Making the Perfect the Enemy of the Good

I have a very, very dear friend who grew up in a very, very conservative Christian background.  And by very. very conservative, I don't mean Southern Baptist; Southern Baptists were seen as soft and wishy-washy by the group my friend was raised in. His group had two "wings"--various "farms" set up in out of the way places that were absolutely, positively cults by any reasonable definition, and then "city churches" that had the same theology but lacked much of the destructive sociology.  My friend grew up in the city churches, so he had only a tangential connection with the Full Crazy, but it was still pretty out there.  To give a bit of color, I introduced him to the HBO series Big Love, which included a barely fictionalized description of Warren Jeff's FLDS church and commune.  He told me that the depiction of the compound might as well have been a depiction of the "farms" in his old church.  So, yeah.

He has left that background behind (actually, he left and then his whole family followed), but his background has created an interesting dynamic.  He views himself as very much a liberal now, and that is basically a fair characterization.  Certainly by comparison to his previous positions, he is extremely liberal.  But there are the occasional gaps or blind spots, areas where he just can't relate to the "liberal" position.  For example, he basically finds it impossible to understand why people would not be interested in religion at all, or why people would drop out of any sort of practice of Christianity.  He's not going to shake his fist and castigate those folks, but he fundamentally just doesn't get it.  And there are times when he says things that come out wrong.  It's not that he is not a liberal--it's just that he thinks he is the maximum amount of liberal-ness possible, when there is definitely more space to go, space that he can't really wrap his mind around.

With someone like that, you basically have two choices.  You can get angry at the fact that he has a limited picture of things sometimes, call him out constantly, and basically conclude that he is a warmed over version of every other religious conservative.  Or you can recognize that his heart is basically always in the right place, even if he doesn't fully understand every nuance of a particular issue, focus on the genuine good that he is doing and advocating for and celebrate that, while gently nudging him away from some of the places where his picture is not complete.  

The same basic choice confronts liberal and progressive Catholics, and like-minded folks of other faiths, when dealing with Pope Francis.
Either you can focus on the stuff that he isn't doing, the stuff he doesn't say, and dismiss him in total as a more palatable version of his reactionary predecessors.  Or, you can see him as basically a progressive force in the Church (in sharp distinction to his predecessors) who does have limitations, blind spots, and places he can't or won't go.

Take, for example, the issue of women in the Church.  Pope Francis has a long way to go in this area.  He says retrograde, unhelpful things at times.  He talks about "gender ideology," which is ill-defined, as if it is an apocalyptic danger.

But then he says things like this:

"For example: supporting with conviction the right of equal compensation for equal work," he said.

"Why is it expected that women must earn less than men?" he asked. "No! They have the same rights. The disparity is a pure scandal."

. . .  Addressing several possible reasons for lower numbers of those who choose to marry, the pope also made clear that he does not think the decline is due to recent movements for women's rights or women's emancipation.

"Many consider that the change occurring in these last decades may have been set in motion by women's emancipation," Francis said, calling that "an insult! No, it is not true!"

You can dismiss this if you want.  You can point out that generalized assertions of the equality of the sexes all but necessarily lead to the conclusion that women should be ordained.  You can say its not enough, and that he needs to take up their entire agenda now.  You can do that.

Or, you can welcome this as the sign of a man who, at a bottom-line level, is on the side of those who believe in gender equality.  Sure, there are blind spots and limitations in his thinking, which admittedly will be frustrating at times.  And he is probably not going to give us everything we might want, right away.  But he is basically a guy who wants to do right by everyone, including women.  And it is a sign that he is not going to throw-up roadblocks in the way of those who are willing to pick up the ball and run it all the way.

Maybe everything we want isn't going to come from him.  But maybe it will be put in place by the people he puts in place.  Or maybe he will create conditions that allow for others--especially lay men and women--to force the issue, making it all but a fait accompli.

Or maybe none of those things come to pass and this is all we get.  If so, it is better than nothing, and better than what came before.  We have the head of the world's largest religious organization saying that to not embrace "equal pay for equal work" is "pure scandal."  You have the same institution apparently officially rejecting the standard talking point that everything wrong with families is because of feminism.  These statements would be unimaginable three years ago.  It's not everything, but it is something, and it seems to me wrong-headed to stamp your feet and throw it back in his face.  It is making the perfect the enemy of the good.

In reading these comments from Pope Francis, he reminded me of my friend.  You can focus on where we won't go, or you can recognize how far he has come.  It doesn't mean that you have to defend everything he says, or make excuses for the things that are not quite right.  But it is a recognition of what you have, and celebration of someone whose heart is in the right place.  It's worth celebrating.


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