Pope Francis: A “political genius”?


The subtitle of the January 17, 2014, Politico article concerning Pope Francis was eye-catching: “This guy could teach President Obama a thing or two.”

The article’s author, Candida Moss—a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame—wasn’t writing about biblical, moral, or ethical matters. No, she was writing about political matters and reversing President Obama’s low poll numbers.


Moss’ thesis is that because President Obama and Pope Francis have so much in common, perhaps “that guy”—the President—can learn “a thing or two” (it’s actually four things) from “this guy”—the Pope.

Regarding those similarities:

  • Both elections were historic firsts: Obama was the first Black elected U.S. President and Francis is the first Pope from Latin America and first Jesuit.
  • Both preside over deeply-divided constituencies and institutions: Scandal and bureaucratic incompetence plague both the U.S. government and Roman Curia.
  • Charting an unlikely path to power, both were initially media darlings who were heralded as ushering in a hopeful new era. President Obama has slipped in the polls but Pope Francis remains astoundingly high in the polls.

Given these similarities, Moss wonders why Pope Francis’ approval rating is 200%+ more than President Obama’s?

Moss answers her question, offering four lessons Pope Francis might have to teach President Obama:

  1. While utterly without guile, Pope Francis avoids the trappings of office which bolsters his credibility on political issues. The lesson?  President Obama should avoid the trappings of the imperial presidency. After all, Moss notes, “power unexercised is power preserved.”
  2. Pope Francis sets aside notes and speaks off the cuff, giving his words an additional layer of sincerity. The lesson? President Obama should get out from behind the teleprompter and toss the script aside.
  3. Pope Francis has a knack for politics as well as people. His “eagerness to engage people proves not just that he’s a man of the people, but that he’s willing to do this despite the risk to his personal safety.” The lesson? President Obama should emulate the humility and accessibility of Pope Francis.
  4. Pope Francis embodies a few big ideas and persuades people to rally around them. The lesson? “What American president couldn’t benefit from a reminder of that?

Moss summarizes these four lessons stating “Herein lies the genius of Pope Francis’s papacy: He has persuaded the world he isn’t a politician and, in doing so, has become arguably the most politically influential man in the world.”

If Moss’ assessment is accurate, Pope Francis has mastered the politician’s arts. Were President Obama to become more like Pope Francis, his polling numbers would skyrocket.

There’s a problem The Motley Monk has with Professor Moss’ assessment.

Pope Francis would have to become the politician he is not. And President Obama would have to become the spiritual leader he is not. After all, leopards don’t change their spots.



To read Candida Moss’ article in Politico, click on the following link:

To read The Motley Monk’s daily blog, Omnibus, click on the following link:

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  1. I thought the name “Candida Moss” looked familiar. Candida Moss denies the early Christian martyrs and all of their bodies in the catacombs. Candida Moss believes that the early Christian martyrs were not free to choose to be Catholic, and therefore, these martyrs deserved to be put to death for disobeying the Emperor. Now, she, along with Obama is denying the human soul and the soul’s conscience. How is it that Candida Moss is still teaching at NOTRE DAME? (No more money from me).
    “Moss goes on to argue that the Romans weren’t really persecuting Christians, they were prosecuting them for what they saw as violations of Roman cultural and legal norms.” – See more at: https://www.the-american-catholic.com/2013/03/14/bad-history-was-the-persecution-of-christians-a-myth/#sthash.AlRqD3K3.dpuf
    You will abort, euthanize, contracept and engage in fornication to pay homage to the devil. You will pay taxes to support human sacrifice, contraception and fornication. Which leads us to the question: Did the Romans execute Christians as human sacrifice to their gods and emperors? If the early Christians were put to death for not offering incense to Roman gods or the emperor as a Roman god, it is indeed a “persecution, a religious persecution”, not as Candida Moss maintains a “prosecution” for violating Roman laws.”
    Candida Moss holds a teaching post of theology at Notre Dame, and she does not recognize or acknowledge the meaning of “religion”, or the First Constitutional Amendment. “abandon hope all you who enter here”

  2. None of this has any reference at all to the Good. Just manipulation and PR. Very sad statement that polity is rapidly losing any retaliation ship to Good. So does not seek Goodness in civil leaders, only seeking Comfort- which is a lot easier for both religious leaders and polical leaders to sell.
    It seems that what is trending is the promotion of a type of prosperity gospel that everything is all right and everybody can have everything- no personal involvement, effort, investment or change necessary. Just relax and let it go- that’s what will make everyone Happy.

