The fallacy of papal change under Pope Francis

The only thing new about the pontiff is his public-relations team

December 13, 2013 10:30AM ET
Pope Francis, right, blesses a child during a visit to the Varginha shantytown in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013.
Luca Zennaro/EPA

Since ascending to the throne of St. Peter last spring, Pope Francis has been showered with praise by an unlikely cohort, the American secular media.

“Even atheists love the pope,” one recent CNN article announced. “The awesomeness that is Pope Francis,” a Daily Beast headline affirmed. His selection this week as Time magazine’s vaunted person of the year completed the canonization. “I may not be religious, but I damn sure love this pope,” avowed one Twitter user, echoing the remarks of countless others. Undoubtedly, small talk about Catholicism in waiting rooms and grocery-store checkout lines will see an exponential increase this week.

The popular read on Francis is that he represents a welcome break from grim-faced pontiffs of yore — a raw, refreshingly modern reflection of Catholic virtue. In proclaiming that his overriding spiritual concern is care for the poor, Francis has infused the Vatican with long-awaited humility and grace after years of scandal.

During the first few months of his papacy, a trickle of anecdotes illustrating Francis’ everyman frugality (he drives a used car!) and shunning of opulent wares (he doesn’t wear that big hat!) moved pundits once skeptical of the church to profess their admiration. It began when he forwent the lavish apostolic apartments to live in the Casa Santa Marta, a more discreet guesthouse where he could mingle with visiting clergymen. USA Today reported in June that journalists were so “delighted” with Francis’ first address to media that their “applause and popping flashbulbs brought to mind a glitzy Hollywood event.” Some even “kissed the pope’s ring.”

Then in November came the apostolic exhortation in which Francis advanced a critique of “unfettered capitalism” and declared “no to a financial system which rules rather than serves.” What followed was nothing short of an avalanche of affection from the left. Reporters from liberal media outlets exulted. “This is a pope that is willing to say things that other popes haven’t said in contemporary time,” enthused Ed Schultz of MSNBC. “And it strikes right at the heart of Republican policies, and the conservatives, they just can’t take it.”

Meanwhile, right-wing pundits hyperventilated about Francis’ alleged Marxism. Said Rush Limbaugh, “It’s sad because this pope makes it very clear he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to capitalism and socialism and so forth.”

But in declaring that Francis heralded some unprecedented rupture in Roman Catholic thought, both sides got it wrong.

Francis has managed to fashion himself as something fresh and appealing, but he did not become Time’s person of the year by radically reimagining anything. He did it by mastering the art of gesture and symbolism. Herein lies the crucial component to understanding Francis’ image: his keen eye toward public relations as matter of theology.

Francis’ rapid transformation into universally celebrated celebrity figure — despite promulgating familiar church doctrines under a more easygoing guise — is ultimately a testament to the current Vatican PR operation, headed by former Fox News reporter Greg Burke. A member of the ascetic Opus Dei order, Burke is wedded to lifelong celibacy and professional communications services. Prior to Fox, Burke did a stint as the Rome correspondent for — you guessed it — Time magazine.

When Benedict condemned the ‘selfish and individualistic mentality’ as expressed by ‘unregulated financial capitalism,’ there was conspicuously less fanfare in response.

Let them eat pope

Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI also issued numerous strongly worded rejections of market absolutism — but didn’t have the benefit of Burke’s media savvy. So when Benedict condemned the “selfish and individualistic mentality” as expressed by “unregulated financial capitalism,” there was conspicuously less fanfare in response.

Even by conservative Catholic standards, anxieties about a sudden rising socialistic tide in Vatican City are comically overblown. The renowned Catholic writer George Weigel has noted that Francis’ pronouncements are “in full continuity” with the teachings of his predecessors.

Indeed, where Francis might differ from previous popes is in his total devotion to orienting the church as a vehicle of evangelization — that is, converting nonbelievers to Catholicism. His much lauded exhortation is not quite a call to arms or a “j’accuse”; it’s structured as counsel for Catholics on how to most effectively combat “the onslaught of contemporary secularism” and spread God’s word.

“It is imperative to evangelize cultures in order to inculturate the gospel,” Francis writes. Critiquing the depredations of global capitalism is therefore just one tool in the proselytizer’s toolbox. The poor, he adds, “have a special openness to the faith” on account of their destitution.

A primary reason liberals, particularly American ones, have been so eager to embrace Francis is the papacy’s perceived pivot away from crude preoccupation with hot-button social issues — homosexuality, abortion, ordination of women — to a more inclusive message grounded in economic justice. But such logic rests on the faulty premise that there exists a clean divide between social issues and matters of economic justice.

This fallacy extends far beyond the church: it is a tediously commonplace misunderstanding in contemporary U.S. political discourse.

Francis calls for renewed attention to economic privation precisely because he believes doing so will eventuate in the flourishing of traditional Catholic mores. As the Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen has observed, Francis posits a “deep underlying connection between an economy that highlights autonomy, infinite choice, loose connections, constant titillation, utilitarianism and hedonism and a sexual culture that condones random hook-ups, abortion, divorce” and so forth.

In Francis’ telling, it is the current economic system that has contributed to the proliferation of these deviances, chief among them a public conception of marriage “as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will.” (Presumably, amending marriage to accommodate same-sex couples is one such frivolous modification.) Our “throwaway culture”, in which life is devalued and debased, he laments, is to blame for permissive attitudes toward abortion. The endless plaudits about Francis’ purported concern for the vulnerable notwithstanding, it is difficult to envision how vulnerable women and the LGBT community would prosper in his ideal universe.

Francis does not inveigh against capitalism principally because it creates needless suffering. He criticizes it because, by his lights, it inhibits the “just ordering of society and of the state,” thereby weakening the moral authority of Catholicism and acceding to the idolatries of materialism.

In other words, he contends that a fairer distribution of wealth would allow for more efficient conversion of God-fearing, churchgoing believers. This, again, is quite in keeping with the admonitions of past pontiffs.

Burke correctly surmised that in an era of austerity and continued economic misery, a leader who takes on austere appearances would win favor with the public — no major doctrinal alterations necessary. This is one of the oldest tricks in the book: former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, stripped his office of fine Persian carpets to secure a few favorable headlines. Most important, it works. 

“I mean, the pope scores goals, you know?” Burke said at lecture in London last May. “The pope scores goals for us ... The people are just eating this stuff up.”

Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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