The Francis Factor: A Discussion on the First Six Months of Pope Francis’ Leadership

On Tuesday night, Georgetown University hosted the first event of the new Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. The topic was The Francis Factor, and it featured an entertaining, engaging discussion with David Brooks, Mark Shields, Kim Daniels, and Alexia Kelley. The moderator was the initiative’s director, John Carr, who spent over 20 years as director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Carr must be pleased by the event’s excellent turnout and outstanding discussion.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl provided an opening prayer and some of his thoughts on Pope Francis to kick off the event. Wuerl argued that Pope Francis “is the new evangelization in action.” His enthusiasm over the pope’s impact was palpable. In Francis, Wuerl said, we are not seeing a new gospel, but a new way of seeing it and living it. We are seeing grace, outreach, and renewal. While some bishops have displayed a certain ambivalence over Francis’ young papacy, Wuerl seems energized and inspired.

Wuerl said that Francis is teaching us how do the gospel. He argued that in Francis we are seeing faith in action, the gospel at work. And Cardinal Wuerl highlighted the pope’s personalism, not as an abstract theory, but as a practice that guides his interactions with others. Wuerl said, “He puts the person first…in an intensely human way.”

Cardinal Wuerl noted that Pope Francis provides a good model for a polarized Washington to follow. It is tough to disagree, given the senseless decision to shut down the government, initiated primarily by hyper-partisan House Republicans. All members could learn something from Pope Francis, but those who are willing to shut down the government and ignore the human cost of such actions perhaps have the most to learn from Pope Francis, particularly when it comes to putting the poor and vulnerable first.

Kim Daniels, the spokesperson for the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened the discussion by describing the pastoral pontificate of Pope Francis, which is following the teaching pontificate of Pope Benedict. She highlighted Francis’ emphasis on encounter, on meeting people where they are. Having previously co-founded and worked at Catholic Voices USA, an organization designed to bring a positive message from the Church to the public square, it is easy to see why Daniels appreciates Pope Francis’ pastoral approach.

Daniels also noted that Francis calls us to move past the liberal-conservative divide in our politics for the sake of the common good. She argued that we are called to push our parties to reject the endemic individualism that exists in American politics—the social individualism of the left and economic individualism of the right.

Alexia Kelley, the president and CEO of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA), highlighted a key problem that exists in our society: the crisis of leadership for the common good. Are our leaders driven primarily by their desire for power or a sense of service and dedication to the common good? Unfortunately, the former seems far too common in Washington today. Kelley argues that Francis offers a different model, the model of service-leadership. His integrity, the continuity between what he says and what he does—these are the things too often missing in our public life. She also highlighted Francis’ willingness to reflect on his leadership, to admit past errors, and to pursue a new approach as a result.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times and the only non-Catholic on the panel, emphasized that what Pope Francis seems to represent is a comprehensive counterculture. He remarked that “Francis just looks like a Christian.” He contrasted the pagan virtue of magnanimity, which he argued seemed to characterize the Church’s hierarchy in past years, with the paradoxical power of Christ that Francis seems to be embracing.

Brooks argued the countercultural presence of Francis transcends the basic political conflicts on specific issues like poverty, immigration, and abortion, which will continue to be debated in the political sphere. He argues Francis challenges some of the things that undergird our politics (within both parties): the rising individualism in both parties and across the culture, which Francis will challenge with solidarity; the ethos of agency and autonomy; and the excessive confidence or certitude in our politics, which Francis challenges with his epistemological modesty. Brooks, however, did express his concern that a focus on the personal nature of Francis could diminish clarity of doctrine, which can make outsiders uncomfortable, but is elemental to the Church.

Mark Shields, a national columnist and commentator, recalled the joy of Christianity that Pope John XXIII displayed. He believes Francis brings that sense of joy about the gospel as well. He remarked that Francis does not focus on talking about loving and caring in the abstract, but living it out in his interactions with those he encounters. Shields also stressed the communitarian mentality of Pope Francis, his tendency to ask “are we better off?” This again contrasts with the typical embrace of individualism in our society.

Overall, the event was a tremendous success. It was a fun, humorous conversation that was also very thoughtful. There was a relaxed, conversational style, yet there was real depth. John Carr, who moderated the discussion and threw in his own two cents on Francis and the Catholic love of “and” rather than an either/or mentality, has set a high bar for his new initiative with the first event. For the sake of the Church and Catholic engagement in public affairs, let’s hope that the initiative clears it.