The finest example of leadership in my life is someone who has also been my closest friend for the past five decades. Joe M. had a long and successful business career before retiring. But he learned how to lead in the Marine Corps. He commanded an infantry company on Vietnam’s DMZ in the late 1960s. Two of his sons also saw combat as Marine officers, and the Corps drilled into all three men that leadership is not about the ego of the leader.
It’s about the common objective, obviously, but also about the men one leads, even the cranks and sluggards, because it’s their effort that matters and their blood at risk. It’s why, in the field, a Marine officer typically eats last. His men come first.
In my own family, our eldest son learned the same lesson during his years at West Point. A good leader deals with doubting voices, excuses, and criticism as part of the natural terrain. He listens well. He doesn’t whine. He doesn’t bully. A leader’s private frustrations and preferences are understandable; they’re part of being human. But his public words and actions have consequences, and any blowback from his imprudence is deserved. Thin skin is a sign of immaturity and weakness. It suggests an unhealthy focus on the self. And worse, it encourages resistance, not cooperation.
Life in the Church is a long way from life in the military. But the basic principles of leading people translate well. In 27 years of diocesan service, I watched dozens of good pastors and bishops deal with mean-spirited criticism in a respectful manner. They may not have liked it and sometimes deserved it. But most – not all of them, but the great majority – took the hammering in stride and kept on trying to do their best. When I started diocesan work, my greatest fear was seeing things that would shake my faith. The opposite has been true. The Church in the United States, for all of her flaws, is still remarkably fruitful compared to the Church in almost any other nation. Today, toward the end of my career, I remember my colleagues, clergy, religious, and lay, with nothing but admiration.
In that light, the now-frequent public complaining from the circle around Pope Francis and even from the Holy Father himself about “reactionary” elements in the American Church is unjust. It divides rather than unites. It heals nothing and feeds confusion. It implies the kind of conflicted personality that deliberately provokes others to confirm one’s own resentments. And in the end, it alienates people who might not understand or like this pope’s style and goals . . . but otherwise might be willing to accept both, as a matter of Catholic fidelity.
All of the above is a preamble to what follows.
On August 28, La Civiltà Cattolica published a transcription (available here) of the Pope’s meeting with fellow Jesuits in Portugal during World Youth Day. It’s worth reading. Francis’s comments about service to the poor, the dignity of work, and the urgency of engaging the world while avoiding “spiritual worldliness” are important and typical of his ministry. And just as typically, he complicates his message with claims of “backward-looking” thought, a “climate of closure,” “very strong reactionary” attitudes, and a decay of true religion into (presumably right-wing) ideology in the United States. For a man committed to “the joy of the Gospel,” his words too often smother it in those who listen, including many people as committed to the Gospel as he is.
We live in a fractured age. The American Church has toxic ghettoes on both ends of the ecclesial spectrum. . .on the port side of the ship as well as the starboard. But they don’t shape the real character of mainstream U.S. Church life. Arguing otherwise is dishonest. And anyone feeding that falsehood in the mind of the Holy Father is guilty of calumny. As for poisonous ideology, it can be found even within a pope’s own environment and entourage. The Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce – in critiquing the ideological zeal of the Catholic “progressive” – noted that “If we recall that [Auguste] Comte envisioned an alliance with the Jesuits, and their conversion to positivism, we may well say that, with respect to some of today’s Jesuits, he was truly a good prophet. Only his timing was off.”
The problems raised by the Holy Father’s comments in La Civiltà Cattolica go beyond bruised American feelings. He speaks dismissively of moral “issues below the waist,” but ignores the reason for their gravity: They affect the whole architecture of biblical anthropology. Francis notes, accurately, that doctrine can develop. But so do tumors. When the Holy Father says that “the death penalty is a sin,” one can support its restriction to vanishingly rare circumstances. But no one can declare it inherently evil without repudiating the Word of God and consistent Christian teaching. No one, including the pope, has that authority.
Francis also stresses the importance of listening to the Spirit. But which Spirit? What if the “Spirit” claims to speak through prominent Churchmen in the language of social science on, say, the positive value of homosexuality and gay unions? Social science isn’t science at all in the same sense as physics or chemistry. It’s a politicized branch of knowledge not known for its religious sympathies. And as for the pope’s words on synodality: The evidence connecting that concept to the will of Vatican II is exceedingly thin, and the process leading up to the 2023-24 synod does not reassure.
In the end, there’s a rich vein of irony in writing a column like this. Despite my frustrations, I want Francis to succeed – not in serving my pet prejudices and irritations, and certainly not his own, but in serving the real needs of the whole Church. I just wish he were a better leader; one easier and more compelling to follow.