The Worldly Categories of a Papal Dreamer

The Francis pontificate seems to have run its course, its élan spent.   Evidence of intellectual exhaustion is not hard to find.  The Pope’s recent social encyclical Fratelli tutti (October 2020) was remarkably self-referential and repetitive, an indication of thought that is self-enclosed, lacking in creativity or even curiosity.  Even one of the Pope’s most stalwart defenders, Massimo Faggioli, noted this recycling:  “Francis quite often cites himself [in Fratelli tutti]: there’s an enormous number of quotes from previous documents (especially Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato si’) and from his speeches and homilies” (“Examining the Encyclical,” Commonweal, Oct 9, 2020).  As for the pontificate’s general exhaustion, six months earlier Faggioli had observed that “something disturbing has happened over the past year. One has the impression that during the last several months the dynamism of [Francis’s] pontificate has begun to reach its limit.”

In short, we’re increasingly getting more of the same from Pope Francis. The Pope’s newest set of reflections, Let Us Dream, confirms this assessment.  In it, Francis hangs old thoughts about the global “political and economic systems” on a new hook, the coronavirus pandemic. 

There is one development that is rather striking, however. Here, the Pope endorses a biblical portrait of an armed Jewish “people” who “rise up against the unbelievers who rule over them, and even those who are making war on them”.  In the context of a basic dichotomy of his social thought, an invidious contrast between elites and peoples, have’s and have nots, citing the passage from the Book of Nehemiah (4:17) takes on an ominous resonance.  Moreover, when he paraphrases the text, the Pope does not close the door that the text opened:  “In other words, they knew they had to defend their future from falling back into the previous tragedy.”   

However one is to take this particular endorsement, it joins with general features of Francis’s thought and rhetoric that raise questions about both.  On one hand, he regularly excoriates the people’s “selfish” and “heartless” elite superiors, on the other, he wants the downtrodden to “become the agents of a new future” and “the protagonists of social change”. With his starkly binary categories, his rhetoric of condemnation and indignation, and his calls for popular action against unjust systems, the Pope stokes dangerous passions which run counter to his more irenic proposals and utterances.  How they are to go together is far from clear.  The endorsement cited above only adds fuel to a fire already fanned by the Pope.   

His binary way of thinking does go a long way in helping to understand glaring blind spots and silences on his part. Self-proclaimed “popular regimes” that oppress in the name of “the people” regularly receive a pass from Francis. This silence contrasts loudly with the excoriations of his designated ‘enemies of the people’.   

These brief observations suggest that there’s something problematic in the pontiff’s vision and way of judging the world.  Given his position and influence, it is incumbent to consider it more fully.  In what follows, I’ll venture a few steps on that path. 

The three main Parts of the book riff on a well-known formula of Catholic social activism and tether it to “the times”.  Thus we have “A Time to See”; “A Time to Choose”; and “A Time to Act”.  These chapters are book-ended by a Prologue and an Epilogue, with a Postscript by the Pope’s biographer and collaborator, Austen Ivereigh, where he recounts his hand in the conception and execution of the book, as well as paints an unctuous portrait of a deeply compassionate and engaged papal “pilot” of humanity.  In this close collaboration and extremely sympathetic rendering of his person, one can see a paradigmatic instance of the support given the Franciscan pontificate by progressive Catholics and foresee their future use of his legacy. 

As we have learned here at home, progressives are not wont to let crises go to waste, even if it means making connections that at best are stretches, at worst spurious.  In this series of reflections, the Pope and his collaborator ‘Covid-ize’ just about everything, starting with Francis’s previously delivered thoughts (here, for example, he speaks of “the virus of indifference” instead of “the culture of indifference”), but also Samson, King David, Solomon, the conversion of St. Paul, and, for good measure, the Pope’s own life (“I’ve experienced three “Covids” in my own life”).  (All these instances come from Part One alone.)   

More than once in Let Us Dream, the pontiff plays fast and loose with specifically Christian categories.  He thus lends credence to those who discern in his thinking more than a dollop of humanitarianism.

Two or three of such extensions might have struck the reader as plausible or intriguing, but a constant stream bespeaks intellectual laziness and rhetorical overkill. 

The real coronavirus is presented as an apocalypse, a time of “unveiling” of societies and hearts, but what’s revealed is the Pope’s previously delivered views of the world (e. g., “The crisis has made visible the throwaway culture”) and not, say, Chinese malfeasance, or government overreach in addressing it. His apocalypse thus involuntarily reveals blind spots in his view of the world, in the cases above, blind spots having to do with tyranny and threats to human freedom. There is no discussion of threats to religious liberty by states and governments.

Part One, “A Time to See,” is particularly revealing of the pontiff’s way of mapping the world. As we indicated above, it is binary, starkly, invidiously so. So, too, is his discourse and rhetoric. He traffics in “either-or’s”, which is a convenient way of justifying one’s preferred option, but is always subject to the retort: tertium non datur? Here’s one such dubious dichotomy right out of the gate, which sets the tone for a good deal of what follows:

Think of governments having to choose in the pandemic:  What matters more: to take care of people or keep the financial system going?  Do we look after people, or sacrifice them for the sake of the stock market? 

