by Tenzan Eaghll
Since the election of Pope Francis I in March, 2013, the media has effectively given the Pope a free pass on account of his acts of pity. Bathing him in unquestioning acceptance, news agencies around the world have whole-heartily embraced the new pious Pope, and it is near impossible to find one critical article on him. Recent headlines include, “Pope Francis embraces man with Disfigured Face at St. Peter’s Square weekly blessing,” and “Pope Francis: Rugby Metaphor for life.” At 76, Pope Francis has effectively achieved pop-star status, and YouGov polls show thoroughly positive approval ratings. Even Protestants are in love with the new Pope, and many are encouraging their evangelical pastors to embody the pity he expresses for the poor and downtrodden. In a recent article in the Huffington Post, one Protestant writer argues that Pope Francis presents “the kind of Christ-like example I want to follow,” and praises the media for its unquestioning embrace of his acts of pity. The author cites the following examples from North American media outlets:
I’m not Catholic, but man do I love this Pope! (Buzzfeed)
I’m an atheist, but I am really starting to like Pope Francis. He really seems like he understands that the church should be focusing on doing what Jesus said- helping the poor, needy and undesirables. If more Christians would actually live their life like this–Christianity wouldn’t get such a bad reputation. I truly hope Pope Francis continues on this path. I know he will do great things in his time for the church. (Huffington Post)
Though I am not Catholic or even religious, my respect for Pope Francis continues to grow. He strikes me as a true man of Christ. (Yahoo)
This Pope is crushing it. I’m an atheist from a very religious family, but I’m so pleased about some of Pope Francis’ actions and stances. He gets it, and the church needs it. (CNN)
Due to his acts of pity, Francis is presented in the media as a man channeling the sui generis quality of religion that is independent of politics and cultural difference. This is the danger of pity.
It seems like we need a reminder from Nietzsche: pity is never innocent. Pity is not free from ideology, politics, history, or the literary; rather, it is situated, contextual, and often masks hidden agendas. In his relentless critique of Christianity, Nietzsche never ceases to remind us of this, and to implore us to be skeptical of “the innocent rhetoric from the domain of the religio-moral idiosyncrasy….” (The Anti-Christ 190, 130) For it is precisely in the sublime presentation of action and kind words that the greatest ideological threats can lie dormant. This is not to suggest that pity is a “bad” thing, but simply that the quietism that pity evokes, particularly in the media, is dangerously problematic.
What is so worrying about this warmhearted embrace of the new Pope by the media is that not 12 months ago the Papacy was awash in controversy and scandal. Twelve months ago, if the Pope was in the headlines it wasn’t for washing the feet of a Muslim woman or an impromptu phone call to his dentist, but due to clerical paedophilia, leaked Vatican documents, widespread nepotism and corruption, or controversial claims about the Vatican’s tax affairs. All that now seems to be forgotten and the Pope’s pity has seemingly rendered these affairs inconsequential, or at the very least made them seem to be a thing of the past. This begs the question, have we entered into a post-ideological papal age? I think not.
What is most surprising at this point is that the only people who are critical of the Pope are fellow Catholics. As Vatican watcher Vito Mancuso claimed recently in La Repubblica, there is a “conservative campaign that sees Bergoglio [the surname Francis was born with] as a symbol to take out… Precisely the things that the world finds charming in Francis are, for these Catholics, a source of scandal that causes him to be seen as the most cheesy of populists.”
Why are only Catholics critical of the Pope at this point? Because priests and cardinals are intimately aware of the many theological issues at stake in the recent statements made by Francis regarding gay marriage, contraception, and the salvation of atheists. Catholics are aware of something that the media has so far ignored: acts of Catholic pity reinforce, not detract, from the deeply conservative agenda of the Vatican, and no matter how liberal the new Pope’s actions might seem, he is the ruler of the oldest sacerdotal-monarchical state in the world. Indeed, it is for this reason that we should be skeptical of the distinction noted above by Vito Mancuso between the Pope and the conservative base of the Vatican, for the face of reform is never as innocent as it seems. As Nietzsche reminds us again and again, pity is a conservative Christian virtue.
The danger of assuming that pity is non-ideological, is that it makes it impossible to critique the various political interests that pious acts support. The media coverage of the Vatican over the last year seems to suggest an absolute moral standard that is independent of context. The lesson learned here seems simple: if a story of Vatican corruption or clerical abuse is leaked the media critiques the papacy, and if an act of pity woos believers in St. Peter’s Square it praises the papacy. What this superficial analysis misses is that pity is never innocent, and that not criticizing the Pope on account of his pious acts is to assume a sui generis space of religious action that is free of political, historical, and literary influence.
As Nietszche argues, our entire literary and artistic décadence, “from St. Petersburg to Paris, from Tolstoy to Wagner,” has privileged pity in a way that is at times dangerously blind to the wider abuses that sublime acts function to mask. As critics, it is our job to “be inexorable here, to wield the knife here.” (130) Pity is not a privileged site—it is situated and contextual—and when we see others cutting out a privileged space for it, we need to expose this sacralization.
Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.