Saturday, November 8, 2014

Pope Francis Goes on the Offensive against Conservatives: Credible Christian Leadership?

Credibility is absolutely essential to viable leadership, whether in religion, politics, or business. A leader who undercuts one of his or her promises effectively expunges it of any worth and is essentially a “lame-duck” leader thereafter unless he or she puts difficult effort into becoming worthy of being trusted again. It does not take long for followers to get the message if one of them who relied on the promise is punished for doing so. Chairman Mao is infamous for having made such a promise in the Hundred Flowers movement. Unfortunately, he killed many Chinese who relied on Mao’s word. A similar dynamic, though much less extreme, occurred just after a synod in 2014 called by Pope Francis, who in this respect can be likened to Mao. Fortunately for the Catholic pope, his own religion offers him a way out.
In the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which began in May 1956 under Mao Zedong, the Chinese government permitted, and even encouraged, intellectuals greater freedom of thought and speech. Mao used a famous line from Chinese classical history as the campaign’s slogan. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend.”[1] It was not long, however, until Mao came down harshly against those intellectuals who had used their new freedom to criticize the Communist Party. Had another opening been made and free discourse encouraged, doubtless few intellectuals would have been critical of the party under Mao.
Similarly, Pope Francis presided over a synod of bishops on whether the Roman Catholic Church should relax its stances on divorced and gay Catholics. Debate at the 2014 meetings was indeed open, with both liberal and conservative bishops making their arguments. The pope came out in favor of allowing divorced and remarried church members to receive Communion and of welcoming gay Catholics back. Among the more vocal conservative bishops was Cardinal Raymond Burke. He was instrumental in watering down the synod’s concluding summary statement. Before the synod, the pope had removed him from a position that had given him substantial influence in appointing new American bishops. In the wake of the synod, the pope removed Burke from being the head of the Vatican’s highest judicial authority, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura; the Cardinal found himself appointed instead to the ceremonial position of chaplain for the Knights of Malta, a charity group.[2]
The problem with the demotion is that the pope had called another synod for 2015 in which the bishops will make final recommendations on the same topics. Any conservative bishop wanting to climb the Vatican hierarchy would of course remember Burke’s fate and either adopt the Pope’s reforms or remain silent at the second synod. In other words, Francis undercut his own claim that the bishops should feel free to express whatever view they have rather than be sycophantic.
In Kantian terms, the demotion makes the Pope’s maxim of tolerance self-contradictory, and thus the demotion is unethical. To be sure, religion does not reduce to ethics, and the history of religion is replete with gravely unethical acts. Theologically, both the Pope and Burke could truly reform their Church by applying benevolentia universalis (universal benevolence, or neighbor-love) to the other. Pray for those who persecute you. Do not do anything that would cause your brother or sister to stumble. Practice agape, which is self-emptying love. Presumably a person’s ideology is among the first things to be poured out. Viewing the matter of Church reform as a distant second to the spiritual value of aiding those persons who attempt to prevent your ideology from becoming actualized is, I submit, more important than whether a religious is a reformer or a conserver.


1. Enclyclopedia Britannica, “Hundred Flowers Campaign.” (Accessed November 8, 2014).
2. Jim Yardley, “Pope Demotes U.S. Cardinal Critical of His Reform Agenda,” The New York Times, November 8, 2014.