Sept. 30 2015 12:19 AM

Pope Francis, John Boehner and the political process


People in the Lansing area are approaching the November election hoping for — needing, in fact — leaders. The ideal of leadership all too often devolves to hoary clichés: overstated boasts, unrealistic promises, distortions. Think Donald Trump.

Why? Because real leaders — whether in Lansing or Washington or the United Nations — are rare. It isn't easy. Two prominent examples are Pope Francis and House Speaker John Boehner.

The visit by Pope Francis to America offered an extraordinary lesson in leadership. The throngs that filled churches and lined the streets and squares in Washington, New York and Philadelphia to celebrate Francis in America are a testament to the man and his message. Remarkable? Not really. They reflect the longing by so many for moral leadership in a social, political and religious environment that makes it difficult to reconcile who we are with what we've become. Francis preaches the core message of the gospel, outward love and compassion for others. Certainly, it's a path that works for his audiences and is universal enough to satisfy others.

Here is a man who three years ago was virtually unknown to most of the world. Now it is fair to suggest that he is the most popular person on the planet. That's leadership. Smart, savvy and genuine, he preached America to Americans in a way that clearly resonated with Catholics and non-Catholics. In an increasingly polarized nation he bridged competing visions of who we are and what we should be. As a religious leader he set goals for his church and those it serves: Be a better people.

But this is only the beginning. Setting high expectations is the easier edge of leadership. Delivering is what matters and for the pope it will be the challenge.

Wall-to-wall TV coverage of his visit gave discerning viewers a chance to see a clerical landscape that was very different from the energized faithful who cheered Francis. On the altar at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York those in the pews and television viewers saw the real church in America administered by old white men with their crimson sashes (cinctures) and skull caps (zucchettos), most of them appointed by Francis' doctrinaire predecessors. Whereas Francis radiated and basked in joy during his visit, the princes — cardinals mostly — were taciturn. They are being challenged by the pope to alter their confrontational approach, internally and externally: Francis told them, “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor; it has no place in his heart.” Be better leaders, he said.

The people inspired by the pope return to their churches expecting changes — or for the skittish conservative wing of the church, fearful of what might change. Can Francis' leadership bridge the divide of an all-male clergy, same-sex marriage, divorce, abortion and clerical abuse? Eventually, leaders need to deliver.

In Washington, soon to be retired House Speaker Boehner couldn't. His surprise announcement last week illustrated well the impossibility of reconciling congressional factions for a common purpose. By falling on his sword, he has gained the political flexibility to avoid a government shutdown in October. It's leadership of sorts and perhaps the most unifying stance he could fashion out of a dysfunctional Congress. But it's a onetime shot.

The uncompromising hardline Republican faction underlying his departure portends a tense and certainly unproductive Congress. Boehner and others in his party, recognizing the need to work together in some fashion at least, have harshly criticized what they contend is a Tea Party nihilist view of government, well articulated by Michigan’s own discredited former House Rep. Todd Courser: “We're not here to pass legislation. We're here for the messaging moments and media" is what he told his staff.

Listening to Francis, the devoutly Catholic Boehner had to acknowledge his inability to find what the pope preached. That is, a “spirit of cooperation” to serve the common good, to “respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.” The day after the pope's address to Congress, Boehner announced that he would resign.

So what do we want from leaders? Throughout Michigan in the coming weeks candidates seeking elected office will ask for support. They will ask voters to trust their judgment in shaping cities and townships. And they will promise to blend narrow interests with the common good. Some will succeed.

In Lansing the issues are schools, poverty, debt and safety. Lansing, it seems, is always at a crossroads. In East Lansing, the community wants to rid itself of downtown blight, improve roads, parks and other infrastructure. In Williamston, it's also infrastructure: water, sewers, sidewalks and the cost.

Although this is a small election — a handful of Council seats and a charter amendment — the challenge to politicians framed by Pope Francis applies. We want them to deliver. We want they to lead. We want Pope Francis, not Boehner.