I entered the Catholic seminary at 13. I have worked for Cesar Chavez’s farm worker movement and labor unions since I was 19. And I have run political campaigns for Democratic politicians and causes for 40 years.
Watching these institutions – my personal “trinity” – struggle to remain relevant has been hard. I love working in the labor movement. I continue making a living in politics. I had given up on the church.
Jesuits didn’t train me. But when I read Pope Francis’ description of Jesuitical thinking – “The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking” – I saw at once the root of the disheartening condition of the institutions that have been so central to my life.
A failure to recognize the virtue of keeping “thought incomplete” explains more to me about the shortcomings of those institutions. “(T)hose who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists – they have a static and inward-directed view of things.”
Pope Francis has thoughtfully taken a different strategic approach. Without changing dogma, he simply downgraded it, putting it in its place.
With breathtaking speed, he is doing what other social institutions haven’t. He is making the Catholic Church relevant in a society where political parties and other intermediary institutions drift further into irrelevancy.
It is sad and a bit comedic to watch politicians spar over which party can find affirmation in popular Pope Francis’ words. Their talking points target their bases and yet miss the much bigger point: The pope’s appeal is the baselessness of his message.
If “I am no one to judge” is the headline in Pope Francis’ narrative to the world, his less quoted statement that “The first reform must be attitude” is the game-changing subtitle.
We have much to learn from reflecting on what a reform in attitude might mean for our stalemated political process and our ability to engage in constructive and collective action. Pope Francis’ “first reform” of “attitude” has done more for the relevancy of his church than anything in my memory.
When we rely on ideological dogma in politics, we polarize people to the detriment of progress. We excommunicate those who aren’t perfect adherents. And we attempt to cover up our imperfections by exaggerating the imperfections in those with whom we disagree.
People claim to embrace diversity, except when it comes to diversity of opinion. People claim to embrace freedom, except when freedom is lived differently.
The practitioners of purity are pushing the growing number of young people who genuinely embrace diversity and freedom to opt out of political structures.
When I was a young man, I came to believe that the essence of Catholic sacramental theology was that symbolic physical acts create the reality they symbolize. The warm embrace symbolizes a bond even as it creates one.
Have any of us ever liked anyone we didn’t feel liked us? Have any of us ever felt good about being excluded? Isn’t the failure of political institutions to communicate affection and love a fundamental flaw?
The pope randomly calls ordinary people at home. He invites homeless men and their dogs to eat with him. He picks up a hitchhiker in his Popemobile. He wears ordinary shoes. He embraces people in such ordinary ways. These sacramental acts symbolize love.
The dramatic turnabout in public attitudes toward the Catholic Church – moving it from irrelevant for many to very relevant to so many more – should be something other social institutions study and emulate.
There is little evidence that political institutions run our democracy. Rather, popular culture drives politics. The pope’s downgrading of dogma captures the macro cultural trend that embraces the disruption of old orders. That trend toward disintermediation has unleashed unprecedented creativity in the arts and sciences. Is it wrong to hope that political institutions might soon see that the first reform must be attitude?
The dogma downgrade won’t alter what people think is right or wrong. But unless institutions of governance embrace human frailty by acknowledging their own, they won’t grow, renew or make things better.
Consider that the pope didn’t start by judging the flaws of other institutions. He started by embracing the frailty of his own. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.”
Perhaps, we will all do better in the work we do by beginning as he has begun.