Francis's Radical Realism: Performance v. Ideology

By Sam Rocha
March 11, 2014

One year into his pontificate, one of the few uncontroversial things to be said about Pope Francis is this: He is our first American pope. This claim, verging on the obvious, provides an insight of its own. We are in the midst of something like a shift in current, a continental reversal of polarity. Since the Spanish conquista first brought Catholicism to this continent’s shores, to now the twilight of the twenty-first century, the Americas have listened. Now, through Francis, there is speech, a voice.

A Latin American voice.

Ever since the pragmatism of William James (and the pragmaticism of C.S. Pierce), there has been a distinct sense of concreteness to the original philosophical ideas produced on this continent. Yet, in a more direct way, the geopolitical situation in Latin America over the past hundred years has produced a sense of the concrete that is more than purely philosophical in nature. The comparative political history of modernity in Europe and the Americas makes this very clear. Whereas the European story is driven by an intellectual progression of ideas (e.g., rationalism, empiricism, idealism, and so on), the Latin American version is a postcolonial response to political situations.

Francis reflects this situation-based approach, in a very direct and pointed way, in section 231–233 of Evangelii Gaudium, summarized by the subtitle “Realities are more important than ideas.” He describes the distinction between realities and ideas by giving ontological priority to the former. “Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out,” Francis teaches. The ontological simplicity of reality gives way to a “principle of reality,” an incarnational order between word and flesh that favors the practice of evangelization.

Francis’s notion of practice here is performative. To “put the word into practice,” we must “perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful.” This is, perhaps, the key to understanding the significance and logic of his phone calls, kisses, and simple acts of kindness that have become something of a spectacle in the public media. (And why not? They are spectacular.) It is a performance, a series of very real, and often quite ordinary, responses to situations. It is concrete and therefore proximate, giving rise to a unique and unprecedented sense of intimacy. That this intimacy has been perplexing to many is only evidence of the radical nature of this approach in times where ideological “issues” take precedence over human touch. These iconic papal acts can be, and have been, grasped in pictures, images without language, because they are realities and, as such, they “simply are.” Francis shows without saying because “realities are greater than ideas.”

The question of papal continuity, a question that always appears at some point in this discussion, is interesting in itself. I do not know whether any other pope has been scrutinized as closely as Francis has been in terms of his fidelity to, and progression from, his recent predecessors. What is most obvious in this case is also instructive: The relationship between Benedict XVI and Francis is literal and present. We can see it plainly. The irrationally ideological style of today’s popular speculation is, perhaps, most vividly on display as both Left and Right antagonize a very real friendship between our two popes. In other words, we are too easily led into pretending as though Francis and Benedict are not in frequent and friendly, collegial contact.

Of course it does not follow to argue that if two people are friends then they must agree with each other. However, when two popes who, for the first time in 800 years are both alive, are dear friends, who stay in close and frequent contact, this ought to give a strong preliminary suggestion that mere speculation and paranoia should not overcome so easily.

Nonetheless, what I am calling Francis’s “radical realism” is perhaps most apparent within the papal progression from John Paul II to Benedict XVI. John Paul II was a practitioner of the art of performance in his theatrical work, as an actor and a playwright; this, I think, makes sense of his intuitive grasp of the power of phenomenology, an influence deeply embedded in his writings before and after his papacy. Benedict XVI’s Augustinian roots give his writings a sense of the performative, too, most explicitly in Spe Salvi, where he maintains that the Christian message must be “not only ‘informative’ but ‘performative’.” Benedict anticipates Francis’s radical realism when he elaborates that “the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing.”

From the craft of the theatre and appreciation for a phenomenological lived experience in John Paul II, to Benedict XVI’s Augustinian understanding of the amorous and performative core of the Gospel, to the now direct—and uniquely American—favor shown to reality, over and above ideas, in Francis, the progression, the movement, is symphonic.

But what are the relevant implications?

One of them is a critique of modern ideology that, in many respects, mirrors that of Alasdair MacIntyre and, more recently, Slavoj Zizek. In fact, it may also raise an interesting, albeit limited, convergence between them.

In Marxism and Christianity, MacIntyre credits the prophetic strength of Marx’s critique, rooted in the Christian inheritance carried over from Hegel, but also highlights Marx’s two-fold weakness: the inability of his theory of ideology to account for itself (How can Marx accuse others of false consciousness?) and its constitutive social conditions (in this case, MacIntyre rehearses the argument he would more famously deploy against social science methods in After Virtue). MacIntyre’s strategy is what stands out here as unique, especially amongst philosophers, because, as he has continued to show throughout his oeuvre, he takes seriously both the ideological implications of a critique of ideology and all of its social effects, well beyond the narrow boundaries of reason.

This MacIntyrian strategy is similar to Zizek’s use of Lacanian psychoanalysis to critique the narrativist approach in Freud and other purely linguistic or interpretive approaches. In The Plague of Fantasies, Zizek, following Lacan, contends that “narrative as such” is what emerges as the real, not a strategic reorganization of narratives and counter-narratives. Therefore, for Zizek, ideology emerges when we forget to account for what he (and MacIntyre) points out: “Narrative as such” and the ways in which desire reconstitutes the narrative into a fantasy.

There has been much debate over the narrative—the translation, the terms and their exact meanings and intentions, most of all the economic narrative—of Francis’s message in Evangelii Gaudium and elsewhere. What this parsing of words misses is the performance, including the performance of the narrative, but most importantly the performance of the Gospel as a reality instead of an idea. If the Gospel is merely an ideological alternative, a narrativist strategy, then, as MacIntyre notes disagreeably and Zizek strongly and perversely favors, Marxism may simply be the modern appropriation of Christianity.

Francis’s radical realism, then, is to treat the Word as an incarnate thing, as a reality to be shown more than it is said, to let its proclamation live in the performance of its witness, to be captured in pictures of tenderness, embrace, ordinary living. A kiss. Acts such as these are immune to the ideological trap of Western ideas that has turned so much of the reality of the Gospel into intellectual history, moral theology, and dogmatic ideals. A real Gospel cannot be a philosophy or even a philosophical theology. A philosophical Catholicism is what Francis seems to be avoiding, and for good reason.

The result of this realism is radical in both senses. On the one hand, it returns to the root (radix) of the matter, to the real itself. On the other, it makes incredible demands that come with very real costs. There is a price to pay when the Americas are given a voice. Francis is direct: “This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom.”

In short, Francis is calling the Church, and the world, to reject ideology as such, to decolonize and disabuse itself from the deleterious effects of Western intellectualism, to perform an embrace of reality, most of all, the reality of Christ and his presence among us in the poor and the suffering.