Lessons from Rome for DC?

What lessons could U.S. leaders learn from Pope Francis?

U.S. Capitol is photographed behind a chain fence in Washington. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)
U.S. Capitol is photographed behind a chain fence in Washington. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)
The U.S. government is shut down. Have you noticed? Probably not. Planes are still flying. Trains are still moving. The post office is open, Social Security checks are still being delivered, and the military remains on guard. For most Americans, the closing of the federal government doesn’t interfere with the daily grind. Now, this isn’t to diminish the very real problems that a government shutdown creates, especially for those who rely on government for their livelihood and services such as nutrition assistance. For them, the shutdown of the government is quite painful. Rather, it’s worth noting that by making the effects of a shutdown as minimal as possible for most people, the rage that Americans should feel toward their seemingly inept leaders is lessened, and we’re left with even less incentive for Congressional accountability.

So, how did all this happen? Driven by ideology, some Republicans in Congress have used procedural tricks and lawmaking loopholes to try to defund President Obama’s healthcare reform, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The law was passed in Congress, signed by the president, reviewed and declared constitutional by the Supreme Court. Then the president was re-elected in a landslide in what was essentially a referendum on “Obamacare.” But ideological opponents of the ACA have determined to shut down government in a sort of protest over implementing the law, which began this week.

In short, the inability of the left and the right, liberals and conservatives, to talk to one another about a shared vision — in this case, running the country — has led to a total breakdown and a sort of anarchy. Ideology trumps ideas.

Can the same thing happen in our Church?

I attended a forum last night to mark the launch of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, where the group’s founder John Carr, former executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said he wants to create harmony among sometimes divided factions in the Church. He said he hopes to “build common ground on pressing policy challenges, especially those that touch the poor and vulnerable.”

The panel, comprised of David Brooks, New York Times columnist, Mark Shields, political commentator, Alexia Kelley, president of the Catholic philanthropy consortium FADICA, and Kim Daniels, spokesperson for the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, considered if Pope Francis could have an impact on public life in the United States. Dubbed the “Francis Factor,” the panel considered lessons from the pope for public discourse and action here.

Kelley noted that Pope Francis embodies a spirit of servant leadership, and Brooks said that the pope has fully embraced being counter-cultural, “looking like a Christian.” He went on to say that Francis appears to transcend politics, and as such could compel American Catholics on both sides to emulate his leadership. Daniels noted that Catholics in the United States lack a true home in either political party, and Shields said that Francis is more than a PR master, but is offering substantive models for leading. (You can watch a recording of the entire event here.)

As our nation is battling a crisis of leadership, what lessons could our own leaders learn from the pope?

First, humility. Pope Francis appears remarkably humble. In his now famous interview with America magazine, he reflected on how as a young leader in Argentina, he acted authoritarian because of his inexperience, and noted that it was a mistake. Now, with more years and more wisdom, he seeks collaboration, as evidenced by the eight cardinals meeting with him in Rome this week. Leaders here, both in the executive and legislative branches, could ask themselves if they need advice, guidance, or even just a chance to step back and consider if their style of leadership is effective.

Next, Francis, in remarks about atheism, suggested that if the goal is to do good, meeting in the middle with those who don’t share similar beliefs will be just fine. This approach limits the toxic effects of ideology, and even does some good in the process. Imagine if Democrats and Republicans here could put aside ideology, pick a common goal — how about income inequality — and find solutions, however imperfect, together. Compromise shouldn’t be a dirty word, and engaging with our peers on the other side of another issue should be the rule rather than the exception.

Finally, Francis isn’t afraid. He called up an editor at Italy’s largest newspaper, an atheist, and asked to chat. Someone who is afraid of image or offense wouldn’t have done this. Fear leads to paralysis, and it permeates our government. Fear of losing re-election. Fear of not meeting fundraising numbers. Fear of challenges from the extreme right or left. If our leaders could let go of fear and instead do the job they were sent to Washington to do, imagine the possibilities.

By the time you read this, perhaps the government will be open again. But more likely, we’ll find narcissistic, fearful women and men yelling into cameras blaming the other side for the failure. Let’s hope that some humility, openness, and courage can make its way from Rome to DC.