The Lethally Generous Pope -

Shel Israel inContext

The Lethally Generous Pope


When I coined the term Lethal Generosity, I was thinking about using technology to provide kindness to customers. In so doing, those customers become more loyal and the effect is lethal to competitors wishing to take those customers away. The Catholic Church was just about the last organization that came to my mind while researching the book a few months ago.

Yet, as we came to year end, and I looked at examples of who or what I could single out as the best display of Lethal Generosity in 2015, I could find no better selection than on Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an aging Argentinian, better known as Pope Francis. He chose to be named  after Francis of Assisi, the Catholic Saint who eschewed wealth, privilege and power to restore  “God’s church” to serve the poor and the afflicted as he believed Christ had done.

Selected in 2013, Pope Francis took the reigns of a church that seemed increasingly estranged from serving Assisi’s priesthumble constituency. It had lost massive trust and respect because of the overwhelming evidence of abuse of power and the sexual exploitation of children by priests protected by church culture, as was described in Spotlight one of 2015’s best movies.

The church of 2013, had driven many of its faithful away through rigid condemnation of gay and women’s rights. It seemed that the 1.2 billion Catholics on Earth had to either bend to a fierce authoritarian, leave the church or keep their increasing secularism secret from the institution that was supposed to guide them in ethical issues.

And then along came Francis. In about 18 months he has displayed unprecedented generosity to humanity and its planet. Early on he demonstrated his accessibility  when he called an Argentinean news stand from the Vatican to personally cancel his newspaper subscription.

But that was small, personal and anecdotal. His generosity has become clearer and stronger by taking enlightened positions on global issues, as a continuing champion of the worlds poorest and most afflicted people. He has taken a decidedly ecumenical approach. For example, he has called upon Catholics to do everything they can to accommodate Muslim refugees. A German Catholic church responded earlier this year by tearing out some pews and using the space to accommodate Middle  Eastern refugees.

Following his address of the US Congress, he slipped out on a scheduled lunch with politicos to visit with DC’s homeless people, noting that the “son of God came from a homeless person.”

I New York, he spoke before the United Nations where he challenged delegates to put environmental reforms before national “thirst for power.”


Under Francis, the church has not yet reversed its opposition to gay marriage and abortion. Perhaps it never will. But Francis has directed priests to grant absolution to women who have had abortion, meaning that the Church believes they can be admitted into heaven.

In the eyes of human rights advocates, Pope Francis does not score 100 percent by any means on the issue of child abuse. While he has provided strong verbal commentary, saying that “God weeps at the abuse of children,” and that abusers in the church will be “held accountable”, there are many who point to a lack of action in this area so far. I would applaud more papal action in this area, but even if it does not come soon, I believe that Pope Francis has softened a great deal of anger and mistrust in one of the world’s most influential institutions.

And there are those who demonstrate their hatred for reform and the pope who is bringing it. He has faced more than a protestfew ugly signs directed his way, and yet he has responded each time with apparent grace and dignity.

Compare what he has done so far with say GM who brought in a new CEO shortly after Pope Francis was inaugurated. While Pope Francis had to face overwhelming evidence of institutional atrocities toward trusting children, GM was  caught knowingly not replacing a minor part that resulted in the death and maiming of hundreds of customers.

The new CEO talked about culture change, and process changed until the cameras and journalists walk away and then apparently did little or nothing more. GM and the Catholic Church are two huge institutions where change needs to come from the top and it requires a long time to make changes.

I am not now nor will I ever be a good source of commentary on the Catholic Church. But I have spent a fair amount of time studying the impact of generosity as an institutional builder of loyalty, trust and user championship. I see no person who has demonstrated greater generosity in 2015–and in so doing improving perception of the institution he represents.

For this reason, I hereby designate Pope Francis as the Lethal Generosity Person of the Year.

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