One of the things I haven't really written about at all lately is Pope Francis and his various statements and ecclesiastical appointments. I read coverage about it to a certain extent, but as reactions both for and against Francis have seemed to strengthen, I've found myself less and less inclined to say anything about such topics.
Part of the reason is that I feel like reactions to virtually anything in ecclesiastical politics and writing seem to have become ever more factional. The routine seems to go like this:
- Pope Francis says something or does something.
- Liberal Catholic pundits (yes, I know we're supposed to be oh-so-above such left and right labels as Catholics, but you know what, everyone knows what I mean even when they object to the terms) and the secular medial all announce "Another Setback For Conservatives As Pope Francis Stamps His Humble Boot In Their Face!!!"
- More or less simultaneously, one segment of conservative Catholics goes into full howl mode and announce that the Seventies are back, the Pope Benedict's "hermeneutic of continuity" is over, and the pope is probably a crypto heretic.
- The loyalty brigade (which consists mostly of another segment of generally conservative Catholic writers) gets started and declares that anyone upset by this doesn't understand that Pope Francis is behaving Just Like Jesus and that they are behaving like the prodigal son's older brother and all the worst of the Pharisees rolled into one.
Every single thing seems to go like this, and after a while the scripted nature of it all leaves me feeling disgusted.
This sense of distance, however, has helped me realize something I probably should have realized a long time ago: I really don't know much about Church leaders as leaders. Those of them who are writers, I can at least know as writers. As such, I really love Pope Benedict, who had the rare ability to write clearly and accessibly but also very deeply. He also has a profound intellectual, spiritual, and liturgical understanding of Christianity. As such, I was incredibly excited when he became pope.
However, I honestly have no idea how well he ran the Church in term of administrative matters. It seemed like he appointed some good bishops and did some needed things in relation to the abuse scandal. But no only do I not know how he ran things according to the criteria that his fellow bishops have -- I don't even know what those criteria are.
Similarly, while there are bishops whose public statements and actions I like more than others, I don't really know much about what makes a good or bad bishop in terms of actually running a diocese. I'm sure that some orthodox and pius bishops do bad jobs of administering their priests, planning projects, building vocations, and interacting with the numerous groups of faithful vying for their attention. I imagine that some bishops I would consider at root orthodox but honestly very squishy are actually pretty good at running their diocese. And I am pretty sure that I don't even know the criteria that would define these and other types in between.
I see a similar phenomenon at the company I work at. I currently work at a level where I see a certain amount of what the executives do. I interact with them and know what kind of questions they ask and how they make decisions. And although I'm not nearly as far into that world as the people a level above me, I am far enough in to start to realize that the popular impressions within a company of executives personalities, whether they're good at their jobs, and of the nature of their jobs, is often pretty far from the reality.
Knowing that about an organization I'm fairly familiar with, I become a lot more suspicious of my impressions of leaders of other organizations with the workings of which I'm less familiar: church leaders, politicians, etc.
That doesn't mean that no one knows. People who work in diocesan administration or in organizations that interact with diocese probably have a lot more of an idea about these issues. But for a lot of us, even people who pay far more attention to ecclesiastical politics and writings thatn I do, what we see is actually the publicity image of these figures: some combination of their writings and public actions, reactions to them by writers, and how they fit in the culture war paradigm.
These things aren't nothing. People learn from public images. They have to, since very few of us interact directly enough with leaders to have any clear sense of what they do in their actual jobs. But it does mean that there is probably a disconnect, perhaps often a large one, between the reasons why chuch leaders are actually chosen and how we perceive them. Indeed, bishops are probably perceived very, very differently by their fellow bishops than we perceive them based strictly on their writings, actions and media images.
All of which has led to me to have a lot less to say about all this. I'm curious about how it all works, and I care about what impact these decisions may have on the Church. I fear that some of the decisions being made probably aren't very good, but I also increasingly doubt my ability to know which decisions are good or bad except after the fact and in the most egregious or outstanding cases.