The Pope and I


A good friend had a response to my post yesterday about Pope Francis that stewed in me overnight, cynical. While I confess that cynicism is a problem for me and that yesterday’s post could well be seen as an expression of my cynicism I want to clarify a few things because these issues come up often I’ve found in my relating especially to people in my own church tribe when I get into things that touch American politics.

I believe that people often start their political journeys like they do their religious ones, by inheriting or pushing back from the beliefs of their parents. This is true for me too. When it comes to politics I grew up as an African American Christian because of my parent’s journey and in many ways my political proclivities continue to align best with that community.

From what I’ve seen from this Pope I would have to say that as far as I can tell my take on American politics probably line up about as well with this Pope as they do with any other major public figure on the state today, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter. What this means is that when it comes to Donald Trump, put me down in favor of the bag carriers.

Some Ways I Disagree with Republicans

I’m currently a registered independent because I don’t feel that either party really expresses my political agenda.

  • Concern for racial reconciliation and social justice for the poor and disabled
  • Concern for the environment
  • Concern for public debt (no, I don’t believe the Republicans are any more concerned about this than the Democrats)
  • Concern for income and wealth inequality (but not that I’m a communist)
  • My distrust of the free market to reform health care in America
  • Concern for how money impacts the political process
  • I’m not a fan of how the gun rights conversation has gone
  • I was very disturbed by the Iraq war and bothered by how quickly the Republicans reach for a military solution to foreign policy issues. We need a strong bias against fast use of military solutions.

Some Ways I Disagree with Democrats

  • Concern for the rights of the unborn
  • Concern for the ways the sexual revolution impacts the youth
  • Concern for public debt (the Democrats aren’t any better than Republicans on this)
  • Concern for how money impacts the political process
  • Concern for the trust they place in government solutions to social and economic problems

I Distrust the Masses

When it comes to government I am prone to skepticism and cynicism. I have little faith that public policy from one side or the other will bring about a utopia. Being a Calvinist I am more skeptical about human nature than Jefferson and while the free market is a fact of life I think it tends to devolve into the law of the jungle so intentional intervention from government or other institutions is helpful to bring mercy and justice.

Like Many I Like This Pope

As I noted above, to the degree that I can discern this Pope’s politics I’m probably as close to him on politics as I am to any other major figure that touches American politics today. Political polarization (as noted by the Pope in his address to congress) is a real problem in our system today. The work of politics is to find compromise for the sake of progress.

I also like this Pope’s savvy when it comes to navigating the social, political divine in American culture now. In my opinion his trip was a hands-down success and really an incredible achievement. In many ways I stand in awe of this man’s skill, character and acumen and to be able to come into a country for the first time and move such a broad and conflicted swath of the population across a bitter ideological divide, is bordering on the miraculous. Am I a fan? You bet! Just a quiet one.

From this visit I am trying to learn a ton about how to use the elements of ministry, stagecraft, liturgy and image to communicate on a large scale. I am beyond impressed by what he was able to do. To receive a welcome like he did in Congress and in public, yes, bordering on the miraculous.

 Understanding the Pope as a Latin American Roman Catholic

It is also vital to understand the Pope as a Latin American from Argentina. If you know something of the history of Latin America and Argentina you can understand how he developed some of his politics and his savvy. It is important to see him through that filter. That helps us understand his politics, his posture towards politics and his theology.

I like his Missiological Instincts

While I think I probably would have found a way to name Jesus to the Congress (not that the majority of Congress doesn’t have some idea of who he is already) I doubt I would have double checked my speech to insure I had. The point is that you gain credibility with an audience by entering into their context, finding common ground and speaking their language. You also extend hospitality wherever you can and as generously as you are able, whether you are playing the host or the guest. This pope exudes hospitality. Hospitality doesn’t make you a “liberal” or a “sell-out”, it expresses strength and generosity.

Just a Man

Having said all of this, I should note that my Protestant sensitivities also get triggered by some of the stagecraft. Part of what I like about this Pope is that he’s chosen to make his humanity a visible part of the theatrical exaltation that the liturgical role requires. I think that’s helpful. It’s a difficult balance to navigate but he seems to do that well. Playing his part well is a bit part of his job, and it is a job.

The Church is the Steak, the Show is the Sizzle

Back to my previous piece. I have little confidence that the momentary enthusiasm for show recently displayed in the media will change the lives or politics of masses of people, especially among those who were already far from the church. It’s not a bad thing. It’s on the whole a positive thing, but the real work is done by the Holy Spirit and by the church on the ground.

I often hear people say things like “I don’t think Jesus intended to start an institution.” I disagree.

I also hear people often talk as if the Holy Spirit is somehow antithetical to institutional and communal life. I can understand this because culturally we tend to equate the Holy Spirit with spontaneity, crossing lines and ignoring norms. While there is some truth to that I think the Holy Spirit works through institutions just like it does through community.

If you want to make changes look for a leader. If you want something to last, build and institution.

If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go together. To do that you need an institution.

The platform the Pope stood upon for the success of this trip to America was the oldest institution in the Western world. The Pope is the pope because of an institution. You can’t understand any of this apart from an institution. The reason he speaks with credibility and authority is because of an institution. Jesus didn’t need one to speak with authority, the Pope does.

From Galilee to Ephesus

The contrast between Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee and the way the Holy Spirit changed human history through the church is all about the creation of an institution. There were miracles by Jesus in the Galilee and people followed him to Jerusalem but they abandoned him at the cross. Good thing we have a savior strong enough to not need us for him to do his work.

Paul did miracles and drew crowds in Ephesus but it was the institution that Paul and many others planted in the Roman world that changed the world. The “greater things” that Jesus promised his followers would do comes through the work of the Holy Spirit through individuals AND institutions.

I understand why we are suspicious of institutions. Institutions sometimes don’t do right by individuals. When institutions fail lots of people get hurt. Part of the reasons we need institutions is because individual needs sometimes do need to be transcended for the greater good, something the individualism in the West has difficulty with. When institutions get things wrong with their power they can do tremendous damage. But, I believe, God works through institutions and blesses us through them.

What we saw in the papal visit of 2015 to America was the sizzle of the institutional steak. It is the work of the Holy Spirit through institutions that made the trip possible. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in the church that actually fleshes out the care for the poor and the homeless that the Pope made gestures towards. It is the regular preaching, teaching, acts of mercy and every day sacrificial care of the inconvenient people of the world that embodies the work of our Lord in the world today.

We will stand and applaud the show today but turn tomorrow to our old habits and ways unless something structured, stable, reliable and re-habituated comes into our lives to create space for “the least of these”.

Am I cynical about people? Yes. But I am not about our Lord, his power and his plan to rescue his rebellious, fallen and broken world. In this I see the Pope as a welcome ally.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Culture commentary, Institutional Church and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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