Pope Francis’ holy war on modern culture

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.”

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Very interesting. I don’t know a lot about Pope Francis, but I have been very encouraged by what I have learned. I sincerely hope that it means good things for the RCC, which after the last couple of decades, needs a revival.

    • Joel J. Miller

      He seems like he’s hitting all the right notes. It’s fun watching him, if for no other reason than the surprise of what comes next.

  • jmjriz

    Joel, you are spot on in one respect. As spectators we see in Pope Francis a man who is breaking with the traditions of man. This is opening a window for many to reconsider the Church with a curiosity that is childlike. This is a good start. What remains to be seen is this: Will Pope Francis draw the line in the sand that Moses did in Deuteronomy 30:19? The modern world is at the crossroads of ultimate blessing v. cursing and we need a pontiff who will boldly witness to what is at stake—eternal salvation or damnation.

  • debby_d_NJ

    Loved this! Especially your summary:

    What we love about Pope Francis is what our own hearts can’t stand.

    Isn’t that the truth about Jesus? How many left Him when His teaching was “too hard for us to bear….” all of John 6 but especially verses 35 to end. Thank you, Joel!

    • Joel J. Miller

      You bet. John 6 is one of the most fascinating passages in the entire gospel. Thanks for bringing it up.

  • bdlaacmm

    Pope Francis has taken to heart the words of Jesus, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) This is a message the contemporary world desperately needs to hear. Our cities today are filled with “consumers” who have traded their immortal souls for a mess of pottage. The economic story of the past several decades, characterized by the bursting of one superheated bubble after another, is what we get for thinking we could ever buy our way into happiness.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Amen. Our levels of persona debt testify to the fact that our passions have outrun our means.

      • bdlaacmm

        I learned that lesson the hard way. Crushed by mountains of debt several years ago and surrounded by stuff I really didn’t need, I am now practically debt-free, give more than half my income away each month, have downsized my car (gave the old one away to someone who needed it more than me), live very simply, and I’ve never been happier or more at peace. My only regret is that I didn’t do this a long time ago. (My one remaining weakness is still buying too many books.)

  • BobRN

    I like the analogy of the runner calling back, “Join me!” I’ve often said that I pray my own bishop would follow Pope Francis’ example of humility and living simply but, really, it’s I who am challenged by his example. There’s a LOT more I could do. Most people read the Bible, not to be challenged regarding the choices they make, but to justify the choices they’ve already made and are determined to keep. Now for a little self-accusation toward the man in the mirror.


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