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Francis Gives the Church and Humanity a Fighting Chance

M. Oliva Soto
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Though many have been critical of Pope Francis' assertion that the most serious evil of our day is youth unemployment, a Jewish sociologist thinks he's right on target.

Regular readers know of my newfound fondness for Zygmunt Bauman. Apparently, Bauman, too, is nurturing his own growing affections for the Holy Father.

In a new interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Bauman speaks of the Franciscan papacy as a sort of solution to the problems of “liquid modernity.” (An English summary is available here. The full Italian text is here.) “I believe his pontificate gives not just the Catholic Church but all of humanity a chance,” says Bauman. Strong words from a secular, Jewish sociologist; although perhaps not totally unexpected in the wake of similar comments from folks like Eugenio Scalfari.

But don’t let Bauman’s background fool you: he gets it—and way more than Scalfari and company ever will. What sets Bauman apart from the sociological pack is that, while he’s tuned into human interaction on a cultural level, he’s also impressively unafraid to use language akin to that of more traditional philosophical anthropology.

After his remarks on conscience, one of the most criticized bits of Francis’s interview for La Repubblica was an initial comment on youth unemployment.

"The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present."

As “right-wingers” clamor for greater recognition of their ideals, Bauman is a helpful teacher on the deeper dimensions of Francis’s social program. He points out that “à la carte religion,” especially among the young, is a “reaction to the instability that characterizes life in ‘liquid’ modernity: in an age of incessant and sudden changes, one seeks a piece of earth upon which to firmly plant one’s feet.” If that’s correct—and if the Catholic faith has become less meaningful to the youth for whatever reason—then efforts to evangelize must include de facto efforts to grow stability and to cultivate companionship. As far as these latter preclude the former, they are indeed “most serious” evils.

“One of the most disturbing aspects of our time,” says Bauman, “is that the medium-term consequences of personal decisions cannot be determined: there are too many factors that interfere with our plans.”

"The entire world has entered into a period of interregnum, to use an expression from Antonio Gramsci: humanity is intent to discover, desperately, within or without itself, points of support upon which it can rest, or brakes to slow a monotony (fiumana indistinta) that would otherwise overwhelm it."

These ideas seem to be precisely what Pope Francis has in mind during his frequent discussions of globalization, legalism, and most famously “obsession.” It’s not that modern Christians have simply overplayed what’s relatively good; it’s that we’ve been unwittingly overwhelmed by it—the relatively part—leaving what’s good to be swallowed up by that “indistinct torrent” of monotony. The resulting “obsession” is ideological through and through; identified as such because it is unthinking and compulsive rather than dialectical and voluntary.

If Bauman is correct about the underlying causes of social implosion (or maybe better, of the collapse of community), then it should also interest us when we says that Francis offers, through his ministry, a unique solution.

"The current pope is fearless, I would say, in the way he proceeds: I’m thinking of the gestures made at Lampedusa, of the discourses dedicated to the 'outcasts' of the globalized world. To return to the theme from which we departed, we can affirm that Bergoglio knows how to speak to the typical spirituality of our time: the followers of the “personal God,” in effect, are not very interested in the moral prescriptions imparted by representatives of religious institutions, but they desire to track some sense in the fragmentation of their individual existence. They are still waiting for the 'gospel' in the original sense of the term—'good news.'"

That Francis is a newsmaker is evident. That he’s a “good newsmaker” is, at least for me and Dr. Bauman, equally obvious. What the Holy Father offers to the world in distinctly modern language is not, I think, a symptom of modernity; in fact, it might even be an antidote. More to the point, it might be the antidote required to combat the “liquidity” which has sept into even the tightest of strongholds, and which poses the greatest threat to authentic Christian conversion.

Note: all translations of the interview with Bauman are my own.

Originally published by Ethikia Politika on November 5th, 2013.

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