Pope's lessons in boldness for Australian politicians


Man with padlock in lipsOne of the intriguing features of Pope Francis is the contrast between his earthy and free way with words and the laboured earnestness of those exploring his words for hidden meanings. It is like watching Martians deploy a bomb disposal unit to deal with the football a kid has kicked into their spaceship. The incongruity is humorous but it also points to a sclerosis in public conversations.

When speaking to groups the Pope generally throws away his text and engages in idiomatic and spontaneous conversation. The everyday context discourages close analysis. So when he darts into the crowd to speak with an old man and lays his hands on him it is otiose to ask if he was performing an exorcism. Nor did his response to a school student who asked why he moved out of the papal palace that it was not good for him to live alone really conjecture about his psychological wellbeing.

And an exhortation in which he explains that God wants to save all human beings does not bear the weight of a changed church doctrine about the central place of Christ in salvation. Such spontaneous gestures and words are living and buzz about happily. Only spoil sports embalm them for dissection.

This deadly seriousness also infects political conversation. The stray words of politicians senior enough to count are scrutinised for any inaccuracy or inconsistency with the party line. Lapses from verbal impeccability are then derided as gaffes that can potentially lose an election.

The problem with this carry-on both in church and state is not that important people are ambiguous and make mistakes when engaging with others, but that they are infected by the drear earnestness of the verbal surgeons. Instead of laughing them out of court and resolving to be themselves in addressing people, they purse their lips, consult their aides and resolve that never will they or other spokespersons for their party sin in this way again.

So they padlock their minds and lips and allow only the leader and chosen deputies to speak of the party's platform. They exercise strict control over other ministers and party members, expecting them never to go beyond the party line, to support it unequivocally when questioned, and to vote for the party at penalty of being disendorsed. Debate about policy is private and in practice atrophies.

They also develop a private language to speak of party policy and its benefits for society. This is an amalgam of past statements of philosophy and policy at a high level of abstraction. It is so general that it does not touch the situations in which people find themselves or the dilemmas that arise when values come into conflict. But it is gaffe proof.

This process has been echoed in the Catholic Church of the last decades. At a time when faith is often in tension with contemporary secular wisdom the unique authority of the Pope and senior bishops to speak on behalf of the Catholic Church has been emphasised. Priests and laypeople with positions within the Church are expected to endorse these positions.

To speak of faith and morals a private and abstract language has been developed, drawing on papal statements that are used to buttress one another. The language and the positions endorsed through it are self-consistent.

In both political parties and churches discipline and uniformity can be achieved in this way, but at the cost of credibility. The difficulty is that leaders who can speak only in an abstract and hermetic language can neither recognise nor address the daily concerns and dreams of the people whom they serve. As they become disconnected, people become disillusioned. When the language of faith or politics becomes self-enclosed, conversation about the deeper questions facing society or church atrophies.

That is why Pope Francis' conversational engagement with his listeners and salty language has been seen as so significant. It has disclosed how stuffy the air in the Catholic Church has become, and emphasises the longing for open-ended and personal conversation with people about things that matter deeply.

It is never sufficient to speak in an enclosed language that is always defended and defensible, or to marshal words like tanks to break through our conversation partner's lines, capture his castle and compel surrender.

The language of engagement is more like a dance in which you step forward and back, twirl and bring out the best in your partner. It moves beyond security and certainty because in matters that matter we are always seeking words. Inconsistencies are part of the dance, to be addressed in a subsequent and more rigorous conversation.

Pope Francis may have something to teach Australian politicians about boldness. They may be emboldened to engage people passionately and simply about their dreams and strategies for shaping a better Australia. Gaffe hunters can then be allowed to choke on their own gaff.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Padlock image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

Good advice for Australian politicians; also relevant to Australian bishops or have we given up on them?
Jim Jones | 11 July 2013

I loved your analogy about the Martian bomb disposal team, Andrew. Pope Francis seems to have taken up Christ's promise of life abundant. That happens when one is mature and developed enough in personality to have the confidence to really be themselves. Sadly, most of our "heroes" in public life are still emotionally adolescent and unable to trust themselves. They cannot genuinely "live" as Christ spoke of. Sadly, purported "Christians" of all denominations are as warped and twisted as others. That surely is an indictment of their quite real spiritual and emotional constipation. By the way, if you think the Catholic Church here is bad in its lack of the spontaneous living of the Christian life, you want to have a look at some Australian Anglicans who live up to the late Sidney Smith, former Dean of St Paul's London's adage, "What bishops like in their clergy is a dropping down deadness of manner". Justin Welby has provided a similar example to the Pope. Sadly few clergy or laity follow. At least those two are showing genuine leadership and proper biblical based example.
Edward F | 11 July 2013

Thanks again Andrew. You could have to added to politicians and churchmen our current AFL bosses, Essendon executives and 'oh so serious' football commentators. This sclerosis is so evident in bishops crafted responses to the Vic, NSW and Fed. 'Priest sexual abuse' inquiries and led by the Vatican's secretiveness. Even the high sounding bishops groups seek to mislead with PR chosen 'facing the truth' and 'truth, justice and healing council". Perhaps it should have taken a lead from Superman with 'truth, justice and the bishops way'. Fortunately it's CEO Bernard Sullivan is attempting to follow Pope Frank's example within the constraints of the ACBC. Force. Mike Parer
Michael Parer | 11 July 2013

I think that many were accustomed to the theologically rich articles and encyclicals of the previous 2 popes. The transparent simple diction of this pope has taken everyone by surprise - it is just as theologically rich but not in the same way. He really does seem a Franciscan at heart.
Skye | 11 July 2013

