There’s no denying the extraordinary global impact of Pope Francis. As recently as March this year, there were few outside Latin America who had even heard of Jorge Mario Bergoglio – but then the white smoke went up:
“His is the most talked-about name on the internet in 2013, ranking ahead of ‘Obamacare’ and ‘NSA’. In fourth place comes Francis’s Twitter handle, @Pontifex. In Italy, Francesco has fast become the most popular name for new baby boys. Rome reports a surge in tourist numbers, while church attendance is said to be up – both trends attributed to ‘the Francis effect’.”
Furthermore, he isn’t just popular among Catholics and faith-friendly conservatives, he’s a big hit with secular liberals too. This isn’t so surprising – middle class western lefties are always on the look out for a global hero. Occasionally their chosen one will achieve what can literally be described as iconic status: the most graphic examples being Che Guevara and, more recently, Barack Obama.
Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland argues that there’s nothing wrong with a little hero-worship and that, in any case, it’s not just the left which indulges in it:
“Some will say the world’s leftists and liberals shouldn’t hanker for a pin-up, that the urge is infantile and bound to end in disappointment. But the need is human and hardly confined to the left: think of the Reagan and Thatcher posters that still adorn the metaphorical walls of conservatives, three decades on.”
Fair comment: Except that there’s a difference between left-wing and right-wing hero-worship. Conservative heroes tend to be idolised for what they’ve achieved, while with liberal heroes it’s more about they represent (or at least what their fans believe them to represent). Consider Barack Obama’s notorious Nobel peace prize. The man hadn’t been in post for more than two minutes before he was given an accolade that usually recognises years of painstaking effort.
For liberals it’s not so much a case of drawing inspiration from one’s heroes, as projecting one’s hopes on to them. Hopes which are frequently dashed:
“That Obama poster on the wall, promising hope and change, is looking a little faded now. The disappointments, whether over drone warfare or a botched rollout of healthcare reform, have left the world’s liberals and progressives searching for a new pin-up to take the US president’s place.”
So, why the current Pope? By why of an explanation, Freedland points to the many personal acts of kindness and humility for which Francis has become known. More important, though, is his broader message:
“It seems he wants to do more than simply stroke the brow of the weak. He is taking on the system that has made them weak and keeps them that way…
There is no denying the radicalism of this message, a frontal and sustained attack on what he calls ‘unbridled capitalism’, with its ‘throwaway’ attitude to everything from unwanted food to unwanted old people.”
This is indeed what the Pope believes. But it is also what previous Popes of the modern era believed. Freedland writes as if he has never heard of Catholic Social Teaching which has provided a coherent intellectual alternative to both socialism and freemarket fundamentalism for more than a century.
The Catholic critique of our ‘throwaway’ attitude to unwanted food and unwanted old people also extends to unwanted marriages and unwanted pregnancies. The teaching is all of a piece and Francis is no different to his predecessors in holding to all of it.