What the pope can do -- and can’t -- do

by Donna Schaper

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One of the most well-remembered talks here at Judson Memorial Church in New York happened one night when our now-deceased minister emeritus, Howard Moody, advised us that we were going to be disappointed in Barack Obama as president. At the time, it had just become clear that Hillary Clinton was not going to be president and that Obama might be.

That was eight years ago. Moody quietly laid out the obstacles facing Obama the president, including the grotesque racism that has followed him. He warned us to be careful in the size of our hopes.

Here, I am going to do the same thing, on a religious level.

If Pope Francis is doing anything right, he is claiming legacy as his leadership, not change. Change is pompous; legacy, respected and redeemed, is liberatory. Most leaders know that you can do just about anything if you claim a precedent. Even the con artist Harold Hill in “The Music Man” stood in the shape of the town hero, dancing in the form of its statue. He wanted to look like he was following a legacy.

Francis already has done a lot. He has led us into the belly of the Vatican whale and the climate whale and the capitalism whale, and then stepped outside of these multiplying captivities long enough to help us look at them. That’s what a leader can do. That’s all a leader can do and that’s all a leader should do.

When leaders do too much, they lose the abilities of their followers to follow. “You should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders,” the pope told the Hispanic population among the crowd along Independence Mall in Philadelphia during his September visit.

Claim them. Continue them. Deepen them.

There is nothing wrong with Jesus. There is a lot wrong with Catholicism. There is nothing wrong with the Gospel. There is a lot wrong with Protestantism. There is nothing wrong with my New York neighbor, New York University. There is a lot wrong with NYU corporate’s intention to increase its already gentrifying footprint in Greenwich Village in the next 15 years.

By the way, this is not agreeing with Yogi Berra, in that the Francis is déjà vu all over again. It is another thought. The pope is going to do something new and it will be gradual and it will be careful and it will make the old new. That is change. Making the old new.

My new favorite book on management is an old one. It is called Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie, originally published in 1998. Its wisdom is both to enter the belly of the whale and then to stand outside it and learn from your experience. Mackenzie argues that the best leaders take their hair out of the hairball and look around. Otherwise, you are condemned to be linked to the mess. You can unlink from the great mess we have made for much of creation. You can take a look around.

This seems an approach Francis is following. In September, Andrea Gagliarducci, a Catholic journalist often critical of Francis, told The New Yorker that the pope “is very Jesuitical in saying or doing something that seems to push discussion further down the road than he actually intends to go. But that pushes everyone further down the road than they intended to go.”

Francis is working hard to change the consensus within the church rather than imposing it. This spiritual maturity is the very best thing he is doing. Why would we want a pope who behaved pontifically? Why would we want an infallible pope? A fallible pope is much less likely to disappoint our innocence. This pope is putting new meaning into the words “pontifical” and “infallible,” helping us all humanize ourselves and our expectations for ourselves. This is exactly what we Baptists and members of the United Church of Christ mean by soul freedom, the priesthood of all believers, the self-governing. We are the “don’t tell me what to do” kind of churches.

Good leaders bring the past and all its hairballs along with it. The problem is how to create just enough resistance to actually make change but not so much that somebody organizes against you. Saul Alinsky always argued that good leaders are two inches, not two feet, ahead of their people. Tension is necessary; otherwise people stay on their couches and remain guilty bystanders.

The pope can model spiritually mature leadership. That is no small thing. People will try to create a caricature out of him and make him both larger and smaller than he is. Pope bobbleheads? Pope soaps on a rope? Wanting to touch the pope as if the pope had more than capacity than you is spiritually immature. You have the touch, not the pope. Or better, the pope points us to the touch we do have and urges us to use it. 

Of course, we need to hope in the pope as a leader. We also need to get him to the right size, out of the box of our projections, into the reality of our life together.  He is successful as he animates us to be engaged in and inspired for multiple joint actions.

My prediction is that Francis will give more than crumbs to the LGBTQ community and that he will move to ordain women. The pope’s internal logic is too inclusive to continue these injustices. He surely needs pushing. He surely needs sobering. He surely needs to tend all the hairballs in his own system.

But my imagination tells me that, like John Boehner on his way out of Congress, the pope will be singing “Zippedy Doo Dah” on the way out of the Vatican. He can’t do everything. He can do some things, especially if we get animated and touch each other. 

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]

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