On Loving Popes & Other Strangers, part 2

Declarations of love for everyone are a bluff. To love Everyman, an abstraction, is akin to loving no one. In our heart of hearts, we concede we cannot love anyone we do not know.

Love of neighbor binds us in kindliness to certain others. First among them are individuals we live among. These are family, followed by persons we abide with in friendship, encounter in daily life, greet in passing, conduct business with. St. Paul places “those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10) at the summit of a deserving hierarchy. Love of neighbor includes those who come to our attention along the path of our lives, as the Samaritan happened upon a beaten man on the road to Jericho.  Despite degrees of separation, they inhabit our orbit. Proximity need not bring warmth, but it entails fellowship, a solidarity which fertilizes community at its root. And animates charity.

But love for a remote office holder we have never met? Never shared a meal or an intimacy with? Never laughed, cried, or argued with? Someone whose distance from us precludes any possibility of that reciprocity implicit in the Golden Rule? A public figure to whom we exist as digits in an anonymous mass?

Love thy neighbor as thyself. Implicit here is recognition that love of self is the benchmark by which love of others is measured. But it is precisely love of self and of one’s own that rejects indiscriminate invocations of love. Stretch the word neighbor to embrace prominent ideologues whose ambitions, presumptions, and politics endanger the ground under our feet. What has love to do with them?

I wonder.


Pope Francis with Ban Ki-moon
Francis poses with Ban Ki-Moon at the UN where they joined to discuss the “moral issue” of climate change. (2015)


Love with the proper stranger?

Let us be honest: each pope is a stranger to us. A 24-hour news cycle brings an army of strangers into our homes daily. Our media familiarizes them to us round-the-clock. But that sense of familiarity is deceptive, a product of technology, press agentry, and marketing savvy. Modern communications invite us to project onto our popes a relationship, a conversance, that does not exist.

It is fitting for Catholics to hold sacred what a pope represents. But that is to revere his office, not necessarily the man who holds it. In our media-driven culture, a pope—certainly the current one—is what Daniel Boorstein called “a human pseudo-event.” On a popular level, Francis is one more A-list celebrity. And he works at being one, boosted by Vatican publicists with deep pockets for promotion.


Pope Francis and Leonardo DiCaprio
Francis bestowed a private audience on Leonardo DiCaprio, a self-described “actor and environmentalist” in 2016.


Wim Wenders’ Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (2018) was a vanity flick made to generate adulation for Francis himself. Not the Church, just the man. The project originated within the Vatican. It solicited Wenders, and commissioned the flattery. Sponsored content was camouflaged for consumption as a documentary. (With cinematography modeled on Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.)

On its heels came The Two Popes, a 2019 Netflix original. Brazilian director and film producer Fernando Meirelles approached Netflix with Anthony McCarten’s screenplay. The production company approved a $40-45 million budget for the film.

Perhaps Meirelles experienced an adrenaline rush at the thought of evangelizing moviegoers on a hermaneutic of continuity between the reactionary and the progressive. [That shared pizza in the papal dressing room! A sign of seamless communion between the old-liner and a forward-thinker!] Perhaps Netflix sniffed a grand slam at the box office with a bromance between two talking heads in clerical costume. Anything is possible. More feasible, though, is a hunch that The Two Popes was as much a Vatican-initiated, and funded, contrivance as Wenders’ picture show.


Our pope is popularized by the same marketing tools used to sell products, habits, political postures, and candidates. The man is packaged for consumption within a constellation of qualities designed to appeal to a targeted audience. Papa Francis, Pope of Peace and protector of biomes, is the face of the current papal brand much as fictional Betty Crocker was the face of General Mills.

In a culture of celebrity, impressions made by a calculated image obscure the reality of individuals themselves. We become fans of a pope. But call it love.


Pope Francis and Wim Wenders
Francis with legendary filmmaker Wim Wenders in 2018.

•    •    •    •    •

A slippery assumption

Jesus’ summons to love comes to us detached from its ancient setting as well as from those unsparing words we gingerly refer to as Jesus’ “hard” sayings.” That isolation bequeaths us a paradox that brings tension with it, even anguish. Only sentimentality guarantees satisfaction. In much customary religious discourse—theological belles lettres, buttered homilies—the word love earns comparison with Thomas Mann’s comment on the word sinned: “In certain contexts [it is] a half jovial, familiar, and mildly facetious word.”

We take for granted Jesus was speaking to all humanity, in all circumstances, and for all times when he said, “Love your enemies.” We do not question the assumption that he was laying down an immutable principle, commanding a totalizing ethic to be followed regardless of consequences to a people. When have you heard a sermon that proffered Jesus’ injunction in terms of a reasoned commendation of the inner disposition needed by his own people to sustain themselves under occupation?


Roman legionary about to kill a barbarian.
Roman legionary about to kill a barbarian. Detail of an imperial sarcophagus (c 251 AD).


Common instruction on the theme overrides the historical understanding that should precede it. Jesus’ listeners were first century Jews living under the hated heel of Rome. Hearing the Sermon on the Mount, the audience knew their enemy by name. In an oral culture, memory is keen. Doubtless the crowd remembered the two thousand Jews crucified by Publius Varus in retribution for the revolt in Judea following the death of Herod the Great not quite 40 years earlier. Certainly all knew the purposes of Golgotha.

Removing Jesus’ words from their historical context inhibits recognition of his admonition as  clear-eyed means for a subject people to cope with their oppressor. Imperial Rome was an all-powerful occupying force. To turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to “love”—in short, to craft a non-retaliatory modus vivendi—was the hinge on which depended the survival of a vulnerable people against a dominant, alien intruder.


Arch of Titus
Detail of the Arch of Titus on the Roman Forum. The relief shows the booty taken by Emperor Titus after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The menorah and other objects from the Temple were carried in triumphal procession. (1st C. AD)


The opportune wisdom of “love your enemies” was thrown into relief by the carnage and devastation of 70 AD. Rome responded pitilessly to the Jewish uprising. It laid siege to Jesus’ beloved Jerusalem, ravaged the city, and demolished the Second Temple. “Everywhere was slaughter,” wrote Josephus, a witness to events:

Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom.

Dehistoricizing Jesus’ dictum impedes our ability to heed it prudently in the present. This is not to say that his words must be restricted to an historically fleeting situation. Not at all. It is just that applying those words to our time, our own dangers—cultural no less than geopolitical—is more complex, more fraught with challenge and uncertainty, than it pleases us to believe.

N.T. Wright phrased things this way:

The Sermon on the Mount…makes excellent sense in a Palestinian setting in the first third of the first century [i.e. before the Jewish revolt of 66-70 A.D.]. There is no need to force this material into a post-70, let alone a non-Jewish, setting. It addresses directly the question people were asking: how to be faithful to YHWH in a time of great stress and ambiguity, a time when many thought the climax of Israel’s history was upon them…. The question of how to apply the sermon to different times and places is another matter, and cannot be allowed to dictate the question of historical origins. (Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996)


medieval manuscript illustration of fall of Jeusalem
Fall of Jerusalem. Manuscript illustration in “Hours of the Virgin” (14th C.)