriously the incredibly frequent mention of the importance of caring for the poor in Jewish and Christian scriptures.
From my bleacher seat, the reaction of hidebound traditionalists has been flat-out fun to watch. On the one hand, Francis is their pope. And they take obedience to the pope as an article of, ahem, faith. On the other hand, some of them do love the pomp and smells and bells and an emphasis on rituals and particular portions of dogma and tradition that aren't so much about the "least of these."
It's not that he's given a millimeter on any matter of settled Catholic theology, mind you. I'll go far out on a distant limb and predict that there will be no loosening of rules about celibacy, birth control, gay marriage or the other social hot-button issues that roil the American Catholic body politic during his reign.
But I'll also bet that the predatory priest scandal and hierarchical cover-up will be attended to differently. A few days ago, the former cardinal of Scotland was ordered into exile. He'd resigned after admitting making advances on seminarians. He'd wanted to settle into his retirement house in Scotland. Instead, the Vatican ordered him out of the UK.
Contrast that with the fate of former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law. Under his leadership, the Boston Archdiocese was dragged through American secular courts and into revealing a pattern of abusive priests whose offenses were hidden by the hierarchy. For his troubles, John Paul II took Law to Rome and appointed him archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.
So there's that.
But there's something else that makes Francis a particularly sympathetic figure, I think: He's making a clear and explicit effort to live in keeping with parts of the New Testament that make many Christians squirm.
For all the hoo-hah about abortion and homosexuality -- both real issues, without question -- one almost needs a magnifying glass to find scriptural references to back up the attention. But living humbly? Putting special emphasis on caring for the poor? Reaching out to people who do not seem to fit into the pomp of a traditional papal ceremony? One need not be a theologian to find verses that command followers of Jesus to do all of those things.
Heck, Jesus himself is quoted mentioning the poor at least eleven times. And not once in the context of "self-indulgent employees."
I'm not remotely attracted to Catholic theology, no matter what this pope does. But his behavior offers a spot of hope that transcends the Vatican. So many public figures these days have feet of clay that extend at least up to their groins. Even religious leaders are too often caught guilty of hypocrisy, cherry picking, or flat-out lying.
Thus far, Pope Francis has been unusually consistent. Yes, we're still in the shakedown period of this cruise. But he's had plenty of chances to take a pratfall and hasn't stumbled yet.
Those who would say that all that he's done thus far has been symbolic are mostly right. But the pope's job is mostly about symbols. And symbols matter, in and out of religion.
A friend of mine who worked with the late management guru Peter Drucker told me recently that Drucker had a saying: "All you need is one working model to demonstrate that something can be done."
Maybe that's why I'm rooting for Pope Francis. If he can demonstrate that moral consistency is possible about difficult issues without sacrificing his humanity, humility and civility, maybe that's proof for others. Even for others who will never agree with him about important matters of principle.
Isn't that what leadership should really be about?