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The Pope and the President

Little Fellows in a Big World.

by Barnabas
August 7, 2002

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The Pope and the President_Barnabas-Little Fellows in a Big World.
“The president of Voice of the Faithful . . . was ‘disappointed’ by the pope's Toronto statement. He had hoped for some suggestion that the laity be included in a solution. Instead he heard, "‘go sit in the pews and be quiet.’"
—Mary McGrory, Washington Post, August 4

“Mr. Bush said he owed it to the future of civilisation not to allow the world's worst leaders to develop the world's worst weapons.”
BBC, August 3

One may sympathize with both the Pope and the President. It must be awful to be given a job with two silly requirements that have no basis in law, moral philosophy, or common sense, yet seem to be uncritically accepted by large portions of the public:
1) Because of the power you wield, you can’t afford to be wrong.
2) If you are wrong anyway, you can’t afford to admit it because that would violate Requirement #1.

These “requirements” appear workable to those in power because of the power. A lesson from the novel Ordinary People comes to mind: "When you’ve got the power, you don’t need permission." It’s why Ross Perot could snap at his employees, It’s just that simple, and not get any backtalk.

But the power is an illusion as soon as it reaches beyond those directly accountable to you and dependent upon you, as Perot discovered when he tried to snap “It’s just that simple” during his presidential campaign. It’s not true that when you’ve got the power, you don’t need permission. Even if the power is vested in you by Heaven itself, as Catholic dogma asserts about the Pope, or by the Constitution of the United States in the case of the President, you still need permission.

You cannot lead without followers. I am sure the Pope did not say, “Go sit in the pews and be quiet,” but if that is what his people heard, he had better say it again, with a better awareness of his audience. Papal infallibility is Roman Catholic doctrine. Papal stubbornness is not. While the President is not claiming authority from God, he claims more power than he has, and personalizes it to boot. That’s always a morally unsound position, but especially so when war is possible. Think of Lee at Gettysburg, Napoleon at Waterloo.

The President personally doesn’t “owe it to the future of civilization.” We either all owe it, or nobody does. He needs a lot more followers and allies than he has now, and he has to get rid of the “me” and “I” language if he is going to persuade us that war is morally right, politically necessary, and strategically winnable.

At the end of The Hobbit, Gandalf tells Bilbo that he is only a little fellow in the big world after all. That’s what we all are, even Popes and Presidents. We can afford to be wrong, we can even afford to admit it. What we can’t afford to do is blunder ahead because we have bought the foolish notion that we can’t afford to admit it.

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