Pope Francis, Mid-Level Management, and Fruits

Lately the Catholic world has been abuzz about a Vatican-sponsored Synod where, according to the media, Pope Francis is challenging deeply held teachings.

Of course, if one actually reads what Pope Francis is saying it’s more complicated, and a lot of the more sensational takes are just click bait. Pope Francis is not a throat slitter, and he’s treading carefully here. I’ve been confused at times by conservative Catholics taking issue with Pope Francis, since his statements have been more or less party line. He’s not, say, calling for female ordination or formally loosening up the Catholic Church’s restrictions on abortion or birth control, for example.

However, I’ve learned the concern is not what he is saying–again, he is careful–but rather his actions, promotions, and decision-making. While he might not say the quiet part out loud in regards to changing the Catholic Church’s position on gender, sex, celibacy, and authority the people he’s been promoting in the US Church and elsewhere most certainly have, and it’s happening enough that it’s pretty clear to Vatican watchers where his sympathies lie; his official, carefully crafted statements notwithstanding.

This got me thinking about our own situation. Years ago I was at a lecture sponsored by a Church-adjacent organization. One of its leaders was fairly well known for being of a certain ideologica/theological bent, and during the discussion somebody of another ideological bent but higher up on the org chart  walked in (but not that high, this isn’t one of those kinds of stories). As if on cue the organization’s leader pivoted to talking about the virtues emphasized by the latter’s ideological disposition.

Since then I’ve had more experience with matters of people and institutions to have witnessed a version of this many times, and I know how common it is inside and outside the Church. People pay lip service to some trope or theme because they know that’s what the higher-ups want to hear or because they have to establish their bona fides. In the worst case scenario it’s to run interference while working for change from within; either being intentionally apathetic when nobody is looking, or even actively working against it in a subtle, plausible deniability kind of way. But the subtle little decisions add up, and in our own Latter-day Saint world this is common enough (and no, I’m not going to get dragged into a fight about particulars) that I don’t pay too much mind when people make some statement that is what people are expecting to hear from someone in their position. Actual fruits, more than anything else, is what convinces me of people’s sincerity, and especially fruits that work against some norm or are personally costly to them.

Whether it’s BYU, BYU-adjacent institutions, Church-adjacent institutions or some influencer or another I don’t really take it to mean much anymore when people in mid-level positions sycophantically sing the praises of President Nelson (though to be clear I’m not saying all praises of President Nelson are sycophantic), celebrate the Proclamation, or cheer on BYU sports on their Twitter feed or Facebook wall just a little too much. Rather, to be convinced that somebody is sincere the fruits, and sometimes personal blowback, from their discipleship is what I take seriously. 

12 comments for “Pope Francis, Mid-Level Management, and Fruits

  1. I rely on Ross Douthat as an interpreter of what’s currently going on in Catholicism. It’s fascinating, but I’m very glad we’re not currently dealing with a building crisis like that.

    I understand your reluctance to talk about people, but can you name a positive example? Someone whose actions back up what they say?

  2. Hugh Nibley comes to mind. We take it for granted now that BYU-associated scriptural intellectuals are believers (or at least the vast majority of them), but there was a moment early in BYU’s history when that wasn’t a sure thing, and while I think the brethren would have eventually gotten it on the right track there was a tipping point moment when it was an open question as to whether a legitimate intellectual could be a BoM-is-historical believer. Taking the offered position at UC-Berkeley would have been the honors-of-men thing to do back when BYU was little more than a local college.

    And yet he also pushed back against the conservative politics of his day and place, which signals to me that he also wasn’t doing it for the honors of men particular to the, at the time, small and provincial Mormon subculture. He most certainly was not somebody who changed what he was talking about when somebody walked in, for better or worse.

  3. “People pay lip service to some trope or theme because they know that’s what the higher-ups want to hear or because they have to establish their bona fides.”

    Steve your statement above sounds like every general conference to me.

    Confessions of a non-traditional life long member….

    The Covenant Path (dont recall hearing this much before Nelson and now speakers cant wait to say it)

    Tender Mercies (thanks Bednar. A least that’s how I recall it)

    Think Celestial (If this replaces “covenant path” then good, but I got tired of it during his talk)

    Mormon = Bad (insert eye roll here)

    Ministering means more not less than home teaching (not sure the church even knows what it is supposed to be…you have some apostles say one thing and others trying to make it something else. Will take years before the dust settles and it will change again before then)

    Francis is by far the best Pope they have had in my life time. The real deal. Practices what he preaches. Trying to make the church better. Exactly why the conservative members hate him. God bless the Pope! (and the pres)

  4. Perhaps because of “holy envy” I made a brief five-year journey across the Tiber and back again. With a partner I even opened a little Catholic bookstore. During that time, I met many flavors of Catholics (only 2 who attended the Latin Mass on a regular basis). We started a Bible Study and made many good friends. These folks loved Saint John Paul II and respected Pope Benedict XVI. I came home almost a year after Pope Francis became pope. For many years we had a picture of “Thumper” on our Family bulletin board that said, “If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all”. So, for me and my Catholic friends as far as Pope Francis is concerned, I will leave it at that.

