The optimistic ‘conservatism’ of Pope Francis

Belief in a better future appealed to America, writes David Quinn

It seems to me that the most basic difference between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict is not theological. Rather it is one of temperament. Francis is an optimist by nature whereas Benedict is not. People like optimism. It is why Americans responded so strongly to Ronald Reagan, for example. He was an optimist and presented America with an optimistic view of itself.

His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, was much more pessimistic. He liked to tell Americans what was wrong with their country. Partly as a result of this, he was a one-term president.

The Synod on the Family starting (or rather re-starting) in a few days will tell us more about the basic theology of Pope Francis. Will he allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion or not? That is, will he side with the likes of Cardinal Walter Kasper or not? Benedict definitely would not.

There was no real clue to what Francis will do about this particular matter in an address he delivered to American bishops in Philadelphia on Sunday. Naturally his subject matter was marriage and the family because he was in the city for the World Meeting of Families. What the address did reveal once again, however, was his basic underlying optimism.

It also revealed that in his own way he is something of a ‘small is beautiful’ conservative. There is a passage in his address where he compares society today to a supermarket. He says that once upon in the past society was more like a family-owned shop.

He told the assembled bishops: “There was a time when one neighbourhood store had everything one needed for personal and family life. The products may not have been cleverly displayed, or offered much choice, but there was a personal bond between the shopkeeper and his customers. Business was done on the basis of trust, people knew one another, they were all neighbours. They trusted one another. They built up trust. These stores were often simply known as ‘the local market’.”


These stores have now been replaced by the supermarket and this, the Pope believes, is a metaphor for what has happened to society.

He went on: “Then a different kind of store grew up: the supermarket. Huge spaces with a great selection of merchandise. The world seems to have become one of these great supermarkets; our culture has become more and more competitive. Business is no longer conducted on the basis of trust; others can no longer be trusted. There are no longer close personal relationships. Today’s culture seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust. The most important thing nowadays seems to be follow the latest trend or activity. This is even true of religion. Today consumerism determines what is important.”

In these comments there is a very strong echo of the economist Friedrich Schumacher who popularised the phrase, ‘small is beautiful’, in his 1973 book of that name.

Schumacher was very critical of the consumer society. He was an environmentalist. He believed that big business was alienating the worker from his work. For example, what would give a person more satisfaction, running his or her own neighbourhood store of the sort described by Pope Francis, or working for a huge supermarket? 

Growing up, I can remember my mother popping off to the local grocery shop for bread and milk and she might be gone for an hour because she would end up talking to the shop-owner or neighbours calling in or out. That rarely happens when you go to one of the big supermarkets. 

This is the kind of thing the Pope has in mind. Things are more impersonal than they used to be. Big might be efficient, but small is warmer and more intimate. (A complicating factor: big supermarkets can sell goods more cheaply than small stores and this benefits the poor above all).

Schumacher, incidentally, started out in life as an atheist but bit by bit became more interested in religion. He noted the similarities between his work and the vision of life and the economy found in the social encyclicals of the various popes. He converted to Catholicism in 1971. 

Echoes of G.K. Chesterton are also to be found in Schumacher’s ‘small is beautiful’ vision. The basic underlying optimism of Pope Francis is found further on in the same address. 

Having diagnosed how consumerism even makes us consumers of relationships and can make us scared of committing to anything, Francis then cautions the bishops “to collect our energies and to rebuild enthusiasm for making families correspond ever more fully to the blessing of God which they are!”

He added: “We need to invest our energies not so much in rehearsing the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family.”

He cautions against, a Christianity “which ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings”. This kind of Christianity, he warns, “is dangerously unbalanced”.

As usual, Pope Francis is trying to pull off a balancing act here. Clearly, Christianity does need to do a lot of “explaining” in the sense of apologetics. It has to offer reasons to believe, as in reasonable arguments. 

If anything, there isn’t enough apologetics today. It is a badly neglected area. Many Catholics cannot give convincing reasons for the faith they have in them and so retreat into a sort of private piety. On other hand a Christianity which is all words and no action would be completely unconvincing, an empty vessel.

There is also a need to balance optimism and realism. The temptation of the pessimist is towards defeatism and resignation. The temptation of the optimist is towards a sort of escapism that refuses to acknowledge real problems. 

In fact, Pope Francis frequently points out the problems of the world. His recent encyclical on the environment does exactly that. On the other hand, Pope Benedict’s encyclicals were about faith, hope and charity.

What this shows is how much tone matters. Benedict’s words were often optimistic but his tone and his presentation were not. Even when he is chastising the world, the basic tone of Pope Francis is optimistic and this helps to explain his huge popularity. 

But his optimism is of a ‘conservative’ counter-cultural variety in the sense that his basic vision of society seems to owe so much to the likes of Friedrich Schumacher and G.K. Chesterton.  Indeed, wasn’t Chesterton also noted for his basic optimism and wasn’t he also very popular, liked even by his opponents?