Pope Francis: Laid-Back or Authoritarian?

I don't get many opportunities to hear the late night broadcast from the BBC, but last night was an exception. On my way home from the airport I tuned in to learn how people were reacting to the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope.

Typically the reporting at the BBC is fairly good. But like any group of journalists, there are times when they trade in cultural and popular assumptions. As a result, they miss the opportunity to speak a word of clarity to the confusion that clouds our thinking.

The observation that stuck out for me on that score was the observation that the pope-elect is "a 'humble' man, but he also has a reputation for being 'authoritarian.'"

"So," the reporter went on to say, "it will be interesting to see if his behavior as a pope reflects the style of leadership that has characterized his work as a Jesuit or whether he will be more 'laid back.'"

That's not a direct quote, but it's close. The words "humble," "authoritarian," and "more laid back" were definitely the reporter's language.

Good thing that Francis the First was elected for life or for as long as he feels called to this task. Good thing, too, that he wasn't subject to large scale balloting. By the time the press finished analyzing his leadership style through that muddled lens, his election would have looked like, well, the election of a lot of other clergy.

Such popular assumptions exercise enormous influence over the way that we choose leaders of every kind. But when reporters offer "sage" analysis that is co-opted by the kind of confusion implicit in the observation made by the BBC last night, those assumptions exercise disproportionate influence over the process.

So, let me try to unravel at least a few threads of the confusion:

One, humility derives from the Latin, humus, meaning soil or earth. Someone who is humble is aware of their creature-character and, therefore, of the dependent and finite condition that they share with the rest of humanity—particularly in the presence of God.

Humility does not entail diffidence, a penchant for self-loathing, or a shy and retiring demeanor. It is not about being weak or indecisive.

On that score, given what little we know about Cardinal Bergoglio, he seems to be "as advertised." One hopes that his decision to travel by common means and eat alongside other mere mortals is not for show, but reflects a deep sense that he shares in our earth-bound human nature.

Two, authoritarianism and the exercise of authority are two different things. Part of the problem here is our understanding of authority. It is not about the exercise of power; it is about the preservation of the boundaries that make for creative space in the church or in any other organization.

Authoritarianism is born of power. Genuine authority is born of devotion to the preservation of a creative space.

Authoritarianism is a zero-sum game. It is about maximizing a leader's control and the reactive decisions that conserve and extend power.

The exercise of true authority can be firm, informed, and clear about direction without ever lapsing into authoritarianism—if the leadership offered is grounded in an effort to preserve the creative boundaries of an organization. Without boundaries there is no sense of belonging. There is "no there there." Without shared understandings of the Christian faith there is no direction or "communion" or "member-ship." Hence, Francis's insistence that there are boundaries for behavior among faithful Catholics is not about control or power, but about preserving a sense of the difference between the Church and the world.

I can't speak to Cardinal Bergoglio's exercise of authority as a Jesuit. I do know that historically the order has been shaped by a charism that combines a unique blend of military-like discipline (big surprise, Ignatius of Loyola was a soldier) and daring, innovative ministry. (One professor observed, "The only thing God doesn't know is what a Jesuit means by obedience.")

My suspicion is that any exercise of genuine, boundary-preserving behavior in the Society of Jesus is likely to look like authoritarianism to people on the outside, whether it is or not. On the whole, the average layperson does not work in or belong to organizations that operate on the assumptions that shape Jesuit life. Corporate life does not come close. The United States Marines might be a better analogy.

Three: The dictionary definition of "laid back" is "relaxed, easy-going." That, as far as I can see, has to do with style and temperament. It has nothing to do with either a sense of humility or the exercise of genuine authority.

Contrary to the inference drawn by the reporter, "humility" and a "laid back" demeanor is not the same thing.

So, how will all three characteristics mark the leadership Pope Francis provides?

  1. He could be all three: a humble pope who exercises authority, and is, at the same time, laid back.
  2. It is hard to imagine him being genuinely humble without it driving him to nurture and preserve creative boundaries.
  3. It is equally difficult to imagine him being that kind of leader without being humble.