Congratulations are due to the Pope for being Time’s Person of the Year. I would have voted for Snowden, but the Pope is a perfectly respectable choice. At least he’s an individual human being and not a vague demographic or second-person pronoun.
I like Pope Francis. He seems to be kind-hearted, intelligent, and genuinely focused on helping the poor. When he expresses opinions, they tend to be ones I agree with, at least as much as is consistent with him still being Catholic. He’s done a lot of substantive good work.
But that’s not what anybody’s focused on. And what they do focus on confuses me.
Suppose that people were to get super excited about President Obama wearing a US flag pin. “He’s so patriotic! He even demonstrates his love for America on his clothing!” Or going to Arlington Cemetary on Memorial Day: “Look how much the sacrifice of American soldiers moves him!”
But really all this proves is that Obama isn’t a total idiot. Wearing a flag pin is an easy way to signal patriotism, and if you’re the President signaling patriotism is a free public opinion boost. In the same way, it’s hard to imagine a self-interested President conceiving of the idea of going to Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day and not acting on it. It would just be dumb.
Pope Francis does some pretty heart-warming things, like washing the feet of the poor and letting little kids sit in his Pope chair, abandoning his papal luxury palace for a humble apartment, and baptizing orphaned puppies (has he done this yet? I assume it’s only a matter of time).
Thing is, I think of the counterfactual universe where I’m Pope, and having been made aware of the possibility of doing these things, it’s hard to imagine not going through with them. For getting rid of the furniture made of solid gold that no sane person would even want, I can have the entire world talk about my humility. For two hours of my time and the cost of a foot-washing basin, I can be Time Person of the Year.
For me, the story isn’t why Francis is so great, but why his predecessors didn’t do stuff like this all the time. Yes, okay, Pope Benedict XVI gets creeped out by humans and he’s not sure his immune matrix can handle their Earth germs. Fine. What were the other 264 guys’ excuses? Why don’t we get to hear about them secretly sneaking out of the Vatican to help the homeless in a way that makes it almost certain it would leak out (I’m not saying Pope Francis is really doing this, just that if he isn’t it’s probably because he didn’t think of it in time)?
Maybe Francis is just the first Pope who understands PR. The past two Popes were born in the 1920s; maybe they never really figured out the Age of Mass Media. I doubt future Popes will make that mistake.
I am not accusing Pope Francis of being shady or Machiavellian (although Machiavelli’s The Prince does in fact contain a whole chapter on advice for Popes). Just saying that if he were Machiavellian, he’d probably do pretty much what he’s doing now.
EDIT: Jed brings up in the comments what seems to me a good point. Perhaps previous Popes were interested in public opinion, and did do a good job managing it, but believed that people would be more impressed by golden thrones and fancy regalia and ritual than by conspicuous humility. Perhaps that belief was correct. That would say something pretty impressive about the world and the Church – that over the past century the optimal strategy in making people think you are a holy figure worthy of respect has changed from “have a really big solid gold scepter” to “radiate humility and love for all mankind”. Did we enter the Millennium without noticing?