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A Franciscan Legacy?

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 14, 2013

In the seemingly endless list of Catholic saints and holy people, there is one who has always stood out to me– St. Francis of Assisi, friend of animals, lover of nature, a wealthy man who gave it all up to live a simple life of poverty and service. He irked the Vatican by rejecting the wealth and worldly power of that day’s Church while he aspired and prayed for the ability to spread the peace that is embodied in God and the life of Jesus. Francis railed against the mystification of our personal relationships with God and wanted the people to know God in their own languages rather than in the closed world of the Latin liturgy, an idea that took nearly seven hundred years to come to fruition. He was, to my jaded and strayed Catholic eyes, one of the very few heroes of the Church that got it. St. Francis was a guy who lived a Christ-like life for the simple fact that he saw in simplicity and service the embodiment of Christ’s message and rejected the complexity and wealth that his message had been twisted to justify by the Church and its clergy.

Today the Church met its new leader, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, the first Pontiff to take the name. Over the years I’ve grown skeptical about

Trying on some mighty fancy duds for a disciple of St. Francis...

Trying on some mighty fancy duds for a disciple of St. Francis…

the Church as I’ve applied the lessons of Jesus taught to me as a boy– love, acceptance, peace, respect– and seen the Church and the other Christian sects abandon them in favor of bigotry and stodgy dogmatism. The fact that finally a man has come along bold enough to take the name of Francis and wear it into the very palaces and gilded halls that represent everything that Francis rejected– well, I’m just not sure how to process that. Hypocrisy? Reform? Megalomania? Courage?

I can see a case for any of those attributes and a heck of a lot of others. Bergoglio is a member of the Society of Jesus, an order that delights in intellect and notoriously doesn’t give much thought or regard to what the rest of the Church thinks. He’s the first of his order to be elected Pope as the Jesuits in general eschew the high offices of the Church and the Church in turn had been delighted to keep an order that it never seems quite able to trust away from the keys to the Popemobile. Why now, when the Church is in the throes of so many problems and scandals, would the de facto ban on Jesuits be lifted by the Curia?

Seemingly a man of firsts, Francis is also our first Latin American Pope. Famously hailing from Argentina albeit by way of an Italian heritage, Francis is seen as a change agent by the simple virtue of not being European. I question whether or not this is simple a case of geographic diversity (in the words of my friend Brian Fleischer) or if it is something greater; is geography destiny or meaningless happenstance in this instance? Does he represent substantive change or has the Curia simply added another of its standard issue?

The writings and public statements of the former Bergoglio don’t give me much cause for hope. His reputation is that of strict conservatism in terms of the social issues that dog today’s Church; he is fervently anti-gay, has spoken out against the expanded role of women in the Church and opposes the lifting of celibacy as a requirement of the priesthood. The unorthodoxy of the Jesuits seems lost on him; he was an early and vocal opponent of liberation theology and as the Jesuit Provincial of Argentina was known as a “man who never smiled”. It is said that he alienated many of his fellow SJs by allegedly collaborating with the military junta during the Dirty War, a claim he denies and which I don’t see sufficient evidence to believe or disbelieve at this point. What I do believe is that a man who can state that allowing loving gay parents to adopt and provide a home to orphans is “a form of discrimination against the child” is a man who has been blinded by his dogma.

His record and people’s opinions of him lead to contradictions. The “man who never smiled” is also known as a warm and humorous man. He supposedly sided with an authoritarian regime that robbed Argentina and its people blind but he is revered as a fervent defender of the poor; from what I have read he most assuredly seems to deserve that reverence. He had a palace and chauffeured limousine in Buenos Aires at his disposal by virtue of being the Archbishop, yet he lived in a small apartment, cooked his own meals and used public transportation– unquestionably displaying Franciscan values. He has managed to ascend to the heights of power in Rome while being renowned for being a guy who stayed at home in Buenos Aires, focusing on his pastoral duties and keeping Argentina’s parishes running, its priests ministering to the people.

It is that last idea, that somehow he has become the chosen of the Curia despite his lack of Roman bona fides at a time when there appear to be deep divisions in the body borne of very secular issues– banking, money laundering and plays for power– that worries me. According to some of my readings today, Francis is not known as a guy to rock the boat in the organizations he’s a part of; match that with the allegations that he might have been too accommodating to the brutal Argentine regime during the Dirty War, his advanced age (76) and that his Papacy will therefore be relatively short and I have to wonder if the Curia didn’t select a man they thought they could control or simply ignore. That’s a tricky calculus, creating a man of power and then thinking that he can be broken to the will of his electors. As Pontiff he would seemingly be a man beyond control, although that appearance has in the past been false. Whether Francis has the strength to effectively defy the Curia may actually be the central question of this Papacy.

