A Francis for Our Time - The Editors - National Review Online
I kinda want to say “give the pope a chance” (and not just cos it’s a mediocre pun) in response to some of the more cynical commentary, but there’s something about a lot of the optimism that I find false as well. I’m not a Catholic, never have been, but I watched the saturation coverage on the Irish news with some interest - mostly because it’s spectacle, of course, although an anachronistic one what with the chemically-enhanced smoke - and I could share some of the feelings of hope at the announcement of a new Pope with the name of Francis.
In my household the immediate discussion was over whether the name was from St. Francis of Assisi (officially and understandably so) or St. Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuits (which as Bergoglio is one, also makes sense). There’s no obvious contradiction, but perhaps it’s an initial sign that double rhetoric - in a certain Jesuitical sense - will be a hallmark of his papacy. Humble and smart, is the given profile, and many expectations go along with it - so much so that I’ve already heard the cautionary Obama comparison made (again, the coverage echoed a lot of that election, only with less democracy and more pomp).
It has an extra resonance in that this guy is also more conservative in his political principles - or doctrine - than liberals or progressives might like. Yet that really falls under the ‘is the Pope a Catholic?’ category: of course he espouses ideas that are homophobic and misogynist, that goes with the territory - best to hope that this pope is sensible enough not to air them too dogmatically (unless they really are dogma, in which case he’s just being honest). No, what worries me is that the whole ‘friend of the poor’ image might be - as seen above - rather too acceptable to the secular, capitalist world.
The irony is that Benedict - representing a long-established theological tradition, it must be said, and as was is wont - also opposed capitalism (and by name), but wrapped it up with opposition to materialism in general and modernity and ‘relativism’ in particular; so that the perspective wasn’t of much use to anyone not deeply involved in the kind of religiosity without much relevance or connection to the modern world. It’d be nice if, in this age of crisis, a Pope Francis led the charge against economic inequality, ascendant neoliberalism and unsustainable consumerism: but as an effective route it’s a political impossibility, not least because we rightly don’t allow popes to direct crusades any more.
It’s also not going to happen because any central Catholic critique of economic society is either premised on such an abstract, disconnected morality that it is as insubstantial as smoke, or - as I fear is the case with Francis - constructed so that it is non-threatening to the material and political bases of capitalism. It’s quasi-liberation theology that obviously survived the centralised repression of Catholic conservatism (and more problematically, survived and potentially colluded with the repression of a South American right-wing dictatorship) and projects an image of humbleness which, while challenging the sated aristocracy of (clerical) Rome, hardly does anything to threaten the power and political justification of our secular Rome. Hasn’t that long been the grand bargain between spiritual and temporal power in the Christian West; that for a certain degree of influence in moral matters the former allows the latter to pursue its economic freedoms?
In his first mass, the new Pope is already stated as saying:
“If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be?
“We would end up a compassionate NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down.”
The clear point is that the Church is primarily a religious organisation, not a social one. Obviously so, but it’s easy to forget that Christianity and Catholicism is increasingly built on an all-consuming fear of secularism. As an atheist, I’m not really supposed to have a problem with people having religious beliefs (and as a bona fide secularist, that’s not even an issue, as long as there’s a distinction between private and public spheres) but philosophically speaking, I do. As much as religions declare that spirituality is a fundamental and necessary part of human life, I’d like the space to state that belief in an immaterial world is superfluous to human existence and discourse. So I object to spirituality as a starting point for ethical discussion, although as a pluralist I have to admit that many genuinely disagree and it’s not an objection or condition that can be imposed on them.
I have some qualified respect for the Habermasian idea that religion in its ‘semantic potentials’ can play a part in liberal and humanistic politics, and that somehow it should be squared with (or separated from) its theologically-derived morality that is repugnant to liberal freedoms. In its popular form this tends to take the form of a liberal optimism, as in this recent interview with former Irish President Mary Robinson:
”[…] And I said: I don’t need to go to mass every Sunday and feel guilty if I don’t. I don’t feel compelled to do it every Sunday or in a sort of strictly paid-up way, because I disagree with so much of what the church stands for, particularly in reproductive health.
HEADLEE: So does that mean that you don’t follow the trial and tribulation of the Catholic Church, that you don’t have any emotional investment in who might be the next pope or what’s been going on?
ROBINSON: I think I’m more interested in the religions of the world giving us a kind of global, ethical standard, you know? And I like the work of Hans Kung who’s being - looking at a global ethic. And I know him, and we’ve talked about this quite a bit. And I think we do need the spirituality of the great religions of the world. And it is important for human rights and human dignity.”
As a non-Catholic Irish person, I still detest much of the Catholic Church’s ideology, teaching and areas of historical influence; but I don’t have the bitterness or resentment of the lapsed or former Catholic (I was never schooled through the faith, either) while I do respect those intelligent people I do know who remain within the faith, either by birth or choice. If there’s something Pope Francis can do - other than saving the poor or overturning the Catholic Church’s institutional sexism - it’s to show through his purported humility and intellectual acuity what exactly the value of Catholic spirituality is to the modern world. (At least that kind of public reform seems potentially politically achievable, even if I remain philosophically dubious.)