Why Pope Francis disrupts our political categories
Journalist Maria Ressa's question during the press briefing after the Luneta Mass celebrated by Roman Catholic Church leader Pope Francis sums up in no minced words what many observers of the widely popular pope have themselves been trying to decode: is the Pope a progressive or a conservative?
The good Pope's own words and deeds admittedly occasion the puzzle.
From his very first acts after the 2013 Conclave, Francis has endeared himself to anti-corruption groups, environment, poverty, and labor cause-oriented civil society sectors, including women and gender-equality movements who have all found encouragement in his simply, sincerely, humbly, and unequivocally articulated statements denouncing inequality, poverty, excesses, and discrimination.
However, many have found his defense of the traditional structure of and arrangements governing the family, marriage, and natural family planning methods for responsible parenthood short of the necessary steps that could fully usher the Roman Catholic Church into the modern world.
But if there is anything commentators and scholars of religion and politics should have learned from the visit of Pope Francis it has to be the utter inadequacy of sociological, political, economic, and even anthropological constructs in grasping the subjectivity of religious actors – pastors or flocks. Especially when they are encountered in the flesh and away from academic research designs or media concocted spins.
Religious actors living out their faith are just too full of surprises!
And the Pope's extemporaneous exclamation during his dialogue with the youth at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) that "reality is superior to ideas" could not be any more compelling a call for his immediate audience as for those studying and analyzing the encounter.
Ms. Ressa's (and many others') deployment of the terms progressive or conservative in characterizing religiously driven beliefs and acts partakes in effect with the shared refusal, or at least, hesitation, among many observers and scholars to problematize what in fact constitutes being "progressive" or "conservative" these days.
This refusal or hesitation is however costly.
For not only does it concede an "end of history" thesis where acts or beliefs that do not accelerate or advance the same historical moment are deemed stumbling blocks and must, if the world intends to continue the march of progress, be promptly discarded; it also quite dangerously leaves no room for the reversal of historical trends and patterns that may in the end prove disastrous.
In effect, the deployment of "progressive" or "conservative" categories in labelling religious action without an a priori critique of the present historical moment simultaneously inscribes attempts at religious criticism into the status quo and from there interprets the acceptability or non-acceptability (i.e. progressiveness or conservativeness) of the religious act.
Ultimately, this deployment reveals a normative commitment to the present order which it however subtly conceals through methodological or disciplinary modes of assessing and evaluating human action.
Thus hidden in attempts to characterize Pope Francis as either "progressive" or "conservative" is an a priori belief in the inherent goodness of the objects/realities/trends that he is reacting to.
This means that when an analyst or a commentator says that Pope Francis's refusal to endorse artificial contraception is a "conservative" move, that analyst or commentator has already decided that the artificial contraception is a good in itself. But because of the academic/scientific community's or the media's own commitment to "value-free" knowledge production or "objective" reporting (whether such is even possible needs more space for articulation and discussion), this a priori commitment must remain hidden.
What the observer of religious action or subjectivity misses here is an opportunity to engage and encounter the world making or remaking dimension of religious acts and actors.
For religion does not merely occupy a distinct place in worldly affairs, rather, religion sees the world from its very own affairs, from its very own distinct horizon. And so instead of appreciating or studying the contours of that religious horizon and the place of the world therein, the analyst preoccupied with characterizing religious activity as either conservative or progressive flatly rejects the possibility of inhabiting that "other world" himself or herself. Or at least, of turning a critical eye towards the present world as it is.
When we raise the question, "Is Pope Francis a progressive or a conservative?" we are in a sense asking, "How do we see Pope Francis's or Catholicism's actions in the world?"
I propose that if we truly want our encounter with Pope Francis to last beyond his pastoral visit, we should instead ask, "how does Pope Francis or how does Catholicism or Christianity in general for that matter, see the world?"
It is only at this point are we able to realize the superfluity of the progressive/conservative dichotomy.
And by abandoning these categories, we realize the simultaneously fascinating and tremendous unity of faith and reason. An encounter not just with a person's ideas but with that very person's lived and incarnate reality. – Rappler.com
RR Rañeses is an Instructor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. He wrote his MA in Global Politics Thesis on the Role of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in the Post-EDSA Philippine Democratization Experience. Business intelligence and risks assessments feed him his daily bread but the Eucharist and "post-secular" engagements in political theory constitute his bread of life.