A Plea to Critique the Pope’s Pity


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.

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15 Responses to A Plea to Critique the Pope’s Pity

  1. Dereck Daschke says:

    What is your evidendence that the Pope is motivated, theologically or personally, by pity? Seems like a straw man designed to help you avoid evaluating the Pope’s actions as “compassion” or “loving-kindness.” It’s also a logical leap to say that covering this Pope positively for positive things makes scandals under other Popes forgotten. Very poorly argued.

    • Tenzan says:

      First off, you don’t need evidence to demonstrate that action is not pure and is motivated by a whole set of causes, that is a given. My problem is that this has so far been ignored. The Pope’s “compassion” and “loving kindness” reflect the institution he leads, not an a priori purity. Secondly, the various issues that gave rise to the scandals haven’t gone away, there are just being ignored. It is only a matter of time before claims of corruption and clerical abuses resurface.

  2. Leroy Nimka says:

    Could it possibly be that the author really meant piety?

    • Tenzan says:

      The word ‘Pity’ is etymologically connected to the word ‘piety.’

      The following is from the online etymological dictionary:

      “early 13c., from Old French pite, pitet “pity, mercy, compassion, care, tenderness; pitiful state, wretched condition” (11c., Modern French pitié), from Latin pietatem (nominative pietas) “piety, loyalty, duty” (see piety). Replaced Old English mildheortness, literally “mild-heartness,” itself a loan-translation of Latin misericordia. English pity and piety were not fully distinguished until 17c. Transferred sense of “grounds or cause for pity” is from late 14c.”

  3. Donovan Schaefer says:

    Tenzan, I don’t quite get this piece. I feel like you’re resting on two implicit ideas that I disagree with: one, that institutions have a static essence rather than being constituted and reconstituted by the bodies that make up those institutions (hence you keep talking about the Vatican and the Catholic church as institutions that have their own essence of which the pope is only a cosmetic figurehead, whereas I see a much more complex, mutually constitutive dynamic between the two), and two, that what you call pity and what I call the practice of compassion is nonpolitical, whereas I think that bodily practices and the affects that go along with them are the substance of politics. What do you think?

    • Tenzan says:

      Thanks for reading it. I totally agree that the Vatican is not a static body, but it is never free of the historical, political, and literary elements that always “reconstitute” it. Secondly, I disagree that the pity or compassion is non-political. Now, to be clear, I do not think that ‘everything is political’ (as I have argued once in a previous post), but I do think that no action escapes the web of finite context and therefore always belies certain interests. Acts of pity are not a priori political, but they cross paths with the political, as well as the literary, the artistic, etc, just like all other action.

      • Donovan Schaefer says:

        Sorry, let me clarify. I also agree that compassion is political. That’s precisely why the new Pope is having the impact that he’s having: because he’s rewriting the politics of the Vatican along the lines of a new politics of compassion. I’m not persuaded that Francis is participating in some grand deception. He’s not a puppet for “the Vatican,” if for no other reason than that the relationship between the intransigent institutional forces of the Vatican (which are themselves made up of a community of bodies) and the web of power relations surrounding the Pope is much more complicated than that. The Pope is changing the affects, practices, and discourses of Catholicism, and pulling the institutional forces of the Vatican behind him. That process needs to be assessed with much more precision.

        I don’t know. Maybe I just feel like this thing about “pity” in Nietzsche is not his best work–it’s him at his most sour and least useful.

        • Tenzan says:

          Although I also agree that he is not a puppet for the Vatican, I do not think that he is in opposition to it either. His position, at the very least (as you suggest), needs to be analyzed far more critically than current news articles have done. His acts of pity have effectively silenced all critical articles on the papacy, which were quite prevalent a year ago. (This shift if comparable to the media praise that welcomed Obama after the Bush presidency).
          Regarding Nietzsche, I would say I am using him lightly here, no different than Foucault used him to critique the genealogical sediments of Christian practice in History of Sexuality or the Care of the Self. I purposelessly left out Nietzsche’s emphasis on ‘evolution’, which accompanies his comments on pity in the Anti-Christ, for this reason.

