Pope Francis speaks; America dreams

Pope Francis speaks of American Dreams (screenshot), @2015 Susan Barsy
Pope Francis spoke to Congress in halting and heavily accented English.  His slow, thick cadence demanded utter silence.  For once, the government that talks of listening really was.  In this atmosphere of rapt attention, much emotion flowed.

The remarkable hype surrounding the pope’s address owed something to its novelty.  Here was a highly unusual interjection of moral consideration into institutional politics.  The pope is a teacher and gospeler whose authority is old and wide; he represents Christian thought as it has evolved over two millennia, from far before the birth of our American Protestantism; all which jibes uneasily with the secular, natural-rights foundation of our legislative government.  The Congress, mostly too curious to stay away, ostensibly has no need of persons like the Pope–or do they?

Francis’s remarks thoughtfully addressed the predicament of our politics, being inwardly eroded by the twin evils of narrow fundamentalism and moral indifference, while outside it witnesses the chaos that violent Islam is engendering.  The Congress is a sophisticated amoral entity, whose challenge is to act in a world that extreme religious passions are constantly agitating.

Francis used the theme of ‘American dreams‘ to recall the humane impulse that has been one of Western society’s glories.  The belief that all persons are equals, that all merit individual consideration, that all life demands respect: these ideals, deeply embedded in national history, continue to suggest a middle way of peace, generosity, and forbearance, that our atomized and materialistic society has lately been inclined to turn away from.

Many resist Francis’s call to end the arms trade, minister to the poor and friendless, respect the earth, and abolish the death penalty, though these flow from the most basic Christian teachings.  Others, though, will have quietly absorbed his remarks.  Will they be moved to create a more ‘modern, inclusive, and sustainable’ economy?

Papal Charisma

Pope Francis

The Papacy is only as good as the person in it, at best.  With the accession of the new pope and his first few dazzling gestures and appearances, the prevailing tone of Catholicism has quickened, with adherents daring to think new thoughts and regard the future more hopefully, sensing the power of a new point of view to create openings.

Whether the church on the ground can keep up with the change, Pope Francis has begun clearing paths for a global communion of followers.  His response to their desire for inspiration has been direct and almost disconcertingly unmediated.  There’s no question that Catholicism has entered a new era.

Francis’s stellar début marks the emergence of a charismatic leader.  Weber famously defined charismatic authority as “resting on [a] devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and to the normative patterns or order he reveals or ordains.”  In short, charisma exists where followers acknowledge it to.  A rare in-dwelling quality, charisma is the genuine form of a sort of appeal that American politicians desperately try to acquire with the aid of polling, statistics, and consultants.  In Catholic believers’ spontaneous and enthusiastic response to Francis, we see a faith in leadership largely absent from American democracy.

Charisma, however wondrous, is problematic.  In Francis’s case, it remains first to be seen whether his acts and leadership justify the adulation he is receiving.  For now, we see mainly the strength of the laity’s pent-up desire to repose trust in a virtuous leader.  Second, as Francis’s time in the Papacy lengthens, we shall see whether his charismatic authority is powerful enough to wreak change in a vast yet morally compromised global bureaucracy.  Or will his charisma be muted as he attempts to reinvigorate a hierarchy so routinized and entrenched?