In the wake of the fading honeymoon between the media and Pope Francis, excitement is more universally giving way to a sense of uneasiness. In the beginning, it seemed they not only found an ideological Pope, but one whose ideologies were identical with their own; an answered prayer for the left-leaning news industry. This was so comically seen on the cover of The Advocate, a pro-homosexual marriage publication, with a bright profile of Pope Francis next to his infamous “who am I to judge” quote. But like the pervading familial breakdown that Francis decries, the marriage between him and the MSM was bound to end in divorce.
For example, the popular perception that Pope Francis is bent on pulling the rug out from under the Catholic hierarchy doesn’t quite gel with his excommunication of the Australian priest who advocated for women’s ordination and homosexual marriage. His alleged sympathies for homosexual marriage doesn’t fit with his call for every child to have a mother and father. He denounced abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research as “sins against God.” Yet, his harsh criticisms of capitalism are no secret. It would seem he is playing both conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat; and Americans find it a very foolish strategy.
But the evidence for something neither conservative nor liberal at the root of the Pontiff’s thought is abundant because it centers on a theme which consistently appears in his public discourse. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelium Gaudium, His Holiness remarks “Our world is being torn apart by wars and violence, and wounded by a widespread individualism which divides human beings, setting them against one another as they pursue their own well-being.” He later added this individualism creates economic inequality. This January, he claimed the love of a mother is an antidote to individualism and war. Similarly, without brothers and sisters “freedom and equality can be filled with individualism and conformity,” he said this February.
So, he has made clear what’s in his cross-hairs: individualism. Admittedly, there is nothing exciting about bashing “individualism.” It is another amorphous concept which carries none of the polemics of, say, gun-control. None of our politicians are waging “support individualism” campaigns or creating Individualism Awareness month, so we lower volume on this point. There is a reason “who am I to judge” was so widely publicized and the above comments were brushed off. But to dismiss this as a mere platitude, as banal rhetoric that finds little practical relevance would reveal a profound ignorance of the American society that encapsulates all that it means to be an individualist.
This crucial piece of the pope’s thought crosses partisan lines, challenging both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. To the irritation of Republicans, he seems to be aligned with the environmentalist crusade: “The effective struggle against global warming will only be possible with a responsible collective answer…” He explained that individualism leads to tyranny over the environment. But he has found the same individualism in liberal ideologies; he claimed contemporary gender-theory exhibits an extreme autonomy of the individual from God and nature. Apparently, despite which side of the aisle we sit on, Americans are bound to be offended by the Holy Father’s comments because he fundamentally denies what we take as a presupposition.
And what presupposition is that? Let us consider some of the most prized virtues in American society. We believe in hard work, determination, and ingenuity. We pull ourselves up by our boot straps, and we succeed. But notice how none of this implies fraternal charity, it doesn’t require any love for neighbor. Thus, the engines of the American economy are fueled by the self-starter, and anyone who can’t play the game is shoved to the wayside. Moreover, consider the importance we attribute to the dictum “be yourself.” It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, only your opinion of yourself counts. Remember the cliché posters in your elementary school encouraging you to “be different” and “express yourself.” See the rise of the “hipster,” the one who shuns labels and conformity, anything conventional, so as to be supremely unique. Our culture thrives on the rebel, the independent, the one who disregards social norms. It is no wonder that when the Pope suggests limiting free speech, as he did when commenting on the Charlie Hebdo shootings, we can’t help but wince.
We have some very good examples of individualists. It is Henry David Thoreau isolated from the world at Walden Pond. It is that classic icon, the gritty cowboy with no family or friends, drifting from town to town. One only needs a passing familiarity with American culture to see our hero, from John Wayne to Jason Bourne, is always the rugged individualist; one man against the world.
Our proclivity for individualism is more than just a trend. It runs deep in the American psyche. Consider these words of that darling of American conservatism, the philosopher Ayn Rand:
I am done with this creed of corruption. I am done with the monster of “We,” the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: “I.”
The Pope has no such allegiance to Ayn Rand and her golden calf, and I believe this is precisely why Americans are so befuddled by him. Some part of us shares Rand’s sentiment. Some part of us is captivated by the self-made man who achieves success on his own, accountable only to himself. But the absolute autonomy which enchants us is precisely what His Holiness rejects. So, when his social and economic statements are seen in this light, they are entirely harmonious. A healthy, loving family is the ultimate contradiction to pure autonomy; when economic pistons are moved only by self-interest, fraternal charity is indeed lost.
However, beneath his many soundbytes, it seems the Pope is asking a deeper question: what is the price of our obsession with autonomy? In searching for absolute independence, have we not found ourselves painfully alone? He remarks in Evangelii Gaudium that individualism ironically does the most damage to the individual by trapping him in isolation, but he also provides an antidote:
Today, our challenge is not so much atheism as the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God, lest they try to satisfy it with alienating solutions or with a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing of us with regard to others. Unless these people find in the Church a spirituality which can offer healing and liberation, and fill them with life and peace, while at the same time summoning them to fraternal communion and missionary fruitfulness, they will end up by being taken in by solutions which neither make life truly human nor give glory to God.”
 EG 99.
 EG 89.