"Couldn't we have one?"
That was Chuck Todd's question as he hosted his political geek show, "The Daily Rundown," on MSNBC one recent morning. Todd was moderating a panel discussing former New York congressman Anthony Weiner's insistence on running for office despite a history of tweeting his private parts, coupled with former governor Eliot Spitzer's eagerness for political comeback as New York City comptroller, despite the prostitution scandal that ended his tenure upstate. Politicians are neither princes nor role models. But, really, couldn't someone be a role model, Todd dared to dream?
Role models exist, of course, but don't always make news as much as people in the throes of scandal. So why wouldn't we have the politicians stubbornly and defiantly insisting that embarrassing and criminal choices really shouldn't have long-term consequences? They don't necessarily make pleas for forgiveness and redemption so much as they do for tolerance. Shame isn't an entirely bad thing, though. Not when it makes us self-aware enough to expect better and value -- and mold -- character.
But instead, we raise kids to not even know they can have better, that they should demand better. And so we wind up with a Glamour magazine poll determining that women consider John F. Kennedy "The Sexiest Man (Not) Alive." Given what we know about him in the light of history, you'd think we'd want better.
Is it any surprise that if we'd settle for infidelity, we've lost sight of what we owe one another?
In a homily the other day on the Sicilian island Lampedusa -- off the coast of Tunisia, which is currently overflowing with "Arab Spring" refugees, many of them Muslim -- Pope Francis talked about the man we walk by and think "poor guy."
"We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn't concern us, it's none of our business," he said.
If we happen to even bother to think "poor guy," if we happen to look up from our iPhones enough to notice him, we've become all too comfortable insisting someone else help. We feel good about ourselves if we contribute to the latest disaster relief fund or sign petitions that we pretend can work miracles. But it is in civil society where our common humanity is realized.
Perhaps at the heart of the allure of JFK, even knowing what we know now, is the secular drift he made mainstream. It was in his announcing that religion was something that doesn't really infuse our lives, with his historic campaign speech to Baptists in Houston, that we hit a historic secularist milestone. It marked an embrace of letting ourselves off easy, a posture that has only deepened as religious proposals are increasingly seen as threats, so much so that the federal government would tell Christians their hang-ups about abortion and contraception are not fit for the public square.
As Americans were taking a long Independence Day weekend, Lumen Fidei, an encyclical drafted by Pope Benedict XVI and issued by Pope Francis, was released. In it, faith is described as that which illuminates all of life. "Those who believe are transformed by the love to which they have opened their hearts in faith." The faithful demonstrate an "openness" to an "offer of primordial love," in which "their lives are enlarged and expanded."
We don't all believe the same things about the meaning of our lives. But when even those who believe in God, who believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, have succumbed to believing that their faith is but "a beautiful story" or "a lofty sentiment which brings consolation and cheer, yet remains prey to the vagaries of our spirit and the changing seasons, incapable of sustaining a steady journey through life," sooner or later, we're all going to find ourselves settling.
All is not lost, however. I take some hope in the cover of the current Italian edition of Vanity Fair. Pope Francis is actually the cover story, dubbed Man of the Year. There's something about him that is drawing people in. May it not be a cult of personality but a personal and cultural challenge. He happens to believe that God's love is "tangible" and "powerful," and "really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ's passion, death and resurrection," as Lumen Fidei puts it. Italian magazine editors may have found us some common ground for cultural renewal. Believe it or not, people who are truly called by that supernatural reality during the course of our temporal interactions aren't all that bad to have around. It might just make a difference in the neighborhood, schools, politics, the arts, and the lives of the most forgotten and yours and mine. They might not settle, and challenge us to expect more for and of ourselves, too.