All Papacies start with more questions than answers, but I think that the Papacy of Francis is uncommon  in the sheer volume and import of the questions presented at the beginning of this road. The Church itself seems primed for change out of necessity. Is Francis doctrinally suited to changing it? Does he even want to? Is he strong enough to effect any change at all, or can he be controlled by the Curia? Is he a cold technocrat or a warm man of the people? Is he a true disciple of Francis of Assisi? Can he maintain that amidst the silks, gold and artworks of the Vatican?

The empirical evidence– the writings and statements Francis– say that he will be another Pope in the Benedict mode, a stodgy conservative who will continue to press for the doctrinal purity of the religion despite the will of the Catholic people for a more relatable and modern faith. On paper he’s a Pope who represents the false diversity of geography, an orthodox prelate who is simply interested in maintaining the status quo.

There’s something there, though; something that as I think more about who he is makes me wonder if the paper Pope might be something more. The man chose to become the first Pope to ever take the name Francis and he has lived a life that at least in some ways echoes that of Francis. There’s cause for hope there; no, not hope that he’ll end the official bigotry against gays, not too much hope that he’ll reverse the Church’s teachings on contraception that have killed so many in Africa. There is hope, though, that he might be the Pope who starts the ball rolling towards “reform” no longer being something that the Vatican is terrified of.  I wonder if he doesn’t represent the tentative progressivism of the early 1960s in America, a time in which desegregation was germinating as policy even as those who backed it still wouldn’t want to sell their home to “those” people.

Does this Francis echo the Prayer of St. Francis as a channel of peace borne of justice and growth? Is he merely a channel of peace in the style of simply getting along with power? Worse, will he be a cause of strife as the Church continues its rudderless flight into scandal and contradiction? I wish I knew; heck, I wish I knew whether to even hope for something good or to accept that we’re going to have more of the same.

Clarity has never been a tangible benefit of Christianity.

Posted in Christianity, Human Rights, Religion, Social Justice, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Sometimes There’s Never a Right Time

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 12, 2009

I had an interesting email exchange the other day with a friend who just returned from his second tour as the commander of first an infantry platoon and then an infantry company in the Afghan Theater of the war. We were discussing the resurgence of the Taliban, their improving tactics and the general difficulty of fighting in Afghanistan when the quality of our own troops came up.

As a commander, he is quite satisfied with the quality of men and women that he commands in the field; morale is showing some frays over the issue of multiple combat tours that always seem to get extended just when people start to believe they’re about to go home, but that’s been true of America’s wars for a century. While on the topic of morale, I broached the third rail of personnel issues for the Army, especially– soldiers who are gay.

Don’t ask, don’t tell has become a punchline in the military and the popular culture both. Only fools believe that gay and lesbian personnel aren’t a part of every company, every ship’s crew, every squadron; simple math tells you that the demographic distribution of gay Americans mandates that gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are members of every sizable unit of our Armed Forces. More commonly known amongst military personnel as “Ask, Don’t Tell” for the way the program is actually administered, the policy has been exposed to the hypocrisy that lies at its foundation over the past several years of war, which have seen dismissals from the service under the Don’t Ask rubric decline from the pre-war years– when the military needs specialists who happen to be gay, it seems, they don’t quite pursue their dismissal with the vigor that they do in peacetime.

My friend is sympathetic to the overall cause of openly integrating the force, but he falls back on a common refrain amongst even progressive military thinkers on the topic– you don’t do anything that might cause upheaval within the ranks during time of war. On the surface, that is a seemingly eminently logical point. Wartime is not the time for social engineering, it is a time for boosting morale and getting maximum performance from the troops. Anything that distracts from that goal is an unwelcome distraction, indeed. Why dispose of a policy that, if flawed, has kept something of a lid on the entire situation for fifteen years now?

The liberal knee jerk response is “Because it’s the right thing to do”, of course, and in a vacuum they are right– we know that segregation and bigotry is a fool’s errand as witnessed by the racial segregation our own nation experienced between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Outside of that vacuum, though, that argument isn’t nearly as compelling– even Abraham Lincoln dispatched with a cherished founding stone of our nation, the writ of habeas corpus, due the the exigencies of the Civil War itself, so “because it’s the right thing to do” doesn’t carry as much weight during this time of war due to precedent.

