Politically, the United States is facing a crisis of the real. Yes, we confront political realities of an urgency and scale not witnessed in more than a generation—from ecological death and pandemic to the rise of authoritarian nationalism and militarized violence against Black citizens. In the midst of these calamities, millions of Americans struggle to discern real news from fake, science from conspiracy theory, political wisdom from magical thinking. As reality grows more and more menacing, fewer Americans are in touch with it. Politicians indulge nostalgic fantasies to distract our attention and shift the blame.
But we also face a crisis of the real in a very different sense. Namely, the politics presented for decades by serious politicos and wonks as the only “realistic” way forward seems with every passing day more unsustainable. Our entire way of life seems at once unchangeable and yet in need of radical intervention, lest we continue the downward spiral.
This paradoxical predicament was trenchantly observed by the British theorist Mark Fisher over a decade ago in his book Capitalist Realism. Fisher defines “capitalist realism” as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative.” Yet Fisher also suggests that the very crises generated by capitalism—if discerned properly—might awaken us from the trance. Once the realist fantasy is dispelled, the political imagination will be free to dream of quite different futures.
Pope Francis embraces a utopianism that is not grounded in violent struggle but in a deeply Christological hope for the transformation of people and communities—from the bottom up.
This problem of imagining more hopeful futures amid a self-destructive, unrealistic “realism” provides a key to unlocking the politics of Pope Francis, whose pastoral letters and encyclicals have stirred confusion and controversy among conservatives and liberals alike. Unlike Marxists including Fisher, Pope Francis embraces a utopianism that is not grounded in violent struggle but in a deeply Christological hope for the transformation of people and communities—from the bottom up. With the much-anticipated release of Pope Francis’s new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” on Oct. 4, Catholic Christians would do well to revisit his critique of false realism and false nostalgia, and his call for the church to foster a political attitude of faithful and daring dreaming.
In his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” and his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis has already inveighed against the dominant form of popular economic theory that presents financialized global capitalism as the given, inescapable order of things. For Francis, the attempt to naturalize certain aspects of capitalism does not simply rest on false descriptions of reality, but also hides a grave spiritual danger. Once capitalism appears as the only realistic way of life, many Christians succumb to the temptation to view it as the work and will of God. Capitalism is then deified and the distinction between the city of God and the city of man is erased.
For example, in “Evangelii Gaudium,” Francis writes that the “trickle-down” theory of economic distribution—often presented as a scientific finding of economics—“has never been confirmed by the facts” and “expresses a crude and naïve trust in…the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” All the consequences of unregulated free markets, from extreme poverty and homelessness to environmental degradation, appear as the reality of the world governed by God’s will. In Francis’ words, all bow before the golden calf of a “deified market” that consumes the weak and defenseless with indifference.
In his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” and his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis has already inveighed against the dominant form of popular economic theory that presents financialized global capitalism as the given, inescapable order of things.
Likewise, in “Laudato Si’,” Francis observes that the common faith of free-market economists in “infinite or unlimited growth…is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods.” Here the danger is not naturalization of an artificial order but a disordered relationship to creation. Rather than nature being understood as a precious and finite gift to be cared for, the world appears as a system of objects to be exploited ceaselessly for the extraction of material value. Francis condemns the “magical conception of the market” that allows capitalists to say: “Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.”
In his post-synodal exhortation to young people, “Christus Vivit,” Francis adds a final and surprising element to his critique of capitalism’s false realism. Namely, he turns his attention to the way consumer culture enlists young people into a “cult of youth” that worships the “idol” of the youthful body and renders them more manipulable for financial and political profit. In the mirages of celebrity, fashion and entertainment, the past no longer exists and the future never arrives, leaving the young marooned in the escapist dream of an eternal present. What presents itself as the reality of youthful, ageless bodies is in fact a damaging fantasy.
As Francis explains, the young are taught to “look down on the past” and only to gaze toward a future, blinded by amnesia, “as if the world were just starting now.” Yet the “future paradise” held out before them “seems increasingly distant.” They lose their freedom and energy as their strength is sapped by an endless series of hyperreal images. What Francis calls “cultural colonization” ends with commodifying and homogenizing youths and turning their lives into “malleable goods.” To resist this fate, not only the young but all the church’s faithful must recuperate the practice of authentic hope and dreaming.
Pope Francis is concerned that the young are taught to “look down on the past” and only to gaze toward a future, blinded by amnesia, “as if the world were just starting now.”
Faithful Christians as Youthful Dreamers
Part of what has made Pope Francis’ politics so difficult to grasp is his refusal to limit himself to an abstract ideological platform. Instead, the Holy Father asks the faithful to go deeper, to even undergo a conversion in how they relate to politics. This is a spiritual stance that refuses to idolize either present realities or some past golden age and instead asks us to risk a dream of very different political futures.
