The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - A news interlude dominated by speculation about âgolden showersâ and a graceless president who described his latest detractor as an âuntruthful slime ballâ invites us to search for higher moral ground.
So it might be Providential that Pope Francis chose to make news last week in two ways. First, he did something that comes very hard to most public figures, and particularly to the current occupant of the White House: He apologized fervently for âgrave errors.â
He also issued a remarkable document on holiness that seemed made for the moment - and, by the way, noted that we can âwaste precious timeâ by being caught up in âsuperficial informationâ and âinstant communication.â
Francis continued to preach his gospel of economic justice by warning that it is a âharmful ideological errorâ to cast âthe social engagement of othersâ as âworldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist.â On the contrary, he saw holiness as demanding an engagement with âthe destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged.â
And he lifted up words from Leviticus that we are unlikely to hear cited by President Trump: âWhen a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him.â
Itâs not often that public figures hold themselves to the standards they apply to others. There was thus an instructive symmetry between what Francis said in his Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (âRejoice and Be Gladâ) and his own moment of necessary penance.
In the document, the Pope declared that âthe lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us.â Humans - every single one of us - fail, falter and fall. We do far better when we admit it.
And this is what the Pope did last Wednesday when he apologized for his terribly misguided defense of a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse by an infamous pedophile priest.
Many of us who admire Francis feared his apparent standing up for the indefensible was a sign that the 81-year-old pontiff was incapable of recognizing the Churchâs profound breach of trust when it placed institutional self-preservation above a concern for the suffering of those abused by priests.
Sometimes, your friends need to tell you how wrong you are. In this case, the task fell to Cardinal Sean OâMalley, a close Francis ally. OâMalley was appointed Archbishop of Boston to begin healing the deep gashes left by the scandal there, and he read Francis whatever the Roman equivalent of the riot act is.
Francis responded with a letter to Chileâs bishops. âAs far as my role, I acknowledge, and ask you to convey faithfully, that I have made grave errors in assessment and perception of the situation, especially as a result of lack of information that was truthful and balanced,â he wrote. âFrom this time I ask forgiveness to all those that I offended and I hope to do so personally, in the following weeks, in meetings that I will hold with representativesâ of those effected.
Aside from his reference to a lack of âtruthful and balancedâ information - honestly, he should have known - Francisâ letter suggested the determination of someone capable of learning from his mistakes. Itâs more than weâre getting from some other leaders we can think of.
This enhanced the credibility of Francisâ exhortation to the rest of us to imitate the humble day-to-day saints whom he referred to as âthe middle class of holiness.â
He reiterated that the Church would continue to defend âthe innocent unborn,â but stressed the importance of seeing the âlives of the poor, those already born,â as âequally sacred.â
Francis added pointedly that while âa politician looking for votesâ might see âthe situation of migrantsâ as âa secondary issue compared to the âgraveâ bioethical questions,â a true Christian would not.
It was hard to miss the message to American Bishops that letting anti-abortion politicians off the hook on immigration and refugees would be a denial of their obligation âto stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.â
Francis insisted that âthe most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions.â Thatâs excellent news, because in our era, many whom the history books will mention are leading us to nowhere good. Perhaps Francis can inspire in them some self-examination - and, more importantly, provoke a badly needed rebellion by the decent people who represent âthe middle class of holiness.â
E.J. Dionneâs email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.