  3. What does Ms. Moss call the planet on which she exists?

    Politics are essentially coersion and deceit (Orwell).

    Anyhow, Obama doesn’t need a majority of the people saying he is doing a satisfactory job. He has 99% of the wilfully uncurious press corps covering for him.

    As such the “shelf life” of the regime is extended. Zero Hedge: “What is the shelf life of a system that rewards confidence-gaming sociopaths rather than competence? Those in power exhibit hubris, arrogance, bullying, deception and substitute rule by elites for the rule of law. The status quo rewards misrepresentation, obfuscation, legalized looting, embezzlement, fraud, a variety of cons, gaming the system, deviousness, lying and cleverly designed deceptions.

    “Our leadership was selected not for competence but for deviousness. What’s incentivized in our system is spinning half-truths and propaganda with a straight face and running cons that entrench the pathology of power.”

    Here is evidence: Congressional approval rating – 11%. Congressional incumbents winning primary elections: 100%. Need I say more?

  4. Ah yes. Because the most important thing about either a Pope or a President is that he have high poll numbers. Ideally, he should have a cult of personality built up around him.

  5. The critiques are well placed but I think there is something useful in the piece: her observations about approachability are worth consideration for regular folks.

    Those persons who remain grounded and accessible as they move up in their careers are more persuasive. I’ve worked for the puffed up who think they have their hands on the reins but have far less control than they pretend or imagine. I’ve also worked for the “common man,” respectable but understated, persusasive and respectful. Most managers are somewhere in between.

    Humility is an odd thing, it cannot be faked for long and the faker is despised all the more for the pretending. If real, it is charming and draws people to the man. It is like a self-effacing joke that reveals more in a moment than mountains of words.

    Perhaps that is the “genius,” to use Ms. Moss’ concept, of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Reagan.

    There is, though, a natural instinct to sense and follow greatness that trumps this “genius” though. Hamilton has always struck me as a bit of a jerk. John Marshall has too. However, their intellects dwarfed other men of their age. As much as I detest FDR, the sheer audacity of his program and over-aweing will made a follower of men who should have led the opposition.

    So, while Ms. Moss may have her argument half thought out and badly presented, the observation strikes me as one worth considering. Some are lights themselves and other inadvertently provide the spark.

  6. The very soul of the Jesuit order was forged in the furnace of the counter reformation,they were men dedicated to bringing the elite back into the fold.We shouldn’t be surprised that the Pope is good at what Jesuits do.

  7. “the Pope is good at what Jesuits do.”

    Lately the Jesuits seem to me to be missionaries within the Church of the opinions of the self-anointed elite of the West, rather than the other way around.

  8. Pascal summed up the Jesuit policy very neatly; it has not changed in 350 years – “”That is what you have yet to learn,” he replied. “Know then that their object is not the corruption of manners- that is not their design. But as little is it their sole aim to reform them- that would be bad policy. Their idea is briefly this: They have such a good opinion of themselves as to believe that it is useful, and in some sort essentially necessary to the good of religion, that their influence should extend everywhere, and that they should govern all consciences. And the Evangelical or severe maxims being best fitted for managing some sorts of people, they avail themselves of these when they find them favourable to their purpose. But as these maxims do not suit the views of the great bulk of the people, they waive them in the case of such persons, in order to keep on good terms with all the world…”

  9. I’m not sure quoting a Jansenist to make a point about Jesuits is quite fair. Pascal was a complicated man and the period of his most ardent following of Jansenism was a troubled time in his life. Catholic? Yes. But it was Jansenism that was subject to heresy findings so I’m not sure their distaste of the Jesuits is a terribly strong indictment of the order.

