The Spiritual Landscape
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.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/