  5. Thanks for your unique perspective Bob. Jonathan, from what I’ve been able to discern (and Bob might correct some particulars), a sloppy analogy would be if President Nelson kept saying all the things but appointed the Sunstone Board to be Seventies Presidents and on the CES Board of Trustees (and all my love to the Sunstone Board, but I’m sure they can appreciate how that would cause some heartburn among conservatives) and refused to meet with or take Elder Bednar’s calls. Meanwhile, the Area President over Germany is conducting same-sex sealings (i.e. the German Catholic Bishop’s Conference) and President Nelson sends pro-forma protests but doesn’t actually do much about it. It’s an imprecise analogy since the Area President has less autonomy than a Catholic bishop, but that gives us a sense of what they’re going through, and why there’s more to the story than Pope Francis’ party-line statements.

  6. I don’t much care about your analogy or comparison. What I do care about are their messages.

    Pope Francis seems all in on making the world a more equitable place. Justice for the poor and oppressed. Working to encourage peace in an increasingly war torn world. If he has to placate the conservatives, so be it.

    President Nelson is more obsessed with helping the dead. Doing genealogy and constructing temples. His legacy will be the number of McTemples he has spread throughout the world. Nelson is flat out playing to his conservative. He appears to care little about progressives and the big tent vision. Why should he, most of the GAs are conservatives?

    For the world we live in, Pope Francis has a clearer vision of what is needed.

  7. rogerdhansen,

    IMO, President Nelson is leading the saints towards deeper commitment and sanctification. The more sanctified the saints become the more access they have to the powers of heaven. And the more access they have to those powers the more good they are able to do.

    Even so, the church spent over a billion USD helping the poor last year. And that’s not counting all the quiet acts of service and giving by members of the church that go unreported. And a sanctified people will give even more.

  8. I’m trying to remember what the old Missionary Guide called this (yes, I’m that old)…”Build on Common Beliefs” maybe? I’m sure something similar appears in Preach My Gospel–adapting your message to your audience is Persuasion 101.

    Was Ammon being duplicitous when he identified Lamoni’s “Great Spirit” as God even though I’m sure Lamoni’s conception of it was different in important ways from the God of Israel? Were Alma and Amulek being duplicitous by spending so much time teaching the Zoramite poor that they could worship outside a synagogue when their real goal was to reestablish the Church and get them worshipping in a righteous synagogue again? I love how in Alma 33 Amulek finally bends the conversation around to the topic the Zoramites really need to learn about, Christ, but they spend a lot of time on the Zoramites’ pet issues first.

    I’d suggest giving more people the benefit of the doubt.

    @rogerdhansen, I’d suggest reviewing President Nelson’s conference talks since he became president of the Church. Yes, work for the dead comes up, but it’s not even a major theme. I’ll guess this is coming from “The Church should spend its money helping the poor, not building temples” but as Jack points out it’s doing both.

  9. Pope Benedict in his quiet manner was trying to bring unity to the Church and make the tent larger. Two major examples were the Personal Ordinariate for Anglicans and those churches that were once part of the Church of England (Methodists, Wesleyans, etc.) which allowed the folks in those churches to more easily come into full communion with Catholic Church while maintaining much of their liturgy and traditions. He was also looking into requests by Lutherans and Presbyterians seeking a similar way forward. He encouraged and opened up ways for the Latin Mass, which had never been prohibited by Vatican II to be celebrated more, thus encouraging those who love the Latin Mass that there is indeed a home in the Church for them. The Roman Catholic Church has numerous accepted liturgies, but now suddenly the Latin Mass is seen as something to be shunned rather than cherished as Pope Benedict had intended. I’m sorry, but I don’t see unity, but confusion and division instead.

  10. Jack, you appear to be living in a dream world. The Church needs to do more for the poor starting now. The oppressed shouldn’t have to wait for the saints to be gulu sacrificed.

    As for the Church contributing $1B last year. There was no financial disclosure. We don’t know what was included in that figure. Was volunteer labor included in that estimate? And a couple years ago, President Nelson said the Church has given $2B in humanitarian aid over the previous 20 yrs. That’s $100M a year. Why the big discrepancy in numbers? It sounds like there has been an accounting change in the way they report numbers.

    Instead of just looking at President Nelson’s words, let’s examine his actions. He’s on a temple construction binge. That will be his legacy. Why build so many temple? Work for the dead principally.

    It is estimated that the Church’s annual budget is over $7B. If you take 10 percent of that, that’s $700M for humanitarian aid. If you take 2.5 percent annually of the $100B the Church has in investments, that $2.5B that could be used for humanitarian aid. Added together, the Church contribution could easily be $3.5B in real contributions.

  11. One of the key issues at this synod was the role of women. From a 10/27 AP newspaper report:

    “Women have long complained they are treated as second-class citizens in the church, barred from the priesthood and highest ranks of power yet responsible for the lion’s share of church work. They have long demanded a greater say in church governance, at the very least with voting rights at Vatican synods but also the right to preach at Mass and be ordained as priests [i.e. high priests in Mormon-lingo] and deacons.

    While ordination of women priests is off the table, the question of women deacons was an official agenda item for the meeting. Many delegates, male and female, have spoken out in favor of conferring onto women a ministry that existed in the early church.”

    Sound familiar? IMO the LDS Church will never be fully organized or achieve its complete potential until women and men are treated as ABSOLUTE equals.

Comments are closed.