In this way, Francis participates in the long tradition of Christian social utopianism. Beginning with St. Thomas More and sustained up through Dorothy Day, Christian utopianism has deployed the imagination to criticize current politics radically while daring to propose a sweeping vision of an alternative future. Like More’s, the pope’s utopianism is not a simple progressivism that assumes history will automatically ascend to enlightenment by necessity, as in liberalism or Marxism. But neither does utopianism accept the cultural pessimism or civilizational nostalgia one often encounters among Catholic conservatives in America. The Christian utopian sees all the violence and injustice of the current order with open eyes, but rather than make tactical compromises with the powers that be, insists on a complete transformation of our social world out of fidelity to Christian hope.
Pope Francis does not dictate the content of these dreams to us. Instead, he exhorts his flock to engage in the creative work of dreaming together with him. This stance of faithful, hopeful and critical dreaming is newly evident in “Christus Vivit”from March 2019, and “Querida Amazonia”from February 2020. For Pope Francis, utopian dreaming not only counteracts the world’s false realisms—which posit that the current state of affairs, however violent or unjust, simply “is what it is.” It also dethrones the false, consumer cult of youth and replaces it with a true cult of youth, that of Jesus Christ.
For Pope Francis, utopian dreaming not only counteracts the world’s false realisms—which posit that the current state of affairs, however violent or unjust, simply “is what it is.”
It is almost comical to have to state it clearly: “Jesus was a young person…in today’s terms, a young adult.” And the risen Lord remains young to this day. In the new life of the resurrection, Jesus only intensifies his inherent youth as “the true youthfulness of a world grown old.” Francis continues: “Jesus, himself eternally young, wants to give us hearts that are ever young.” God wants to replace our old selves with new selves, old leaven with new leaven. Indeed, God promises to make “all things new.”
Youth is a spiritual reality more than a purely biological one. The youthfulness of Jesus Christ is his willingness to dream the Father’s “creative dream” of communion and solidarity. The kingdom of heaven is a communion of those spiritually young enough to remain ever-open to imagining the future. But mysteriously, Jesus is also himself God’s dream: “Jesus can bring all the young people of the Church together in a single dream…. A dream whose name is Jesus, planted by the Father in the confidence that it would grow and live in every heart. A concrete dream who is a person, running through our veins, thrilling our hearts and making them dance.” The church’s youth does not come from the world’s new ideas but from the power of the Spirit and the Eucharist.
To remain faithfully young means feeling a “healthy restlessness” that makes one bold enough to venture “trials and experiments.” The young possess a “certain audacity” and “critical spirit.” Youthful dreamers are “meant to dream great things…to take on the world”.” In a striking passage in “Christus Vivit,” Pope Francis underscores his remarks from the 2013 World Youth Day:
Young people taking to the streets! The young want to be protagonists of change. Please, do not leave it to others to be protagonists of change. You are the ones who hold the future! Through you, the future enters into the world…. I ask you to build the future, to work for a better world. Dear young people, please, do not be bystanders in life. Get involved! Jesus was not a bystander. He got involved. Don’t stand aloof, but immerse yourself in the reality of life, as Jesus did.
Likewise Francis urges the spiritually “retired” not to mock the daring dreams of the youthful in their midst. “Jesus had no use for adults who looked down on the young,” Francis pointedly observes. “A Church always on the defensive…loses her youth and turns into a museum,” he adds. But the utopianism of the young keeps the church humble, attentive to God and close to the poor.
Pope Francis asks the church to disentangle itself from the world’s moribund realisms, which only serve to excuse our indifference to the weakest and poorest all around us.
Christian Politics of the Future
Pope Francis asks the young to risk their utopian dreams as gifts to the church, and he is not afraid to add his own. He tells us that God granted him a “renewed youth” following his election to the papacy. In “Querida Amazonia,” Francis utters his own youthful dream, a utopian program if ever there were one, strengthened by a lifetime spent exercising his imagination in Ignatian contemplation. The letter opens with a fourfold dream that mirrors the dimensions of Francis’ integral ecology in “Laudato Si’”: economic, cultural, environmental and ecclesial.
“I dream,” he writes, “of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters,” even as global capitalists have ruined local economies across Latin America for decades. He dreams of a region that hastens to defend the dignity of indigenous cultures, even as European Catholics openly mocked them during the synod. He dreams of preserving the overwhelming beauty of the Amazon, even as unprecedented fires rage through its heart—a fragile, impossible “dream made of water.” And he dreams of a future church “giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features,” particularly the faces of women.
Pope Francis asks the church to disentangle itself from the world’s moribund realisms, which only serve to excuse our indifference to the weakest and poorest all around us. His politics are neither liberal nor conservative, but a vision of fraternity grounded in utopian hope. We can remain frightened, grasping at the security of a sentimentalized past. We can remain captive to the market logic of the present, unable to imagine an alternative to its endless cycles of violence. Or we can devote ourselves to the task of earnest, daring and hopeful dreaming of a radically different future, awaiting the most unexpected solidarities to come.