That dismissal, though, is countered to an extent by the excesses of the current war that have found protective coloration in precisely the habeas corpus argument; Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, extraordinary rendition, denial of lawyers and “new” interpretations of the Geneva Convention as it relates to the definition of “prisoners of war” are all beneficiaries of the Bush Administration’s willingness to relax not only our Constitution but also our uncodified standards of conduct. We were collectively complicit in that relaxation, of course– it is far too easy to wash our own hands of culpability and assign the blame to an unpopular President while forgetting that he was elected by the people to represent us and that, truthfully, many of us were so outraged and so angry in the time following 9-11 that even though we may have talked about how much we hated what Bush was doing we went ahead and re-elected him with an even larger share of the vote. American Democracy has eroded as a concept due to the excesses of the Bush Administration, but we can at least stop it from eroding to the point of football, where all ills are blamed on the quarterback even if the fault lies with the coaching staff or the defensive line. Yes, I am amongst those who spoke out against the Bush policies as did many people, who worked or gave money for Kerry and Obama, who worked to elect progressive Congressmen and other elected officials, but I am also an American and that is the overarching reality of all of our lives– we are part of a collective, part of a nation, and we must see reflected in our own eyes its flaws as well as its benefices if we are to be honest with ourselves.

So too, then, must we recognize that there will never be a right time to deny rights, dignity, responsibilities and privileges shared by most Americans to any subset of Americans based on parochial beliefs or even what some might see as demonstrable facts. We are one people in blame as we are one people in right, and as one people it is beyond our honest ability to deny rights ostensibly shared by all to the few. Amongst those responsibilities and privileges is the ability to serve our country in uniform if one so chooses, a right and privilege currently denied any homosexual who chooses to live as themselves rather than in the closet. Yes, allowing openly gay members to serve in the military may cause some minor disruptions in the force structure, but we already have a much larger issue of integration to inform us as to what we can expect– the largely seamless integration of African American soldiers into “regular” units of the military during the Truman Administration. Naysayers predicted catastrophe as a result of unit integration– remember, this was a time when legal integration was still very much a reality in the American South, so making the military much less ready to accept black troops than it is to accept gay troops today. The predictions of mutinies, readiness level declines and other dire events never came to pass, of course, and assuming that they would today over integration of openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines is rendered even sillier given that history.

The military command structure itself has implicitly said this by reducing the number of dismissals for homosexuality during the war. The generals & admirals have spoken– dismissing gay troops would cause a greater force disruption than leaving them in place in many cases, as witnessed by the hesitance over the last four years in particular to make a dismissal cases against homosexuals, especially those serving in the technical, intelligence, and language sectors of the military where these men and women serve not only with honor but hold skills and talents integral to the successful waging of the current war.

There will never be a right time to integrate and accept openly gay troops into the force structure– there will always be a compelling argument made by those whom the layman is afraid to challenge on military grounds. The military, however, while being the ultimate guarantor of our safety is also the servant of the people of this nation, not the other way around. Those people must accept that there will never be a right time to deny basic rights to their peers; it is that peer relationship, that we are all Americans under the Constitution, that easily trumps any social, racial, or biological subset we may belong to with the exceptions for cause that are codified under the law (denying felons the vote, preventing the mentally insane judged a hazard to others from owning firearms, and the narrow like).

If a man or woman is willing to protect, defend, and honor their fellow Americans then we are not, as those Americans, too, in a position to deny them. To do so is to redefine the meaning of America in a direction which we have travelled too far and too easily these past seven years. It is time to reclaim our identity, and to do that we must accept that identity is a broad one that embraces all with a birthright to it.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, History, Human Rights, Social Justice, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

MLK Day of Service

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 16, 2009

I wonder if the word on this initiative is really getting out? Monday, January 19th– Martin Luther King, Jr. Day– is being cast as a National Day of Service, in which we celebrate the holiday not just as a day off and a chance to sleep in or shop but as a day to emulate the ideals of Dr. King by performing volunteer activities in the service of others. I personally love the idea– how better to teach my children about Dr. King’s ethos of bringing people together to effect change– and will be out with my wife and kids participating in volunteer projects that morning. If you’d like to find projects to participate in near your home, please stop by this page for a searchable list of service projects in your neighborhood, broken down by zip code and proximity.

Go help a neighbor in memory of a time when society was literally recast by others doing the same.

Posted in Cultural Phenomena, Events, Social Justice | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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