224. Why Zygmunt Bauman saw “the light at the end of the tunnel” in Pope Francis

“You are the light at the end of the tunnel.” This is how Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) addressed Pope Francis during their meeting in Assisi in 2016 on the sidelines of a Sant’Egidio (i.e. a Roman Catholic charity) peace initiative. In his conversation with Francis, Bauman said, “I have worked all my life to make humanity a more hospitable place. I arrived at the age of 91 and I have seen many false starts, until I became a pessimist. Thank you, because you are for me the light at the end of the tunnel.”
How did the sociologist most known for his books on the “liquid society” happen to see the “light” in the Pope? The book by Zeger Polhuijs, Zygmunt Bauman and Pope Francis in Dialogue: the Labyrinth of Liquid Modernity (Lanham, MD: Fortress Academic, 2022) examines the long-distance intellectual relationship between the two. Polhuijs is a Roman Catholic priest of the Community of Sant’Egidio and currently studies fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The book was presented at the Roman campus of the Australian Catholic University on 28th November 2023 and allows more digging into the matter.
Bauman’s attraction to Pope Francis is an episode that shows an interesting and widespread tendency in contemporary culture: how post-Marxist intellectuals, disillusioned by the failures of ideologies and preoccupied with the explosions of world fragmentation, find in Pope Francis a figure who, with his message of mercy, inclusion, and fraternity, instills hope in the general dullness.
Returning to Polhuijs’ book, it highlights how, in his examination of the ills of the contemporary world, Francis uses Bauman’s language and, conversely, the sociologist’s analyses overlap with the pope’s. There is a certain parallelism between them. Bauman, an agnostic, Jewish, post-Marxist, was attracted to Francis’ open and concrete thinking and the “transcendence” of the human fraternity he presents. In it, Bauman sees the awareness of the danger of the globalization of indifference, which is an effect of the liquid society, disengaged from traditional values and which has lost all sense of proximity. The antidote to liquidity is not a nostalgic and definitively lost solidity (Francis would call it “backwardism,” “clericalism,” “proselytism”), but solidarity among all: believers and non-believers. To contrast the adverse effects of liquid society, one does not need a common reference to God, but the appreciation of human fraternity.
For Bauman, Francis embodies this: not a reactionary religious voice saying to go back to traditional society or the Catholic church as the only agency that grants happiness for the afterlife, but an encouragement to connect with everyone by discovering the closeness of solidarity, regardless of one’s beliefs, religious commitments, or life practices. “The light at the end of the tunnel” is a new form of humanism that Francis seems to champion.
The proximity between Bauman and Pope Francis was indirectly observed by the conservative American intellectual George Weigel when he coined the term “liquid Roman Catholicism” as a description of the kind of Roman Catholicism that is emerging under Francis. Liquid Catholicism is marked by the uncertain teaching on doctrinal and moral subjects of primary importance; a kind of intolerance towards the pre-conciliar liturgy; the constant pickaxing of the Roman Catholic institution with repeated criticism of clericalism; the ways the Pope acts outside the box that destabilize customs; the welcoming and merciful message at the expense of the doctrinal and moral requirements of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, etc. All of this makes Francis a pope who is liquifying an institution that in the past has made its rocky and immutable structure a distinctive trait of its identity.
Liquid Catholicism embraces believers, non-believers, Christians, non-Christians, practicing and non-practicing religious people. The important thing is that all are included. Everyone, in his or her own way, will decide the ways and times of their participation, but the assumption is that everyone is already a participant. Not surprisingly, Roman Catholics accustomed to thinking of their Church in terms of doctrinal clarity, unambiguousness of interpretations, and predictability of practices are puzzled by Pope Francis.
The point I want to make is this. In Bauman’s attraction to Francis, he was not interested in God, the Bible, sin, Jesus Christ, and salvation; the sociologist remained agnostic and did not convert to Roman Catholicism or the Christian faith. He was interested in society’s degradation, for which the recipes of ideology advocated in his youth had proved unsuccessful. On the other hand, Francis did not challenge him to believe in God, just as he does not confront his interlocutors with the need for biblical conversion. The Pope encourages them and all to feel that they are “all brothers,” to welcome each other, to consider fraternity the source of transcendence, leaving each to regulate his relationship with God in his own way, should he be interested.
This kind of “catholicity”, i.e. liquid Catholicism, pleases the post-Marxist culture, which, from being anti-religious and atheistic, has now become agnostic, perhaps indifferent to the discourse about God, but still characterized by its humanitarian concerns. This is the common ground with Francis’ catholicity. It makes the pope a “popular” figure in the eyes of progressive culture because it grounds transcendence on horizontal relationships (God is not needed), exalts fraternity among fellow human beings (reconciliation with God is not sought), and encourages proximity with one another (without fellowship with God). It bypasses Jesus Christ who said: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Biblically speaking, then, is what Bauman found in Pope Francis the true light at the end of the tunnel, or is it instead not another shade of darkness?

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