Caught up (A Little) in the Francis Effect

Caught up (A Little) in the Francis Effect September 29, 2015

A number of readers have offered negative feedback on my last piece. One was my mother, with whom I Skyped yesterday.

“I can’t believe you wrote something bad about the pope!” She cried. “Warn me the next time you’re going to do that, because I just can’t stand any negativity where Francis is concerned!”

My mother hasn’t been a fully-functioning Catholic since her freshman year at CUA. Seeing her fly to the Supreme Pontiff’s defense with more vigor than I’ve seen from her since Mondale lost to Reagan, made me decide to take a closer look at this Francis effect in the hope of figuring out what, exactly, is going on.

Writers for Catholic Link performed a search on Facebook comments and Twitter hashtags beginning with the words “I’m not Catholic but…”, and published a sampling. All of these non- and former believers find the pope to be a remarkable person. One atheist calls Francis “the only pope I respect,” another says he “embodies compassion.” Two people credit him, in so many words, with restoring their faith in humanity.

This last feat would seem to be rather beside the point. Or is it? In his address to bishops at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Francis spoke of how consumer culture threatens the growth of personal relationships by reducing them to products that can be judged satisfying or not. The cost, he said, includes “a widespread and radical sense of loneliness.”

That line has become the money quote, but in fact, Francis continues, citing overdependence on social media as an example of a disease trying to cure itself. “Running after the latest fad, accumulating ‘friends’ on one of the social networks, we get caught up in what contemporary society has to offer,” the pope said. “Loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized.”

A big part of Francis’ appeal would seem to be his knack for imparting that sense of recognition. In The American Conservative, Catherine Addington describes how he thrilled “jovial, kaleidoscopic” crowds by acknowledging the people in them, not simply as Catholics, or even as generic Americans, but specifically as immigrants.

In The Huffington Post, Denise Hinds, a lesbian mother and former nun who is black – the product of “a traditional West Indian family” – writes that Francis, by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., enabled her to read a non-threatening spin into his pro-family message. Hinds writes, the pope “chose to honor family and marriage, not limit which families and which marriages,” a choice she believes represents “progress.”

What followed was, in its own way, a conversion. “At first,” writes Hinds:

I was disappointed not to be standing in a big group of LGBT people. But in the end, it didn’t matter who you were standing next to…Everyone was excited to see a man who has come to mean so much to us — all for different reasons. While I couldn’t identify the other gay moms or gay dads, I knew we were there among the 15,000 guests…

Thanks to a few well-chosen words from the pope, Hinds’ factional loyalties took a backseat for a few moments. With a respectful reference to one of her heroes, he effectively saved her a place in the great human family. After that, she didn’t care whether she happened to be in the minority.

A few months ago, I noted that Francis seemed to be responding to a polarized world’s unexpressed, largely unconscious, yearning for an arbiter. I won’t pretend to be pleased with the thought of him stepping all the way into that role – in trying to influence criminal justice in the sovereign US state of Georgia, for example, the pope was operating well below his pay grade. But at least as far as Denise Hinds and the Latinos on his parade route were concerned, His Holiness was behaving more like the world’s greatest Facebook friend, by Liking everyone’s latest image.

Apparently, as a first step to building bonds of trust with people who feel alienated, it works. But good gravy, what a strain! What expectations the pope is setting, not only for himself, but also for his successors and the rest of the clergy. Yet some clergy seem quite happy to follow Francis’ example.

National Catholic Reporter reports that San Diego’s new bishop, Robert McElroy, has pledged to adopt a non-authoritarian, non-punitive approach toward the people of his diocese. What inspired him, he said, was Francis’ warning that bishops “fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us,” along with his promise that victory follows from “allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed.”

These days, between grievance politics and identity politics, everyone seems determined to file class-action lawsuits against the world. Would-be Donald Trumps are enrolling in classes on how to project power. Operating in public spaces has become – or is widely treated as having become – a game of crush or be crushed. Being wounded and consumed with no loss of integrity — and, indeed, going on to win — is a possibility that simply doesn’t get floated.

As I’ve said, I don’t put much stock in enthusiasm or in high-flown words, but when people like Bishop McElroy and Denise Hinds talk seriously about dropping their guard, I start to pay attention. Maybe, like those non-Catholic fans of Francis, I could use a little faith in humanity, too.

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