          • Donovan Schaefer says:

            I think that thing about Obama/Bush is the essence of where we disagree. You see an abstract institution (the Papacy/the Vatican; the Presidency/the US Government) as the locus of power. I see the bodies that compose the institution as the locus of power. If you want to talk about how the media ecology (one headline a day, the newest topic before the oldest) generates a certain kind of noise around Francis, that totally makes sense to me and I couldn’t agree more that there’s room for critique there.

            But that doesn’t change the fact that Francis is changing Catholicism (I don’t see your distinction of “he’s not a puppet but he’s not in opposition” as illuminating). All these quotations you list in your post from people praising Francis (who I think you want to write off as naive?) are reacting to something that’s happening: Francis is reshaping the Catholic church. New narratives, new affects, new practices = a different institution. That’s the play of forces rather than essences, if you want to get Nietzschean about it. 🙂

  4. Tenzan says:

    I see the papacy neither as an abstract institution nor a series of bodies that compose it, but a series of literary, political, and historical influences (traces, if your will) that give rise to possible trends, shifts, etc.
    Hence, I don’t deny change is happening, what I deny is that it is as pure as it is presented in the media, and as the various quotes suggest. The quotes aren’t simply showing a shift, they are reiterating the very ideology in question. To state that St. Francis is embodying the true essence of Christ-like behavior shows hold old assumptions and reifications are being re-employed to sacrilize political and theological motives. Nietzsche never simply reduced to things to a play of forces (contra essentialism), but showed how those forces were being put to work to support various motives and assumptions.

    • Donovan Schaefer says:

      I don’t see the media as presenting Francis as pure, and although there are certainly people out there saying that, the quotes you’ve pulled aren’t exactly saying that, either. (Unless by pure you mean your second and third commenters’s language of “authentically Christlike,” in which case it comes down to bigger questions of interpretation and whether or not there are stronger or weaker interpretations of a text.)

      More to the point, maybe partly what I’m objecting to in your post and your comments is the implicit accusation of instrumentalism, that Francis is “using” his Papacy for some cloaked purpose–“political and theological motives,” in your words. I don’t see evidence for that, and even if it were true, it would miss the performative dimension of Francis’s work, the way that what he’s doing is actually changing things–changing the way Catholicism feels, thinks, and acts–rather than being a veneer on the political machinations of bigger institutional forces. I don’t buy the conspiracy-mindedness of neo-Marxism–that a putative behind or underneath is the only possible truth–and that’s the vibe I’m getting from your post. I don’t know, I could be wrong on that, though. I’m enormously enjoying this improbable discussion of Francis and Nietzsche. 😀

  5. Tenzan says:

    Instrumentalist, no. Neo-Marxist, yes. As Derrida argued, deconstruction has always been intertwined with a certain Marxist spector. Perhaps I should have titled it ‘A Plea to Theorize the Pope’s Pity,’ because that is what I meant. I do not assume some general breed of rational actors who operate in a particular way inside the Vatican, but simply want more critical analysis of the motives and interests at work.

    • Donovan Schaefer says:

      Yeah, I like that. And for me, that theorization leads onto the possibility that for Francis developing new practices of compassion itself is a motive or an “interest,” in your terms.

  6. Mike Stelts says:

    Mr. Eaghil is but one more voice in the legion of papal critics represented by Mr. Rush Limbaugh–whose supporters number in the millions, and include the 1% who control the world’s wealth. While one might suggest a nefarious agenda the pope might be, or could be, or is possibly supporting, Mr. Eaghil’s comes across as a transparent one. Clothed in the language of academic critique, he is simply echoing Limbaugh, and declaring that the world should accept the status quo–by belittling a leader who proposes an alternative. Furthermore, by quoting the infamously anti-Christian Nietszche to support his argument, the writer is probably revealing another point on his agenda. But as a policeman might say to the public at the scene of some crime, “there’s nothing to see here . . . move on.”

    • Tenzan says:

      The Catholic church, my dear friend, is also part of the 1%. That being said, the point of my post was not to be ‘anti-Catholic’ but simply to stress the need for more critical analysis of the various forces represented at the Vatican. If there is an Anti-Catholic tone in my piece, it is simply because I was trying to counter the medias glowing coverage over the past 6 months.

      Additionally, let me to stress that I did not mean to imply that the job of scholars is to be a moral corrective to the failings of either the Papacy or the media, but simply that both require a critical eye, because there is much more going on at the Vatican (historically and politically) than what has been represented in the news so far.

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