Joe Boland
April 29, 2017

As a person who can be described as a ‘frequent flier,’ I have been asked my opinion numerous times this week about the viral videos of the man being forcibly removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight. Frankly, I was a little surprised how these images provoked such an intense national discussion.

As an experienced airline passenger, I am well aware that the airlines have wide latitude to deal with me as they please while I am on their plane. Therefore, I have developed a somewhat unromantic view of air travel. I often describe commercial flight as a sort of brief prison sentence in the sky where your every move is policed—even your bathroom breaks. This is why I tend to (politely) hang my head in silence, obey the rules, and ‘do my time’ with the hope of achieving freedom as quickly as possible. Nonetheless, I have been telling people in response to this video, that it does not seem right to me that a person who chose to stand up for himself as a customer, ended up concussed and bloodied, even though such harsh enforcement of the rules is technically permitted. I’m sure the embarrassed executives at the airline are feverishly sorting through this exact riddle right now. 

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal following this incident, which points out what can happen when organizational culture becomes too “rules” based.  If people become overly reliant on the rulebook, then they stop using common sense. The article points out alternative courses of action that were available to the airline employees involved in this situation that were within the spirit of the rulebook. Yet, because these procedures weren’t scripted out exactly for the managers, they failed to take steps that would have deescalated this whole situation and avoided the resulting PR nightmare. In an interview, the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, conceded that United must provide its “front-line managers and supervisors with the proper tools, policies, procedures that allow them to use their common sense.”

This article got me thinking about the Catholic Church in the Pope Francis era. While we believe that the Church has been handed down to us from the apostles and is continually guided by the Holy Spirit, she is also comprised by all of us—flawed human beings.

The current occupant of St. Peter’s chair, Pope Francis, is a spiritual leader who is trying to make the Church a more effective conduit of the Gospel message, by getting us to think beyond just our rules and customs. He does not want us to throw out rulebooks and traditions, but seeks to empower us to see opportunities for evangelization that can only arrive at by reading between the lines. 

Last year’s Jubilee Year of Mercy was precisely an attempt to do just that. In his Papal Bull announcing the jubilee year, the pope called the Church to get beyond narrow legalism when we are confronted with people’s socio-economic woes and spiritual pain. He pointed to the fact that Jesus himself “goes beyond the law,” because “the company he keeps with those the law considers sinners makes us realize the depth of his mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus 20).  Jesus made it clear that his purpose was not to abolish the law, but rather to fulfill it (Mt 5:17). Pope Francis is pushing that same line of thinking in the Church today.

Whenever speaking to Church leaders, especially priests and bishops, Pope Francis asks them to use Christ’s example of generous mercy as the main principle that guides all of their pastoral actions, not rules.  For example, at last week’s Chrism Mass in Rome, where he reflected on the priesthood, the pope told priests that “evangelization cannot be presumptuous, nor can the integrity of the truth be rigid, because truth became flesh, it became tenderness…” Similarly, in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation on Marriage and Family, which upset many people, Pope Francis was so bold as to say that we must avoid a “cold bureaucratic morality in dealing with more sensitive issues” (Amoris Laetitia 312).  My take on this was that the pope was not asking us to throw out the rulebooks and start over, as some people feared.  Instead, he was just asking us not to lean on the rules exclusively to find all the answers in the Church’s day-to-day mission to evangelize.  He’s encouraging us to adopt a sort of pastoral common sense that transcends the rulebook, while still being rooted in it.

One of the things I love about my work at Catholic Extension is that I have unlimited opportunities to see where the Catholic Church has gotten creative in the work of evangelization in response to extenuating circumstances and in spite of limited financial resources. This ability to think beyond the confines of the rulebook that we witness in very poor areas, I believe, is what Pope Francis is calling the whole Church to do. 

For instance, we work with Catholic communities that do not have a church building, so they gather in garages, in sheds, on mountain tops or in fields, in hardware stores, in private homes, under trees, or in protestant churches.  The point is they let nothing deter them from coming together as the church and practicing their faith.

Likewise, dioceses that have the liveliest youth ministry always share two things in common. First, the ministry is always youth-led, something counterintuitive to people who believe that youth are inherently ignorant or self-centered.  Second, the Church commits to providing strong encouragement with the backing of resources and abundant sacramental support to the youth—and it does not seek to impose a predetermined structure or scrupulously police program implementation. With such an approach to youth ministry, young people actually become empowered to become impactful evangelizers to their peers.

Finally, some of the most effective and beloved bishops I’ve met are those that routinely abandon the security of their office and status, to connect with their people in unique ways and settings. I think of Bishop Joe Tyson in Yakima, who talks about vocations from the pulpit like any other bishop. But, he also puts on cleats and a jersey to play in an annual “priests versus seminarians” soccer game that raises awareness about vocations and gives him a fun occasion to create a deeper bond between the shepherd and his people. 

No one has broken a rule in any of the scenarios described above, they’ve simply surpassed our rulebooks and ordinary customs to find new ways of being present to the people. In doing so they are fulfilling Pope Francis’ unique vision of the Church, which is trying to move us beyond a strictly rules-based, and custom-based culture, toward one that is highly adapted to the hopes, needs, problems and possibilities of the people we are called to serve. 

Bringing about this kind of cultural transformation in the Church can be a little nerve-wracking for some who prefer the pristine packaging of our rules, but as United Airlines can attest this week, it is better to work through this cultural transformation now than to wait until it’s too late.

Joe Boland is the vice president of mission for Catholic Extension.

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