On the Relative Unimportance of Our Leaders

To most Americans, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency was a surprise, but for a certain segment of the population, the suddenly live prospect of “President Donald J. Trump” evoked stronger reactions. Groups of people that were described as “horrified” included “climate change supporters” (presumably this means “supporters of the fight against climate change,” and not people who are supportive of the climate changing, but let that pass); Europeans, and especially Germans; Clinton supporters; Canadians; and Paul Krugman. Similarly, a Washington Post piece named “blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, [and] people with disabilities” as groups who might be “terrified,” consoling them by telling them “it’s okay to cry.” Jessica Valenti at the Guardian tells us that it’s not Trump himself but rather “Trump’s America” that she fears.

They’re terrified. They’re horrified. They want to live in a bubble. They threaten to leave the country. They shout, chant, and tweet, “Not my president!” Why are these people so afraid? On the surface, it’s simple personal aversion: they recoil at the thought of a man they perceive to be a racist, homophobic, Islamophobic misogynist in the White House. A man like that holding the most powerful office in human history? They fear their worst dreams would come true with the flick of a pen: abortion and same-sex “marriage” law overturned, deportation squads roaming the streets, and nuclear armageddon always looming.

But this begs a question, and points to the deeper level at which the crisis exists: for the views or attitudes of a president (whether or not these characterizations are accurate) only matter to the degree to which a president is able to translate those views into national policy. In theory—that is, by a strict reading of the Constitution—the president has very little power. Only with the expansion of the federal government into areas in which it has no constitutional mandate and the usurpation of the legislative power by presidential executive orders (not to mention an overreaching judiciary, appointed by the president) does the occupant of the White House loom so large as a threat. When the president can remake the country with a phone and a pen, his personal preferences will be decisive. This was not the system our founders envisioned, for this very reason. Our nation and our system of government were meant to far exceed the whims of the nation’s chief executive.

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To put it bluntly: it ought no matter so much who is president. The American experiment in liberty is predicated on the idea that it is bigger than any occupants of government offices—that America is more than its legislators and executives.

A similar dynamic presents itself when we look at the state of the Catholic Church. It is certain that the pontificate of Pope Francis has created a perception in the minds of many of a shift (or break?) in the Church’s “tone” or “approach” to several key aspects of the faith, among them sin and the sacraments. This perception affects various parties differently. Converts to the Church under Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, for example, are often characterized by an attraction to doctrinal clarity and cohesion and liturgical beauty: many of these are perturbed by the ambiguity of Pope Francis’s off-the-cuff remarks and his repeated remarks against so-called “rigidity” and “black-and-white thinking,” fearing the erasure of doctrinal distinctions among denominations and a Gospel message that preaches mercy but not sin—in essence, the Church transforming into something different altogether. On the other hand, there are those who were put off by the formality of the previous popes but are drawn by Pope Francis’s openness, freshness, and emphasis on the “pastoral” over the “doctrinal,” and more or less hope for these things to bring about a Church reborn in a new Pentecost. Two competing visions of what the Church ought to be emerge from this, their exemplars in the papacy itself.

But, as with politics, we should remember that the Church is more than her leaders, even the popes. Just as the essence of America exceeds the present resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, so the soul of the Church is not subject to the whims of the occupant of the throne of St. Peter. The Church, the Body of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, steeped in 2,000 years of history and tradition and cultural expressions of the faith, cannot be brought down by any man, even be he the pope, if Christ’s promise of indefectibility is to be believed. (And it is generally good practice to believe Christ.) And even if the priorities of this or that pope do not match our own, we should take it as an opportunity for reflection on our own mindset, but not let it disrupt our own spiritual practice, study of the faith, and participation in the life of our parish and local church: whoever is pope, we should still go to Mass, and Christmas caroling, and bingo. Our faith should be lived at its most local level, just as our politics should operate. Important as apostolic exhortations are, if we spend our time engaging in lengthy Facebook comment battles over them rather than enjoying our families or helping our neighbor, we are doing our faith wrong. In short: it ought not to matter so much who is pope.

Some quake at the thought of the Church of Francis turning into a mere curious parenthesis in the Church’s history, prompting some to implore Pope Francis to issue legislation solidifying his reforms and policies. (Nevermind that a past pope cannot bind a future pope legislatively.) Others pray novenas that the likes of Cardinal Raymond Burke or Cardinal Robert Sarah is elected in the next conclave. But we should not fall into the Corinthian error of identifying with Apollos or Paul rather than Christ. Whoever is pope, our call as Catholics is the same: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.


  • Nicholas Senz

    Nicholas Senz is Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, NicholasSenz.

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