Earlier this year President Obama and Pope Francis met at the Vatican. It was reported that on the way into the meeting President Obama said to the pope, “I am a great admirer.” This meeting was largely reported as an inspiration, two powerful and inspired men meeting to share their vision.
I, personally, couldn’t get past that comment, “I am a great admirer.”
From the beginning of the Pope Francis parade I have taken a “too-soon-to-tell” approach. Like the famous Taoist story of the farmer who has a series of experiences and when onlookers tell him, “Wow that’s too bad” or “Isn’t that great,” he says simply, “It’s too soon to tell.”
So as Pope Francis paid his own hotel bill, drove himself to the Vatican, and washed the feet of young prisoners, I said to myself, “too soon to tell.” It’s not that I’m cynical, I just had a tad higher standard for the leader of the world’s largest religion. The photo ops were nice, but they weren’t anything that I didn’t expect a religious leader to do. In fact, they were the things that we expect of all leaders.
As the photo ops have become old news, I have waited for the pope to truly lead. I don’t mean creating new committees or shuffling his staff. I mean truly leading on the major issues of human dignity. And … he has not.
It seems like every week the United States is condemning the stance of some country around the world regarding their treatment of women, homosexuals, children, and the less fortunate. President Obama decried Russia’s treatment of homosexuals prior to the Olympics. We have put enormous pressure on countries that allow sex trafficking with underage children. And the United States has long been a leader in women’s rights.
And yet the president flew to Rome to sit in the golden palace of the pope who oversees the world’s largest discriminatory organization. An institution one billion people strong that has publicly touted bylaws that prevent women from holding positions of leadership and that deny homosexuals the basic human right of acceptance; an institution that has subjected children to sexual abuse and swept the acts under the red carpets of the offenders, and that has created a corrupt bank funded by the donations of the world’s poorest citizens.
“I am an admirer.”
Take a breath and let that sink in. We have invaded countries over these types of human rights abuses. We sanction and pontificate and condemn leaders with far less justification, and yet because these acts are committed under the cloak of GOD we give the church and the pope a pass.
I know there are many who say that Pope Francis is making strides, that he just needs time to right the ship, that he is progressive and bold. To that I say simply, “bullshit.”
It takes no time at all, not one second, to look at discrimination within your organization and say loudly and clearly, “STOP IT!” AND to put policies in place that put real action behind those words. That is not courageous or bold or progressive, that is basic human decency. That is the simplest form of world stewardship. This man is the pope for God’s sake, dare I say we ought to expect that he operate at a slightly elevated standard?
And dare I say that our president ought to as well?
President Obama had so much to share. This meeting could have been so much more than a 50-minute chat and a photo op. Our country’s first non-white president meeting with a man whose organization is stuck in the prejudice of the past — wow, what a moment. What an opportunity for President Obama to show up again, the one who inspired us with the Audacity to Hope, the man who broke the barriers of discrimination and hatred that our country shared with the Vatican. What an opportunity … and an opportunity missed.
Instead, two powerful guys met behind closed doors, accomplished nothing, and the world goes on. And the task of courage falls to us. To the not-so-secret female priests and bishops who are ordaining them; to the gay men and women who are marrying and finding the divine in their union; to the parents who are forcing the church to act like a house of God where children are safe; and to all of us, whatever our belief about religion or God, to look out into the world and lead with love.
We so often look for change to come from the top down, but it rarely does. Throughout history it has started with acts of ordinary men and women with extraordinary vision. And so today, while our presidents and popes and other leaders act for the camera, let’s act for ourselves and take a step, no matter how tiny, towards the world we want to live in, the one we dream of, filled with love, and kindness and acceptance of us all.
That, Mr. President, is worth admiring.
Big hugs of love,