Cancel Culture, a term of recent origin often possessing a negative connotation, usually occurs after a person’s offensive words or harmful actions become public. The outcry from the public can lead to the person’s loss of employment, status, and/or reputation—thereby becoming cancelled.
Those who bemoan Cancel Culture generally decry the cancellation, paying little to no attention to what preceded it, which often involves racism or misogyny. They attempt to cancel Cancel Culture, disregarding the evils of racist and misogynistic behavior in society.
While there are counterarguments and examples that suggest the trend of Cancel Culture results in hasty and sometimes incommensurate measures, attempting to end Cancel Culture in order to avoid due consequence for unacceptable and immoral behavior evades accountability and hinders conversion for the sake of not discomforting one’s ego. At times these consequences may feel unwarranted to the recipient, such as the loss of employment for an imprudent joke or reference. But the consequences might not be an end in themselves but could provide a means for self-improvement—an opportunity to grow from one’s missteps and employ greater moral discernment. Growth often occurs at the expense of personal comfort.
We should not forget that Jesus calls us to accountability, conversion, and discomfort. After all, he taught us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
When we choose to follow Christ, we agree to let go of any person, behavior, habit, or desire that prevents us from following through on this path. Self-denial includes self-cancelling the obstacles to our growth in the faith. If we truly love Jesus above all else, and if he is truly the Lord of our life, we can let go of these areas freely since these are competing idols to Christ’s lordship in our hearts.
In the First Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola reminds us that the purpose of our lives is to praise, reverence, and serve God, and to the extent the created things of this world get in the way of this purpose, then we need to get rid of them (SpEx 23). We need to cancel our ties to any and all disordered attachments that hinder our desire to follow Christ.
Jesus describes God as the vine grower who removes every branch that does not bear fruit (cf. John 15:1-2). In order to remain united to Jesus the Vine, we must allow God to cancel from within us any part of us that blocks this growth.
The Daily Examen is an Ignatian prayer that is helpful in this effort. During the Examen, which is broader than simply examining our sins, we give thanks to God and ask for the Spirit’s guidance to review our day with God. We reflect on where God was present in our day, the ways we responded to God or turned away from God, the actions that brought us closer to God or drew us further from God. We ask God for healing and forgiveness for the times we missed the opportunity to love God, self, and neighbor. We rejoice in the times we responded to God’s invitation. We ask God for the strength to begin anew.
The Examen allows us to discern what in our daily life is drawing us away from God so that we can cancel the grip these impediments have in our lives in order to progress on our path toward Christ.
Typically, Cancel Culture occurs when someone’s misdeeds are revealed in the public forum, and the person causing harm resists the public outcry rather than expressing contrition for wrongs and accepting consequences for their actions. There are instances when cancellation is an appropriate consequence, one that the offender ought to accept with humility and an authentic desire to change.
There are those who conflate the “victimhood” of Cancel Culture with Jesus being “cancelled,” or with the early Christians and saints who imitated Christ. However, Jesus and these martyrs died for witnessing to the Law written on our hearts, the very Law that denounces the racism and misogyny often committed by those who are cancelled.
Jesus cancels our debt of sin. But Jesus doesn’t cancel people—he offers the opportunity to return to him, just as with Peter after he denied him (cf. Matthew 26:69-75; John 21:15-18). Those who seek to cancel others ought to learn from Jesus the importance of offering a bridge of reconciliation through rehabilitation to those guilty of committing harm. The guilty party must be given the opportunity to either participate in restoration or accept the verdict of cancellation.
In the Christian tradition, a fallen person is not once and forever “cancelled.” Even Pope Francis pronounced, “no one can be condemned forever.” Should someone choose to repent and amend their ways, they can become an extraordinary witness.
I would invite anyone who is cancelled to consider the life of Jorge Bergoglio as an example that being cancelled is not necessarily the end.
Fr. Bergoglio rose through the ranks as a young Jesuit, beginning a six-year term as provincial superior at the age of 36. According to a 2015 profile in The Atlantic by Paul Valley focusing on this period of Pope Francis’s life, his tenure as provincial marked a period of division among the Argentinean Jesuits, polarized during the time of Vatican II and political turmoil. The young Bergoglio, who later admitted being inexperienced to be the provincial during this pivotal time, exerted both a reactionary and authoritarian rule that created a wedge with his more progressive counterparts. Following his tenure as provincial, he served as rector of the Jesuit theologate in Buenos Aires until 1986, utilizing the same mode of ruling as he did when he was the provincial.
Years of division in the Argentinean province resulted in a turmoil that reached the Jesuit Curia in Rome, resulting in Bergoglio’s two-year exile in Córdoba, 400 miles away from Buenos Aires. Pope Francis later recalled this period as one of his three “personal Covids” (Let Us Dream, 39).
Córdoba was a time of silence and solitude for Bergoglio. The superiors permitted him to hear confessions but not to celebrate Mass in public at the Jesuit parish, nor did they permit Bergoglio to make phone calls without permission or receive letters without them being screened. “Cordoba was, for Bergoglio, a place of humility and humiliation,” noted Fr. Guillermo Marcó, who eventually became Bergoglio’s assistant in the archdiocese of Buenos Aires.
But this time of humiliation gave Bergoglio the opportunity to grow in “greater tolerance, the ability to forgive, understanding, more empathy for the powerless, and especially patience.” This was a time of purification for Bergoglio, and this period of suffering enabled his heart to grow and change.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II appointed Bergoglio as the auxiliary bishop to Buenos Aires, effectively ending his cancellation. Following the period of purification in Córdoba, according to Valley, “he had totally remodeled his approach to being a leader. His style became delegatory and participative. And his manner was distinctly different. He developed what became one of his best-known habits: ending all encounters by asking the other person to pray for him.” Bergoglio learned from his missteps as an immature provincial to become a gentle, humble shepherd in imitation of Christ.
Bergoglio’s episcopacy in Buenos Aires drew him closer to the poor. Known as the Bishop of the Slums, daily walking among the alleys and greeting people by name. According to Father Guillermo Marcó, he “doesn’t see the poor as people he can help but rather as people from whom he can learn. … He believes the poor are closer to God than the rest of us.” The poor left such a profound impression that Bergoglio chose the name of Francis.
Monseñor Bergoglio’s love for the poor surprised the Jesuits who had known him as provincial and rector. Fr. Rafael Velasco, one of Bergoglio’s former pupils, reflected, “Bergoglio had been so very conservative that I was rather shocked years later when he started talking about the poor. It wasn’t something which seemed at the top of his agenda at the time but clearly became so as a bishop. Something changed.” Monseñor Bergoglio sounded like the liberation theologians he had once opposed, as he demanded justice for the poor during the Argentinian debt crisis of 2001.
While Bergoglio might have experienced cancellation, he cooperated with the Spirit and allowed that period to be one of purification, leading him to be a bishop with a heart for the poor, and later elected to be a pope with the heart of Christ.
Pope Francis exemplifies that Cancel Culture is not the end, but an opportunity for conversion and growth. Choosing to humbly accept the circumstances and allow the Spirit to transform him during this time of purification allowed him to recognize this period as a grace and not solely a punishment. This is not only a lesson for those experiencing cancellation. All of us can take the time to reflect with God on what changes we need to make and to surrender to the Spirit’s activity to create a new heart. Cancellation is not necessarily the end. It can be the beginning of transformation. “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). May we learn to surrender to these opportunities to allow God to prune us so that God may transform us into Christ.
Image: Lawrence OP. Feed My Sheep. Via Flickr. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)