It's important to be aware of our shortcomings - that is, for those of us who actually have some! I can state categorically that I am a very poor dancer. My brother likewise. Our parents both fine dancers and we missed out! After reading your words, Andy, I no longer feel like I've walked into a door. Or, rather, trapdoor.
Pam | 11 July 2013

Thanks Andy, This is a lovely article. I especially enjoyed the final paragraphs where you began to describe the essence of what Pope Francis seems to be doing when he engages with people (a bit similar to that Jewish fellow who was able to sense the touch of a women who was not to be touched). What you are describing here is what I hope will become a spark of action among our Christian communities when parishes can offer gatherings where the people can talk and listen to each other. This is a discourse that challenges many, but when it is conducted with guidelines and agreements, the life of people (the light of the Spirit) emerges. At present, this simple (and seemingly courageous action) of our Pope, for me, is a rare light of hope. Thanks again for your offerings. Enjoy the Light Vic
Vic O'Callaghan | 11 July 2013

A brilliant piece - a challenge to all who would comment, as well as to the Church and Parliament.
Ian Fraser | 11 July 2013

How true and how refreshing - beautifully written, Andrew. So disheartening to see our leaders, both political and religious, woodenly rolling out the party line, often backed by nodding minders. We hope Francis can remain determined to respond with the simplicity born of love and intelligence.
HelenH | 11 July 2013

A fascinating, interesting assessment of the vast power of language, Andrew. Couldn't help seeing Bill Shorten's admission that he completely agreed with what Julia Gilliard had said even though he hadn't heard what she had said! It was very sad at the time and a perfect example of the imprisonment of thought and its expression.
john frawley | 11 July 2013

An immensely apt and timely piece, Andrew. It is particularly worth pointing out , as you have done, that both church and state are afflicted with the same disease of "polly speak", which seeks to protect the appearance of consistency (in reality uniformity) at the expense of achieving something worthwhile that they both claim to seek. At the state level, "engaging with the people" is reduced to contrived sets of photo opportunities, meetings stacked with the party faithful, and inane ten-second sound grabs for television. At the church level, the culture is the same, albeit in a different context. If we want to achieve a mission we needed to "go out and preach the message/ gospel", not circle the wagons so that the message is "uncontaminated" by allowing local applications among the people.( yes, lots of mixed metaphors here!)
Dennis Green | 11 July 2013

Words should be used to reveal the truth, not conceal it. Where would the advertising industry be, if this were the law? Political parties are not parties any more they are brands. So too with the catholic church, which claims to have "the truth" which it encapsulates in Thomistic concepts and words. How sclerotic is that?Pope Francis seems to take a more Christ-like way to expressing the truth. He talks more like an Existentialist than a Metaphysicist.
Uncle Pat | 11 July 2013

Well said Andrew.
Michael Duck | 11 July 2013

What a lovely, refreshing informative article, Andrew..Revealing the value of sincere conversation .Helping us to ''listen'' to recognise truth., then, through grace, growing in communion. Fantastic!
bernie introna | 11 July 2013

Rich human conversation makes each of us believe and feel we are the centre of attention, the focus of thought – Bill Clinton is said to make the person he speaks with feel like the only person in the crowd. Francis likewise.
Andy, you make us feel spoken with. You give hope that the yearning in years since Vatican 11 promised a ‘breeze of change wafting through an open window’ may yet be possible – but in Church and State at the one time?
If only your piece were required meditation for God’s People and for each of our representatives!

Kevin O'Flaherty | 11 July 2013

My thoughts but better expressed than I ever could. Thank you so much for common sense and the dance to bring out the best in each other.
Jane | 11 July 2013

Ah, an article decrying our PC, which has unfortunately permeated our society(s) to the extent that it now smothers conversation and thought outside the box. New thought tends to be stymied, unless encompassed in an academic treatise. Agree with all that you say Andrew, but how is it that the "drear earnestness of the verbal surgeons" has taken such sway over us, politically, civilly, religiously? Who or what's behind the dumbing down of democratisation, so that our thoughts, words and deeds are more easily censored? So that we are more easily governed by unseen and unelected authority. I suspect that we're all responsible, and those that flout the malaise you write of Andrew are those that have a compass with a True North, like Pope Francis. A corollary? Our 'thought leaders' have no idea where True North is, nor what a compass might look like. Of course, I'm glossing the tragedy that many true leaders do have something to say, but they are shot for the message, before it can be broadcast. How fortunate that we have broadcaster's like Eureka Street, that we have social media and young people joining elders that seek a more loving and forgiving world.
micklcook@gmail.com | 11 July 2013

Thank you, Andrew, and all the commentators too!
Ray S. | 11 July 2013

Yes Andy. This man is real, not a soundbyte. As he says you have to go and smell the sheep. For a recovering Catholic like me there is a place to engage. The stuffiness has been suffocating. The predictably unpredictable Jesuit Pope makes it feel like there is a place that could be home. With the renovations it just won't look like it looked before. There is an amazing sense of God in his unpretentious humanity
john | 11 July 2013

Thanks Andrew. These thoughts are also pertinent for those exercising public roles in Catholic education. Expectations of "gaffe-proof" correctness can be unhelpful and constraining. Anne
Anne Benjamin | 12 July 2013

Lovely article, Andrew. You state and crack through the piecrust of current conversation which consists of formulae and leaves us gasping. Also as usual the comments are part of the discourse and this article has invited some new hopes. On'yermate.
Michael D. Breen | 13 July 2013

With this piece of Fr H, to which I take no exception, Eureka Street effectively un-demonises Tony Abbott for admitting honestly that he may not get it right sometimes in the thrust and parry of media interviews. ("Tony Abbott's Missing Moral Core" November 8, 2010) Well done, E.S. Now, how about an apology?
HH | 22 July 2013


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