Bits and pieces:
I like everything Pope Francis is doing because he’s trying to shake things up. The minute popes become popes they become insiders. They are inside the Vatican, inside the curia, inside the papal apartments, daily presented with inside information on the operation of the church. But Francis seems to be preserving his role as the outsider—the priest from Buenos Aires, the man who gets along with everyone but isn’t of them. He doesn’t want to do the showbiz—the regalia. He doesn’t want to live in the apartments. He doesn’t want to do the grandness, including the perpetual security machine that keeps normal people away.
Americans started this—the over-the-top security apparatus with the hundreds of guards and the bulletproof glass—and now every leader imitates it. The rationale, a serious one, is physical protection, but the underlying message is that those who are guarded are magical, irreplaceable—dainty little eggs being carried through the world on thrones of lettuce leaves. Safety is protected but vanity is projected: “I’m better than you, I’m special. You little people jumping to touch my hand—you can’t touch me.”
This is all, obviously, not Francis’s way. You could see it last week during World Youth Day in Rio de Janiero, where he was in the heart of the crowds, unafraid and unassuming.
There’s a quality in certain popes so that when you see them go by in the popemobile, or just on a TV screen, your soul sort of jumps and you find yourself moved in a way you can’t explain. John Paul II was like that—I remember a businessman, a casual Protestant, turning to me once when the pope was on TV and saying: “I can’t figure it out but every time I see him my eyes fill up.”
I don’t remember that being true of Pope Paul VI, who preceded John Paul, and it wasn’t true of Benedict, who followed him, but it is true of Francis. This week he had words on homosexuality, and they made big news. In part this was surprising and in part not. What the pope told reporters was nothing Catholics wouldn’t say and haven’t said in common conversation. Asked about his views on priests who are homosexual and celibate, Francis responded, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
He made it clear priests must do the true work of priests—helping people. But as to what is in a human heart, who is to judge? A modern pope hadn’t said anything quite like that in public, which is why it was news. It has been called tolerant, but it wasn’t tolerant—it was loving, which is what a Christian should be. Church teaching is church teaching, doctrine is doctrine, they’re often complex and requiring of assertion and explanation. But when a pope speaks plainly the kind of actually humble thought Catholics actually hold in their hearts it can be powerful. And this was. Good.
Francis continues as a breath of fresh air. I hope he stays seemingly simple and doesn’t become too clever. Guilelessness and humility are not only virtues, they have real practical force.
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Connected to the thoughts on security, I have a friend who once told me the difference between cats and dogs. When you get up in the morning and feed your dog he looks up at you and thinks: “She comes, finds my food and pours it for me—she must be a god.” A cat thinks: “She comes, finds my food and pours it out for me—must be a god.”
Politicians—no matter how they started out, with what modesty or inner sense of stability—tend to wind up as cats. They come to think “the people” are there to meet their needs—to provide the money they allocate, for instance. They come to think taxpayers are there to pay for their staffers, who in turn are there to meet their needs, and their benefits packages.
We are a cat-encouraging system. Probably the only thing that would change this, in a practical sense, is an old idea: term limits.
Term limits—a maximum three terms in the House, say, and two in the Senate—would limit the opportunity for a dog to turn into a cat. It would also change the reward system. If you’re not spending all your time advancing the prospects of a lifetime career in government, at the end of which you’ll be an object of respect, you may just spend your time advancing the interests of your country, which in the end will truly enhance your reputation.
Term limits are simple and clear. They’d make things better. We don’t focus on this simple fix. One reason is that there are always so many pressing crises that dominate the daily political conversation. But another is that we look to Washington for leadership in this area. And Washington will never vote to limit its own power without enormous pressure from outside.
By the way, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is not running for re-election and will leave in 2015 after two terms because when he first ran for the Senate he term-limited himself, and he’s keeping his word. Before he entered the Senate he was a popular representative who term-limited himself, and departed when his time was up. This is remarkable, that he kept to his word. It’s one of the reasons he is respected in Washington.
They know something unusual when they see it. That fella stayed a dog.
* * *
The bankruptcy and decay of Detroit puts the spotlight again on corrupt public officials (the Motor City has been rich in them) one-party rule (it was a Democratic town, pretty much top to bottom, for 50 years) and public-employee unions and the long-term implications of their demands on what used to be called the public purse.
The deal years ago, and everyone knew it, was this: If you work for the government you may be paid less competitive wages than the general marketplace offers, and your workplace would likely not be as dynamic and afford as much advancement as the private sector. But in return for these agreed-upon limits you got one important advantage: job security.
A government job was a comparatively safe job. And that was worth a lot, especially when you saw your neighbors get laid off in various cycles and contractions.
Now that original agreement has been turned on its head. Government workers are relatively well paid. They have benefit packages and pension plans that are the envy of their neighbors. As for job security, they are so secure they pretty much can’t be fired—witness Lois Lerner, who took the Fifth in the IRS scandal, who appears in fact to be at the center of that scandal, and who apparently refused to resign and is still on paid leave.
None of this is what was intended. None of it is how it was supposed to work.
We weren’t supposed to be ruled by cats.