This dichotomy suggests that, for him, it’s always “X versus the people.”   Part Three informs us that for the Pope, “a people” is “a mythical concept, … [a] mythical category”.  Along with “the poor” and the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of humanity under the Creator, it is the normative standard for him.  It therefore merits scrutiny. But first, we need to attend to another feature of the Pope’s rhetoric.

More than once in Let Us Dream, the pontiff plays fast and loose with specifically Christian categories.  He thus lends credence to those who discern in his thinking more than a dollop of humanitarianism, such as Daniel J. Mahoney. and Pierre Manent (see below).  First, he lowers the bar on the meaning of Christian martyrdom:

Think of what we’ve seen during this Covid-19 crisis.  All those martyrs: men and women who have laid down their lives in service to those most in need.

In Christian thinking, martyrdom has a specific meaning:  spilling one’s blood for faith in Christ.  As admirable as many front-line caretakers may have been, they do not fit this description and therefore do not merit the appellation. The Pope, however, redefines the term as “witnesses to closeness and tenderness”, so that he can apply it to them.

He does the same with the category of sanctity.  Christian sanctity requires the practice of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  Speaking of “those who sought all means to save the lives of others while giving their own”, he writes:

Whether or not they were conscious of it, their choice testified to a belief: that it is better to live a shorter life serving others than a longer one resisting that call. … they are the saints next door, who have awoken something important in our hearts … 

While admirable and leading to self-sacrificing actions, this (not necessarily conscious) “belief” does not need anything specifically Christian, for example, belief in the divinity of Christ, to earn the epithet “saint” from the pontiff.  

Now, one could say (and his defenders certainly would) that the famously “off-the-cuff” speaker is simply using Christian terms in a “loose” and “inclusive” way.   However, the terms of the equation can be turned around.  One could also see Christian terms being drained of their specific content. 

Nor is this just a hypothesis.  One sees this at work in the Pope’s treatment of a central text of the New Testament, in his rendering of Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan.   Francis featured this parable in Fratelli tutti, devoting an entire chapter to it.   His reading of the parable was recently dissected by Pierre Manent.  He demonstrates that the Pope’s reading of the parable is a humanitarian “novel,” rather than informed exegesis.  Francis ignores the laudable biblical motives of the priest and the Levite, who acted out of obedience to the law of purity, and has them represent the villains (“socially prominent people”) of his worldview.  Even worse, he ‘humanitarianizes’ the Good Samaritan and fails to see that he is a self-portrait of Jesus himself.  In short, the Pope provides an “an exegesis that aims less at examining the Gospel text to see what it says exactly, than to draw certain elements from the parable that would appear to support a view of the human and social world that is largely independent of the Gospel.” 

In Let Us Dream, he distills this eisegesis.  First, he characterizes the motives of ‘the villains’ of the parable.  According to the Pope,

[w]hen the Levite and the priest withdraw from the man left bleeding and beaten by thieves, they’re making a “functional” retreat, by which I mean they’re trying to preserve their own place – their roles, their status quo – when faced with a crisis that tests them.

Then, the Pope’s description of the hero of the parable: “Think of the Samaritan: he stops, pulls up, acts, enters into the world of wounded man, throws himself into the situation, into the other’s suffering, and so creates a new future.”

In contrast to the Pope’s vapidity (“creates a new future”), Manent attends to the actual details of the text and draws out the parable’s finely etched portrait of the Samaritan.  They point to Jesus himself, as “God speaks of God”:

Luke’s Samaritan does not resemble [the pontiff’s] “Good Samaritan”. There is an amplitude to his deeds, a liberty in his conduct, a competence in his care for all wounds, an authority to his word, and an ability to make promises worthy of belief, that are not those of a mere human being. The Church Fathers were right: the Samaritan is none other than Jesus himself.

The disconcerting takeaway from these instances is that the Pope is not always trustworthy when it comes to the traditional sources and teachings of the faith.  There are times, as Manent put it, when they appear as props “to support a view of the human and social world that is largely independent of the Gospel.”  They compel the reader to scrutinize the Pope’s utterances with a certain merited skepticism.  

 Elites of all sorts, secular and religious, are especially indicted for separating themselves from the people and its goodness and wisdom.  “Only a politics rooted in the people, open to the people’s own organization, will be able to change our future”. 

Starting as a statement of the criteria and processes to follow when “discerning” what can and should to be done in a given situation (whether local, national, or global), Part Two morphs into an apologia pro pontificio suo by the author.  This apologetic retrospect thus adds to the autumnal character of his thinking indicated above.  In using himself and his guidance of the Church as his illustrative model, he creates the opportunity not just to explain, but to justify the rightness of, his thinking and acting. Along the way, he takes the opportunity to cast serious aspersions on his critics.  He who asked, “Who am I to judge?”, is quite judgmental when it comes to those who disagree with him.   They follow “the bad spirit,” “the Evil One,” while he follows “the good spirit,” “the Holy Spirit”.  Because he is in tune with “the Spirit of God,” he can discern malevolent spirits.   Once again, binaries do a lot of work.   Here they are employed to disparage his critics’ intellectual powers and to extol his own.   

