Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Taking Francis seriously: Here comes the jargon

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.
Here, I think he begins to go a bit wrong. This, if you are counting, is the fifth sentence of the Exhortation. The first hint is the use of the meaningless buzzword, "consumerism". It's in a parenthetical comment so we could drop it out.
The great danger in today’s world is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.
With that distraction removed, now we have a logical challenge for "a complacent yet covetous heart", while a bad thing, doesn't obviously lead to desolation and anguish. We normally speak of complacency as something we need to be shaken out of. Okay, but anyone who just cruises along in their complacency is surely going to get a rude awakening. Well, maybe. Then again, they may just go on dodging the bullet for decades.

"You'll never go anywhere in this world if you don't learn to be respectful and polite, young man!" My parents told me things like that and following that advice more or less worked for me. But Jon Stewart's parents probably said similar things to him and he has gone very far in this world by being an asshole. Perhaps he is miserable in the deep dark nights of his soul. And perhaps the grapes are sour too.

This isn't just a picky point. Francis is making a strong psychological claim here on the basis of no evidence.

Here's the next sentence:
Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.
Slow Francis down and ask yourself what exactly this is supposed to mean? "When our interior life becomes ... there is no longer room for others." No room where? In our interior life? What does any of this mean?

This is all modern spirituality jargon. It's the kind of thing people say on the third day of the religious retreat when everyone feels really comfortable and we're sitting in a circle really, like, "communicating with one another", and not just talking. Except, it is just talk. This sort of jargon has been floating around since the 1970s and it's never reached anyone outside of the tiny circles of people who just love it. (I strongly suspect, by the way, that Pope Francis didn't write this paragraph; similar boilerplate has made it's way into the writing of Benedict and John Paul II and it is most likely the work of the Vatican bureaucracy that prepares the drafts for most papal writings.)

By the way, isn't the desolation and anguish born or consumerism a bit of a first world problem? This is navel gazing.

The important thing to remember is that these are psychological claims that are being made in this exhortation. Francis is saying that if you live a certain kind of life, you will be miserable. And he is further saying that the modern world is full of misery because people are living a certain way of life that he calls consumerism but doesn't define.

The consumer ethic, meaning nothing more than a life that is at least partially built on shopping for and acquiring goods, has won hundreds of millions of converts. If this way of life so obviously leads to misery, then why aren't more people willingly abandoning it?

Don't get me wrong; I think there is a point to be made here but Francis isn't doing it. This second paragraph is morally and intellectually lazy.


  1. To be fair, the other translations don't use the word "consumerism," but talk about the "diverse and overwhelming offer of consumption" (probably in English it would be better to talk about "possibilities for consumption"). Maybe a bit less jargony.

    You have a point, though, about the psychological argument.

    1. Looking at the French, I see that you are right and the Spanish seems to say the same thing. Thanks for the correction.

  2. Actually, I was thinking a little more about this paragraph. As for the "no room in our interior lives" bit, I agree that the metaphor is a bit weak, but on the other hand I think it is very true that each person only has a limited amount of attention and motivation, and if we spend it all on the immediate busy-stuff, we have little time and energy left for other things.

    Expanding on the point about the psychological argument, I was thinking about whether Francis's idea lined up with other diagnosticians of modernity. There are plenty of sociologists who would say that yes, individualism and consumerism lead to anomie, despair, suicide (etc). Then I was thinking about Kierkegaard's idea in The Sickness Unto Death that the vast majority of people are "unaware of being in despair"--i.e. they don't really care, they are wrapped up in their own business and unaware of any kind of spiritual vocation or demand. It seems to me that the difference between these two outlooks will lead to two very different prescriptions about how to act.

    1. I agree with your first point. The question in my mind is whether the word "inner" makes any difference. It seems to me that the point applies to our life in general, adding "inner" buys nothing.

      Again, on the second point, I tend to agree but wonder why we need to make the point in psychological terms. I think there is a better argument to be made in terms of moral virtues. If there is a modern malaise, I suspect our tendency to convert moral arguments into psychological ones is one of the prime symptoms and not a cure. I also see no reason to believe that anomie, despair and suicide were in short supply during the late antiquity, the middle ages or the Renaissance.

      BTW: My mother never taught my sisters and I that we had a moral obligation to be happy when we could and to work at getting over it when we weren't. I tend to think she was right.)

    2. Do you mean that she never taught you that, or that she did?

    3. Whoops, I meant that she did. I rearranged the sentence and then forgot to go back and remove the "never". :-)

      (I'll see if this thing will let me edit it now.)