Understanding the ‘gaze’ of Pope Francis

One of the parlor games of Catholic philosophers is placing a philosophical tag on the thought of various popes. Paul VI often reasoned as a “see/judge/act” pragmatist from the old Catholic Action. St. John Paul II—the easiest since he was a professional philosopher—was a synthesis of phenomenology and Thomism. Benedict XVI seemed broadly Augustinian. But Francis has proved more elusive. In reading his texts, I often have the impression that I am attending a performance in improvisational theater. Styles of argument rapidly change. This passage is right out of Aquinas, that one on equality is feminist, this romantic metaphor could walk off the pages of Chateaubriand, that maxim on interpersonal relations sounds like Ann Landers.

The exuberant eclecticism of Francis’ philosophy permeates “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia”), his recent apostolic exhortation on the family. A surprisingly Thomistic document, Thomas Aquinas makes 14 personal appearances in it. The distinction between the objective moral quality of an act and the subjective culpability of a moral agent is standard Thomistic moral doctrine. But as in his other messages, the Thomism in this sprawling text competes with a dozen other philosophical currents as the pope cobbles together his argument on the church’s response to families in crisis.

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As a social critic, Francis uses two related concepts with a contemporary philosophical stamp to describe the cultural problems that the church must face in promoting authentic familial love. They are “the culture of the ephemeral” and “the gaze.”

Building on his longstanding critique of our throwaway society, Francis criticizes the culture of the ephemeral, where human person are increasingly reduced to disposable objects of consumption. Love is not spared the denigration. “We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable, everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye.” The contemporary plague of prostitution, human trafficking and pornography graphically expresses this reduction of the human subject to a disposable object. But the practice of divorce also participates in this reduction inasmuch as the spouse—once a unique, irreplaceable partner—becomes a replaceable part in a series of liaisons.

Cultural historians have recently shown interest in the ephemeral. The Ephemera Society of America sponsors conferences on jar labels, old theater tickets and brand advertisements. Ephemeral studies programs focus on transient art forms, like chalk drawings and sand castles. Epistemologists are currently fascinated with ephemeral knowledge: writings and bits of knowledge designed for quick obliteration. Francis’ preoccupation with the culture of the ephemeral lies elsewhere. He laments a society where what should be enduring in human experience—lifelong fidelity, promise-keeping, sacrifice for the beloved—is swept away by narcissism and transient pleasure.

At the antipodes of this dehumanizing culture of the ephemeral lies the loving gaze. As in previous documents, Francis appeals to the visual sense for understanding authentic love. If Benedict XVI found God in hearing Mozart, Pope Francis finds God in looking at Caravaggio. “The aesthetic experience of love is expressed in that ‘gaze’ which contemplates other persons as ends in themselves, even if they are infirm, elderly or physically unattractive.” In this contemplative gaze of love, we grasp the uniqueness of each person and recognize intuitively why he or she is never an object, never an instrument to sate our own fleeting desires.

The concept of the gaze has had a long but troubled history in contemporary philosophy. For Lacan, the gaze is a source of anxiety, threatening our autonomy as we are reminded that we are being viewed. Foucault links the gaze to the power that punishes us. The feminist Laura Mulvey analyzes the male gaze, wherein women are judged and dismissed. But for Francis, the gaze of loving contemplation has nothing of the voyeur about it. The Francis gaze is a loving grasp of the unique dignity at the heart of each person and a persevering defense of that uniqueness against our reduction to just another cog in the machine.

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