In the world of the church, it doesn’t get much higher than this. But then it’s not just the office but it’s clearly the man himself who commands both the respect and attention of millions around the globe, including much of the media, making him a virtual rock star of religion.
Watching him interact with both the powerful and the powerless in Washington on Wednesday, and listening to him talk, however, I could not help but have a little papal envy that the leaders of our own church so seldom seem to speak with such clarity and conviction.
It’s not just that Pope Francis is a prophetic figure willing to embrace unpopular positions if he feels led to do so. For to be truthful, we have a few of those among our episcopal leaders as well. But it is that when Francis speaks, he does so out of the core doctrines and beliefs of his church, articulating them so cogently that both his critics and his cheerleaders cannot help but get what he is saying. Similarly, if he carries an agenda at all, it is clearly not a political or even personal one, but a message that is deeply embedded in his church’s understanding of the faith.
The pontiff can thus speak passionately about the sanctity of life, but also about the stewardship of the earth. He can lift up the cause of both the sojourner and the soldier in our societies, and do so without any fear that he will come across as leaning either too far to the left or right. For again, if anyone cares to actually check it out, they will discover that what he says is nothing more–or less– than what Catholic doctrine believes that the gospel teaches.
And that is sadly enough what our own bishops so seldom seem to do. For enmeshed in the administration of the connection, they often forget that one of the principle jobs of any episcopos is to not just to manage the church but to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people,” Jude 1.3, particularly when it may be under attack by the culture.
In the case of United Methodism, thus, what I would love to see is a bishop stand up and publicly defend our official teaching that “the beginning and end of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence,” and that while “we equally respect the sacredness of life and the well-being of the mother of an unborn child,” that “our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion,” particularly those carried out simply as a means of after the fact birth control, or as a political affirmation of women’s rights.
I’d likewise love to hear a bishop remind us that “all economic systems are under the judgment of God, no less than other facets of the created order” and that “every person has the right to a job at a living wage.” Then they might argue that since the separation of church and state “should not be misconstrued as the abolition of all religious expression from public life” that the church should not simply roll over and play dead when it comes to standing up for what it believes, no matter how the political winds are blowing.
And, of course, what would really amaze me is for a bishop–any bishop–to do something I have yet to hear in four decades of being a Methodist pastor, which is not simply to announce that they will enforce the current disciplinary positions on sexuality issues, for example–or conversely, that they intend to ignore them–but to actually and accurately defend those positions and tell the members of their church why they believe that ours is indeed a biblical ethic grounded in the gospel, even if parts of our current statement could stand to lose some of the more abrasive language.
In short, putting partisan politics aside, I’d love for our bishops to exercise the same kind of moral authority grounded in the church’s official teachings that I have seen this week in Pope Francis who was, by the way, elected to his office at the seasoned age of seventy-six, or some four years older than the mandatory retirement limit for our bishops and clergy.
Or is that simply asking too much of the men and women whom we believe have been summoned by the Spirit to serve as our spiritual leaders?