  10. Interestingly, the four things she believes BO should do are four thigs that he is incapable of doing, both personally and politically.
    To believe he could is the height of delusion . . . gee, no surprises there.

  11. Not fair to hear the assessment of Pascal in his observation of Jesuits?
    Peter Kreeft: Those who dismiss Pascal with the label of “Jansenist” are like those who call all orthodox Christians “fundamentalists”: the label reveals more about the labeler than about the labeled. …

  12. About the lack of reference to the Good, just to what works. We have not yet rejected the sophistry of the one who was really really good at this- Bill Clinton.

  13. I am for sending Ms. Moss to the Capitol of Iran for a forced solo stay for 5 years in a land where even nominal Christians risk the death penalty on a daily basis. Her being a female would also add depth and understanding to her experiment in experience gaining insite into the term “prosecution” vs “persecution.”

  14. Anzlyne, I thought my response quite measured. Pascal is an important figure and, as I said before, quite complicated – as all great minds are. I objected to applying a single Pascal quote to the entire history of the Order, not because Pascal was a Jansenist (there is considerable debate as to whether he remained so and how committed to Jansenism he was) but because I’m not sure a single quote is quite sufficient to answer the Order’s contribution to our faith.

  15. Wouldn’t this quote be more appropriately read as a characterization of modus operandi than as a history or statement of contribution?

    “…Their idea is briefly this: They have such a good opinion of themselves as to believe that it is useful, and in some sort essentially necessary to the good of religion, that their influence should extend everywhere, and that they should govern all consciences. And the Evangelical or severe maxims being best fitted for managing some sorts of people, they avail themselves of these when they find them favourable to their purpose. But as these maxims do not suit the views of the great bulk of the people, they waive them in the case of such persons, in order to keep on good terms with all the world…”

  16. If I understand, I agree with you about any broad brush against or for these great minds – Pacal’s also the Jesuit’s You prob know a lot more about them than I do!

  17. Sorry for the delay in responding. Work and then family life consumed me.

    I had/have mixed feelings about His Holiness’ Jesuit roots. He seems always “catching up” with the perception of his remarks. By this I mean, he seems to assume much common ground and intellectual capacity that is not there and then to be surprised that people take his words and actions at face value.

    This has been a common experience in my encounters with Jesuits.

    I worked nearly a week with two Jesuits on Project Appalachia back in the 90s before finding out they were priests. They weren’t hiding it, they just didn’t think it relevent to what we were doing (rebuilding a house and shed.) Without that context, the fascinating conversation about faith was merely a theological discussion between two graduate students with me as an onlooker. They actively engaged me in conversation too and I was constantly lost because I lacked the context, the background to be fully engaged.

    The church I go to in DC when I’m staying in NW is run by the Jesuits and I’ve had confession twice there. Both confessions were illuminating and as much spiritual guidance as Reconciliation. I’m 44. I’m quite sure I could not have benefited from that style of confession when I was 24. Would that confessor have met me where i was? I don’t know.

    Sometimes I wonder if His Holiness’ pastoral refrain, directing the clergy to meet the people where they are isn’t as much a reminder to himself and his fellow Jesuits as nything else.

    So, I think Pascal’s quote hints at this underlying Jesuit trait, that confidence in their individual and collective intellects that causes the wisest to hold back much and walk the people in baby steps towards their line of thinking. Now that I think of it, maybe that explains why there are so many very public heretics in the Order. It may also explain why they are able to be such champions of the Faith.

    That dicotemy, the militant and spartan instinct, coupled with the considered and challenged intellect, are, for me, the defining features of the Order and the Jesuits intrigue me because of it.

  18. David Spaulding

    “{W]alk the people in baby steps…”

    One recalls the controversy over the Chinese and Malabar rites; an early attempt at enculturation.

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