critique

Reading the Pope, reading the present

signs of the times

The Vatican released this week Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, the Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospels”).  The exhortation is the first of Francis’ papacy.  It’s a doozy — and not only for being the most widely-read essay with more than 200 endnotes.

From this lengthy document, a relatively small segment of the exhortation (paragraphs 53-60, of 288 in total) have so far attracted the most attention in the English-speaking world. These remarks concern the “tyranny” of unfettered capitalism, the exploitative nature of “trickle-down” economic theories, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, and the increasing problem of global poverty. Much of the press reporting on the Pope’s exhortation has focused on these arguments. (See for instance articles from The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and Salon.)  The Pope’s remarks on economics have invited many inevitable comparisons to Marx — by Rush Limbaugh, among others — as well as some to less inevitable entities (Karl Polanyi, for instance, or the Oberlin College Newspaper).

The Pope’s assessment of the crises of contemporary capitalism has scandalized some and gratified many others who are glad to see the Pontiff attend to matters of present and widespread concern. Though not a Catholic, I too am engaged by the Pope’s words. I am just as fascinated by the passage that precedes these by now well-known paragraphs on the depredations of unfettered capitalist growth. Paragraphs 50 and 51, which introduce the second chapter of the Pope’s exhortation, are less newsworthy than the paragraphs that follow, though to my mind they are no less remarkable in constituting a reflection on the necessity, challenges and paradoxes involved in reflecting on the present time.

The preamble to Chapter 2 of the exhortation, “Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment,” opens with an appeal to consider the situation of contemporary life — “the context in which we all have to live and work” (50). “We” are thus brought to the scene of crisis itself, and to the condition of being “amid” this crisis, rather than a passive witness to it.  The position of immanence that Francis urges parishioners to assume is consistent with a now-famous statement from the previous paragraph: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (49).

Paragraph 51 continues in this vein by emphasizing the necessity of attending closely to “present realities”:

It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.”  This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse.  (51)

Francis prepares the ground for the argument to follow with this call to the “analysis of contemporary reality.” The implication from the warning at the end of this passage is that the agents most clearly responsible for “present realities,” those in other words most committed to the untrammeled expansion and consolidation of wealth, the triumph of free market ideology, the multiplication of capitalism’s externalities in the continued destruction of the environment, and so on, are also those least invested in undertaking such an analysis. Francis thus shares with thinkers from Nietzsche to Agamben the idea that to be contemporary is to be at once in sync and out of step with “present realities.”  The “analysis of contemporary life” requires some measure of distance from present time; in essential respects it is, as Nietzsche reminds us, an untimely [Unzeitgemässe] endeavor — “acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time.”

As it happens, the call to contemporaneity and to the consideration of “certain present realities” has a long history — both in the Papal tradition and elsewhere.  The “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times” refers, as Francis’ note informs us, to the 1964 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam suam (1964). In this text, Paul endorsed his predecessor Pope John XXIII’s program of Aggiornamento, a “bringing-up-to-date,” as “the guiding principle” of the Catholic church, as well as “the aim and object of Our own pontificate.” In the encyclical Paul VI urged the Church “to take stock of itself and give careful consideration to the signs of the times” (50).

The appeal to the “signs of the times” was one of the rallying cries of the Aggiornamento, calling the priests and laity to consideration of the modern world.  “Signs of the times” has been a phrase regularly invoked since the days of Pope John XXIII — Francis being here no exception.  The phrase is famously associated with its usage in the pastoral constitution of Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et spes (1965):

the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.   (4)

The Papal use of the phrase has its origin in the gospel of Matthew (16:3), where Jesus upbraids the Saduccees and Pharisees for being better acquainted with meteorological portents than with those of greater and more lasting significance currently passing on earth: “O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” (KJV).  

To attend to the “signs of the times” is at once, then, to scan the present and to anticipate the future. In the Catholic context, the exhortation to scrutinize the signs of the times connects the activity of reading the present to the venerable traditions of the past too (both recent and ancient).  Francis recovers some of the original urgency attached to the activity of discerning the “signs of the times” by referring to the threat of “dehumanization,” and insists on its being the responsibility of all. Notwithstanding the disclaimer that the Pope’s task is not to provide a comprehensive “analysis of contemporary reality,” the necessity of attending to the signs of times turns even the leader of the Catholic church into a bit of a sociologist. At the same time, Francis is frank (sorry) about the limitations of such analysis:

Today, we frequently hear of a “diagnostic overload” which is not always accompanied by improved and actually applicable methods of treatment. Nor would we be well served by a purely sociological analysis which would aim to embrace all of reality by employing an allegedly neutral and clinical method. What I would like to propose is something much more in the line of an evangelical discernment.  (50)

The condition of “diagnostic overload” is one remarked upon in the present by many well outside the Catholic faith. Academic readers may associate the Pope’s caution with similar assessments of the forms and disciplines of “sociological” critique in the university — among others, with Bruno Latour’s assertion that the explanations furnished by critique have, as in the title of his well-known essay, “run out of steam,” outlived their usefulness, and so need either to be reinvented or discarded entirely. I am reminded of a brilliant and beautiful remark by Lauren Berlant about the limitations of the kind of critique that humanists frequently carry out: “The correct analysis of a symptom does not reveal, produce, point to, or give confidence about the shape of its cure, which is why so much work in the humanities limps along in the phrases that follow out the description of a problem.”

Francis’ reflection on the limitations of “sociological analysis” and on the conditions of contemporary life urges us think anew about what happens when we train the eye of criticism on the “signs of the times.” If the principle of “evangelical discernment” does not seem quite adequate to the purposes of scholarship and social criticism in a secular age, I would not quite wish to resort to the luxury of condescension either. The effort to renew the project that Foucault named “the history of the present” will need — has always needed — more than “an allegedly critical and clinical method” is capable of providing.  What methods will arise in its place may still need to be worked out.