It’s not uncommon for my various social newsfeeds to look like an avalanche of news about Pope Francis; it’s an occupational hazard of (i) being a Jesuit and (ii) knowing a lot of Catholics. However, Stephan Marche’s (brief) article “It’s Time To Admit It: Pope Francis is Kind of Awesome,” caught my eye for two important reasons. The first is that the article was published in Esquire, a fine publication and one not particularly known for its coverage of Vatican news. The second is that the author is a self-professed atheist. And if there’s one thing that can get Catholics and secular types reading the same article, it’s using the A-word in close proximity to religious words. It’s a form of alchemy in the age of online news: [atheism/atheist/secular] plus [Catholic Church/pope/religion]=search engine and social media gold.
For all the explosive possibilities of an atheist writing on a major religious figure (or vice-versa, for that matter), Marche advances a relatively modest set of points. He likes Francis. Like so many others, believers and otherwise, he’s taken with the small gestures offered by the pope and hopeful that the small gestures are signs of still greater points of dialogue. Marche’s very personal assessment of Pope Francis and Catholicism more generally comes across as generous and thoughtful, but measured and balanced by some striking critiques.
It would be easy for a Catholic to read Marche’s article as a straightforward win for the home team. (The headline doesn’t help much – it wouldn’t be hard for a Catholic to see it and the first paragraph and conclude that an equally applicable headline would be “Atheist Observes Pope, Sees The Light”). And that would be a mistake. While Marche is clearly impressed by Pope Francis, he shows no obvious signs of wavering in his non-belief, and he doesn’t hesitate to point out less-than-inspiring news items about other Church leaders.
This even treatment is what makes this article a must-read for believers, especially Catholics. In an age of ‘evangelical atheism,’ true encounters between religious believers and “friendly atheists” (i.e., non-believers willing to take religious types seriously), believers should listen and listen well. Whether writers like Marche or those among our friends and family who fit the description, these non-believers are often the ones who can help us see our own, familiar religiosity through fresh eyes. They can be stingingly honest about about how believers are confusing, off-putting, and even falling disastrously short of what we say we are. On this point, Marche singles out what he perceives as the incongruity between papal calls for social justice and the ermine vestments favored by some popes. At the same time, he lets believers know what they find appealing. In a striking remark, Marche observes:
These little gestures make a big difference. The Catholic Church may be the last major institution in the world that makes a coherent argument against total absorption in consumer capitalism.
Pope Francis has been a bit player in this article to this point, but perhaps it’s worth noting that one of Francis’s repeated calls has been for an “outward-looking” a Church that escapes from the rot of being self-referential. The antidote to self-reference, of course, is other-reference. Like most images in the mirror, impressions from non-believers can reveal both beauty and ugliness that we don’t particularly want to see, but when we’re blessed enough to get honest, searching reflections from sincere non-believers, we ignore them at our peril.
Cover photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes