According to Esquire magazine, Pope Francis is “kind of awesome.” To demonstrate the point, writer Stephen Marche cited a litany of bright moments from the pontiff’s first hundred days, starting with his insistence on paying his own hotel bill after becoming pope.
Francis presents a refreshing blend of humility, charity, approachability, and compassion. “These little gestures make a big difference,” said Marche. Why? “The Catholic Church may be the last major institution in the world that makes a coherent argument against total absorption in consumer capitalism.”
Yes, but there’s something deeper at play here.
In service of self
As an economic system, consumer capitalism is outside the individual. While he has denounced what he has termed “savage capitalism,” Pope Francis is primarily concerned about what’s inside, and the thing he’s really fighting against is vain self gratification, the one value that practically holds all of modern culture together.
The day following Marche’s post, for instance, the pope preached against the attitude that sees Christian life as “a collage of things” or activities the individual Christian is free to assemble at will.
“You cannot be a Christian of pieces, a part time Christian,” the pope said. Rather, the Holy Spirit “renews our heart, our life, and makes us live differently, but in a way that takes up the whole of our life.”
The war on self gratification
Modern Christianity might like the language of holism, but it practically wants nothing to do with it. Instead modern Christianity is practiced by assembling the doctrines and spiritual disciplines we find most desirable and trading or abandoning them whenever they stop serving our narrow self interest.
In other words, what we do as capitalistic consumers with toasters and tablet apps we also do with religion. The problem is far deeper than an economic system. The problem is the unsanctified human heart, and it manifests in everything humans touch, not just our credit cards.
Marche misses this. For instance, as an atheist he said he doesn’t care about Vatican corruption. But Francis’ efforts against corruption in the Roman Curia are part of his wider attack on self gratification. In the church, power and position are granted to serve others. The problem is that certain individuals have used that power and position for their private pleasure and purposes.
To miss the connection is to misunderstand what Francis is up to.
Self accusation instead
This has been a theme of the pope for some time. As archbishop of Buenos Aires he spoke against factionalism in which “each individual’s own ideas” trump “charitable openness to neighbor.”
To combat this, Francis encouraged self accusation, something completely at odds with modern culture — and frankly the ego-centric, epicurean, entertainment-oriented lifestyle embodied by Esquire. While evidently misunderstood, the humility appreciated by Marche comes from this place. The pope’s humility is the product of his willingness to scrutinize his own heart and then sacrifice his personal desires, ease, and gratification.
What we love about Pope Francis is what our own hearts can’t stand. We’re like the sedentary man hooting the runner from the lazy shade of the front porch. But the runner is calling over his shoulder. And he’s saying, “Join me.”