This Part is therefore revealing for anyone interested in what one could call the Pope’s “practical epistemology,” the form of thinking appropriate to practice, to action.   To begin with, perhaps aware of criticisms of his departures from binding Tradition, perhaps because of his insistence on being open to unspecified “new things” of God, Francis insists on the traditional sources of his way of “discerning” and “judging” the social world.  During the course of the chapter, he references 1) the Gospel, especially the Beatitudes; 2) permanent human values; 3) Thomas Aquinas; 4) Catholic Social Teaching; 5) Romano Guardini; and 6) the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  His way of discerning “the signs of the times” draws from and comports with these accredited sources.

For the reasons given above, however, one cannot simply take the pontiff’s word for this.  Qualified critics have seen reason to challenge the Pope’s employment of one or another of these authorities in previous writings.  And the late Fr. James V. Schall, himself a Jesuit, brought a sober reminder of the limits of the competence of the papal office, as well as the categories of political philosophy, to bear upon Francis’s chief statement of social analysis, Laudato si’.

In keeping with the theme of “practical epistemology,” I would begin by noting a decisive factor in the Pope’s perspective:   

You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is. I’ve always thought that the world looks clearer from the periphery, but in these last seven years as Pope, it has really hit home.

Elsewhere, I have traced how the world looks to the Pope from the periphery, and offered some critical observations.  Here, I can add a few more words about the Pope’s categorical lenses. 

As I said above, “the poor,” “the people,” and a certain view of human brotherhood or “fraternity” are the main lodestars of the Pope’s thinking.   It is in their light that he discerns, judges, and dreams.   In Part Three of Let Us Dream, it is “a people” who take center stage.  While he calls it “a mythical category” or “concept,” he maintains that that does not mean it is less truthful for being so.  Quite the contrary, it penetrates to the deepest truth of human social existence, the fact of belonging to a historically produced “we” with a collective memory, values, and shared destiny.  

As such, he uses it to expose the dual (and dueling) contemporary errors of “technocratic managerialism” and “populism.”  The former is a shallow universalism, one that not only ignores, but wages war, against the spiritual depths of a people; while populism is “exclusionary,” closed to the brotherhood of humanity.   Elites of all sorts, secular and religious, are especially indicted for separating themselves from the people and its goodness and wisdom.  “Only a politics rooted in the people, open to the people’s own organization, will be able to change our future”. 

As the phrase “the people’s own organization” might suggest, “Popular Movements” (which the Pope capitalizes) receive his warmest endorsement.  They are the active elements of the social whole that continue to embody the truth of his mythical concept of “a people,” which begins with a people’s original struggle for freedom, dignity, justice, and solidarity or fraternity.   What was once true for a nascent people, continues to be true for these movements claiming to speak and act in nomine populi et pauperum.  

In forming these views, the Argentine Pope joins a particular interpretation of the Catholic “preferential option for the poor” with an indigenous Latin American form of theological-political thinking, “the theology of the People.”  In this mélange, the people are central and the poor, the center of the center.

When the Church talks of the preferential option for the poor, it means that we need to put the poor at the center of our thinking.   By means of that preferential option, the Lord gives us a new perspective of value with which to judge.

“[T]he Lord gives us a new perspective”:  raising the stakes of assessment considerably, the pontiff claims divine warrant for his way of looking at things.  During the course of the book, he certainly does his best to present the Lord God and the Lord Jesus as sources and models.  Alas, since we have observed the pontiff altering Christian categories and Scriptural passages in keeping with his own views and for his own purposes, here too – here especially, perhaps – one must tread carefully.  In pursuing the task of evaluation, I would proceed with one category, and two criteria, in mind.

Mahoney and Manent have rightly introduced the category of “humanitarianism” into the consideration of the pontiff’s thought.  The humanitarian rendering of the parable of the Good Samaritan is but a particularly egregious instance of a regular feature of his thought, one that touches upon any number of topics (migration, the death penalty, just war thinking, etc.). 

As for the criteria, they are two intellectual disciplines: political philosophy and the tradition of Catholic social thought. Political philosophers are particularly attuned to what Manent calls “the political nature of man” and “the political condition of humanity.” Francis exhibits significant myopia in both regards. Above, we indicated instances bearing upon tyranny, human freedom, and war; there are many others.  It appears to be a feature, not a bug, of his perspective.  Political philosophy would help take its measure and provide needed correction.

As for Catholic social thought, it is a Pope’s duty to be the faithful custodian, as well as organic developer, of this body of teaching. It therefore can, and should, be employed to judge his fidelity.  As he himself has written, “the whole is greater than any of its parts.”  That would include his part as well.