With his extraordinary Urbi et Orbi address on Friday, Pope Francis gave us what are likely to be the defining images of the coronavirus crisis—akin to President George W. Bush’s bullhorn speech from the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11 or Saint John Paul II rousing the Polish throngs toiling under communism in 1979.
And what images they were: Peter’s successor walking, limping, alone, toward Peter’s basilica; the normally bustling square, empty, plunged in darkness save for the canopy lights illuminating Francis; behind him, the roughly carved, austerely medieval Miraculous Crucifix, protector of the Romans when plague last struck; the pitter-patter of rain all around, drenching that crucified body, in an echo of John 19:34 (“one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once, there came out blood and water”); the Blessed Sacrament shining forth in the golden monstrance against that eerie blue background.
Though stark, these images were ultimately soothing, a reminder that the Catholic Church, Christ in corporate form, shall endure. As it bested and survived Julian the Apostate and Napoleon and Stalin’s divisions and sundry plagues through the millennia, so it will endure the coronavirus, too; Francis made visible the living rock of Peter’s faith.
We long to be soothed. But it would be a mistake to permit that longing to distract us from the Argentine pontiff’s piercingly insightful message, his spiritual diagnosis of a biological disease ailing humankind. Francis sought to comfort his flock, yes. “God,” he reminded us, “brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.” Yet his words of comfort went hand-in-hand with a call to repentance, redolent of Jeremiah and Hosea.
The depth of our sense of helplessness before the present crisis, Francis suggested, is a measure of our modern overconfidence in “ordinary” times. The pandemic, Francis said,
exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.
In this world, . . . we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.
The coronavirus address thus echoed a constant theme of this pontificate, one which utterly confounds the media narrative of the “liberal” pope and which both his self-proclaimed spokesmen and his “conservative” critics prefer to ignore. As he had already revealed in his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis is a severe critic of liberal autonomism: the Enlightenment vision of humanity unbound, confidently bestriding the globe—with scientific-technical expertise under one arm and economic efficiency under the other.
The crisis exposes the “false . . . certainties we have constructed around which we have constructed our . . . projects.” “The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls.” “We have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything.”
What are these words, if not an indictment of the whole modern spirit that has tried to substitute humanity's achievements—what we could know with our senses, measure with our instruments, express in mathematical language, and construct in space—for the whole of truth? And why would Francis choose to draw attention to the poverty of the modern scientistic worldview, that scaffolding of the liberal order, at this moment—just when public confidence in that scaffolding and that order is in free fall?
No, Pope Francis is not a liberal. Let those who constantly rail against him without listening to his words finally listen.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post. He is finishing a book exploring 12 questions our culture doesn’t ask.