During the Pope’s recent visit we were regularly reminded by some that he and his church has failed on a number of matters such as gay marriage, abortion, and clerical sexual abuse. There can be no argument with this except that this was not the best time to bring it up. If the only acceptable change is that which fully meets one’s goals or dreams, then there can be no progress all. Life just doesn’t work like that.
I was reminded, reading these critiques, of decades of declarations from left idealists that some change had failed because it was only partial.
Typically driving this complaint was a powerful theoretical conception of the ideal society that should define our actions. I had learned in college as an anthropology major and fledgling reporter to view life more from the bottom up: here is the evidence, now what does it show us? It was not that I didn’t share many of the ideals of the theorists (who tended to get better grades because they were in sync with academic deductive thinking) but that I saw life as more complex than they did. Further, a theory doesn’t mean much if you can‘t talk sense to the person whose doorbell you just rang.
As I became an activist, I found myself dealing with issues such as, regardless of an idea’s virtue, how do you get anyone to pay attention to it? I was coached by people such as a Presbyterian minister trained by Saul Alinsky, a chemistry major named Marion Barry, and a remarkable activist named Julius Hobson who easily blended the economic, the moral and the ideal into specific actions. During this time, we had the largest local protest in Washington’s history, a level of self government we hadn’t seen in a century, and the beginning of a successful war against a huge freeway system in which the original catalyst was the protest by some dramatically atypical activists: black and white middle class homeowners. It was in such ways that I came to see change as an unpredictable mixture of the right thoughts, the right people, the right language, the right place and the right moment. It was the imperfection of good hearts running into good luck.
Thus, this Seventh Day Agnostic recognized Pope Francis as a soulmate right away. He understands the uncertainties of change and how one adapts to it. The theoretical he repeatedly put aside for today’s work.
Part of such adaptation is compromise, a concept that is not well understood these days. During my years in Washington I came to realize that many politicians did not actually judge the compromises they made by the progress they permitted, but by a simple point score: did I win or they? Many compromises did no one a favor.
To fairly judge a compromise you need a destination, something many Democrats and Republicans seem to have forgotten about. The difference, say, between an LBJ and an Obama is that the former had someplace to go beside retaining power, It makes a big difference.
To fairly judge an imperfect soul such as Pope Francis, one needs to ask – whatever his compromises – has he moved us towards a more decent destination? Are we better off than we were a few days ago/
I’m sorry about the church’s position on gay marriage and abortion, but if the end result of the Pope’s visit is that we give decency better status in our thinking and our actions, then we have made progress and we owe him some real thanks.