The pope and the machine

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., now Pope Francis, has been on St. Peter’s chair for nine months. Many of us in the progressive Catholic movement still wonder who he is.

He refuses ornate vestments. He drives himself sans chauffeur in a fixed-up rust bucket. He has claimed a permanent room in a guesthouse. He has appointed a reform advisory committee. He gives candid interviews to one journalist after another. He reputedly slips out of the Vatican at night to minister with the poor. He sternly takes the rich to task in the first teaching document, Evangelii Gaudium, for which he is the principal author. (Francis’ now-retired neighbor, Benedict XVI, did most of the work for Lumen Fidei.)

Yet Francis declares women’s ordination a closed book. And, as is relentlessly and justly pointed out, neither the Catechism nor canon law have changed, with every “t” still crossed and every “i” yet dotted. Some suspect a P.R. machine is snowing them and they have said so. Is he style, they ask, or is he substance?

But perhaps a more fruitful question is: what can a pope do and what can’t a pope do? I don’t mean what a pope morally or theologically ought to do. I mean practically speaking.

On that note: people who know me know I am defined by my geography and local color. They would not be surprised by my favorite book. Nor would they be surprised that I tend to analyze everything, including the church and the papacy, through the lens of this favorite book.

The book, by the late and legendary columnist Mike Royko, is Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago.


Written in Royko’s signature style–anecdotal and sardonic–the book traces the trials and travails of the driest of plodders, a badly-spoken secretary and bookkeeper who took ten years to eke out his law degree. Yet he was smarter and luckier than almost all other plodders.

He was one of the few figures in local politics who had the patience to read an entire ledger line by line and understand all of it. Daley made his knowledge indispensable to a series of mentors. And then, as Royko relates, he calmly cut them down and stepped over them.

Daley kept doing it until he became chairman of the Cook County Democratic organization in 1953 and mayor of Chicago in 1955. This combination of jobs made him seemingly invincible, and he held onto them until his death almost exactly thirty-seven years ago, on December 20, 1976. Famous because he kept Chicago from going the way of other rust-belt cities and because he put John F. Kennedy over the top in 1960, infamous because he enforced de facto segregation and tacitly encouraged his police to bloody up protesters, Daley was the last and perhaps greatest urban boss, triumphant in an era when machine politics was dead everywhere else.

Yet what emerges in the narrative, whether Royko was fully conscious of it or not, is the trembling, gossamer quality of the first Mayor Daley’s clout. Behind the portrait of one-man rule, behind the list of elections Daley massaged and the litany of expressways and buildings for which he broke ground, you see all the interested parties who backed him: ward committeemen, patronage chiefs, precinct workers, La Salle Street bankers, union heads, city employees, and aldermen who enforced loyalty in return for the freedom to cut lucrative business deals. If any part of this arrangement had slipped, Richard J. Daley would have been in serious trouble, a straw man ripe for burning.

For me, the most chilling lines in a book full of them concerned Daley’s relationship to the 1st Ward. The 1st Ward encompassed the Loop, the Rush Street gin mills, and part of the Italian West Side, and was allegedly the private fief of organized crime. Royko writes:

The question is often raised whether he actually has the power, in addition to the authority, to politically disable the Mafia. It has been in city government longer than he has, and has graduated its political lackeys to judgeships, the various legislative bodies, and positions throughout government. While it no longer is the controlling force it was in Thompson’s [1915-23, 1927-31] administration, or as arrogantly obvious as it was under Kelly-Nash [1933-47], it remains a part of the Machine, and so long as it doesn’t challenge him but is satisfied with its limited share, Daley can live with it, just as he lives with the rascals in Springfield.


I have never argued Pope Francis is a North American-style Catholic progressive. But even if he were, we should ask if he actually has the power, in addition to the authority, to disable the reactionary wing of the church.

The church, I would argue, is only apparently a pyramidal monarchy with the pope as absolute ruler. Behind this image, the institutional church is, like Daley’s Chicago, very much a machine. It is assembled around various clusters of power that pursue their own priorities: coalitions of bishops, cardinals, and dicastery heads; priests and monsignori who enforce on their behalf; ecclesial movements like Opus Dei and the Legionaries; assorted political movers and shakers; major donors.

They have been running things, with decades of friendly papal support, much longer than Francis has. They have positioned their enforcers throughout church government. The apparent raw power of popes like John Paul II and Benedict XVI was probably not so much theirs personally, but rather a happy synergy between what they wanted and what the system wanted.

You glimpse the machine aspect of the church here in the United States. Francis’ most overt concern is for the poor, but economic justice hardly overwhelmed the USCCB agenda when they met last month. And despite the pope’s famous airplane utterance–”Who am I to judge?”–the most vocal anti-LGBTQ bishops, including cardinals like Timothy Dolan and Francis George, remain remarkably unaffected. Overall, the machine will likely keep doing what it is that machines do.

But the thing we most need to grasp is this: as Francis himself has suggested, neither he nor the system to which he belongs are ultimately important. One of my colleagues, while traveling in Rome last summer, attended a general audience in St. Peter’s Square. He heard the pope intone: “You say: ‘Francesco, Francesco.’ What you should say: ‘Jesus, Jesus.’”

Jesus, Jesus. Or the church, the church. Or the people of God, the people of God. There are things that popes, good or bad, can’t do. The institution transcends its monarchs. But we transcend the institution. We are the church, the Body, and always have been.

We must speak this truth until we believe it and grow into it. Before we do, there is no hope. After we do, all else is clear.

1 thought on “The pope and the machine

  1. Pingback: Friday Round-Up: 12/20/13 | Catholic Majority

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