During these first eight years of Pope Francis’s time on the Chair of Peter, one theme that has come up again and again is the periphery. Francis made “going to the peripheries” a priority—perhaps even the priority—of his pontificate very early on, and we have devoted a great deal of attention to it at Where Peter Is. Indeed, as Mike Lewis explained on the website’s first anniversary, “[o]ur mission is to inspire Catholics and other Christians to go ‘where Peter is’ — not just to follow his teachings from Rome, but to be led and inspired by his message to go to the peripheries and shine the light of Christ to the entire world.” My first article for this website was about the concept of the peripheries, using the example of Catholicism in Japan. The Church in Japan has come up in the Catholic press several times in the past eight years in varying contexts (most notably on the release of the movie Silence and Francis’s pastoral visit to Japan—more on that below).
There are also more abstract examples of people on the peripheries, such as prisoners or the LGBT community or even anti-Francis traditionalist groups like the Society of St. Pius X. There seems to be at least one memorable example of Pope Francis ministering or doing what the secular world calls “outreach” to each of these peripheries. An awful lot of people in this world have felt alienated or at least unaddressed by the mainstream Catholic culture in recent decades (or even the past several centuries). While not everyone has needs that the Church or the papacy can or even should address, many do.
Francis has been limited in what he can say to or do for some of these groups—LGBT people, for instance, have become accustomed to decidedly mixed signals from the Francis-era Church—but dialogue is happening in several arenas where, so to speak, no Pope has engaged in dialogue before. Some of these conversations have gone better than others. I don’t think the SSPX is especially pleased with the direction of the Francis pontificate, for example, despite his having extended several new capacities to their priests during the Year of Mercy. Yet in each case the driving principle has been to go to the peripheries, to go down pathways that lead out from the traditional core of Catholicism towards the areas of our shared world that do not know Christ.
The paradigmatic periphery remains the geographic periphery, those parts of the world where Catholicism is not fully embedded in the culture. Likewise, the word “periphery” can also refer to other things, like economics (the periphery of industrialization and capitalism) or world politics (the periphery of the great powers). Often, the Francis papacy associates the religious periphery with one of these other meanings—an association made easier by the fact that much of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa or South and Southeast Asia, is peripheral in multiple senses.
Several of Francis’s international trips as Pope have had an indubitably “peripheral” focus. At this point in his papacy, he has made thirty-three international pastoral visits to at least fifty countries. One common thread I have noticed is that his visits to traditionally Catholic countries—such as Chile and Ireland—often do not go that well, whether because many of these countries are reeling from the sex abuse crisis that has defined much of the past three papacies or for other reasons. His trips to places like Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, and Iraq, on the other hand, often involve more receptive audiences, less morally compromised local churches, and issues of peace and development on which he is generally on firm ground. I followed his trip to Japan especially closely due to my longstanding interest in and familiarity with the country. I wrote about it for Where Peter Is several times, and my “Loneliness Today” series—which I worked on for over six months—was inspired by topics that came up at a meeting between Francis and a group of Japanese young adults.
I can think of several reasons why Francis’s trips to “peripherally” Catholic countries tend to go better than his trips to Catholic heartlands. Most of these reasons come down to: this is the way the Spirit is moving in our times. Much of the once-fervently Catholic world is starting to look and feel similar to the “Burned-Over District” of Upstate New York, which underwent so many religious revivals in the first half of the nineteenth century that the local populace eventually got exhausted and sent the traveling preachers packing. Catholicism in many parts of Africa and Asia, on the other hand, can still come across in much the same way it did when the world was young. Francis’s pontificate is keenly aware of this phenomenon and—I would argue—in many ways conforms itself to it.
There are situations where this pontificate’s peripheral focus has led it to make questionable political decisions. I’m not going to go out on a limb defending, for instance, the Vatican-China pact, largely since I don’t think we’ve seen enough of how it will work out in the lives of Chinese believers. As the Church finds itself growing into new societies and new parts of the world, the human element of the Church finds itself making the sorts compromises with those societies that the human element of the Church has always made from time to time. I don’t mean this as an excuse; I’ve struggled immensely to make sense of events in Catholic history like the Fourth Crusade and the Reichskonkordat. The peripheries are in some ways more spiritually fecund places now than the old core. This does not mean that they are “better” places or have fewer problems. Suggestions otherwise strike me as infantilizing rather than open-minded.
One especially important event in Francis’s pontificate that had a focus on the peripheries was the 2019 Amazon Synod. Coverage of this synod in both secular and Catholic media was dominated by two subjects: the question of ordaining married men to the priesthood in remote regions, and allegations that a small wooden statue used in a ritual in the Vatican Gardens was a representation of an Andean (not Amazonian) goddess called Pachamama. Both of these subjects caused no small amount of angst, among Catholics who both supported and opposed the synod’s work. Both subjects had a connection with the Church’s peripheries. This was more obvious in the case of the “Pachamama,” but the idea of ordaining married men also that involves the peripheries because, as I will discuss below, it involves questions of inculturation.
The reactions against the Amazon Synod also often took on a racist cast, or at least bore unfortunate affinities with racist tendencies found in South American clashes between church and state. The synod occurred almost simultaneously with a coup against Bolivia’s pro-indigenous President Evo Morales, who had a troubled relationship with the local Church. Morales, like Yugoslavia’s Tito in the previous century, believed in a mixed market economy under the vigorous direction of a socially activist state machinery, preferably in the hands of a charismatic and personalist leader (himself). His rule lifted hundreds of thousands of Bolivians, especially indigenous people, out of poverty and made Bolivia a regional power player; unfortunately, along with this went increasing heavy-handedness that came to a head in his attempt to get himself elected to a fourth term—in violation of the Bolivian Constitution. It was at this point that he was forced to resign. Overstaying one’s welcome and getting overthrown in right-wing coups are both proud traditions for South American populist leaders and Morales combined them in characteristically grand style.
Things could have gone well for Bolivia after his ouster had it not been for the intensely racist and religiously supremacist views of the short-lived right-wing government that succeeded Morales. “Pachamama will never return to the Presidential Palace,” one of the anti-Morales leaders proclaimed, in a moment whose assonances with the histrionics going on among conservative churchmen struck—and still strike—me as intentional. Thus it became difficult not to see the Pachamama-baiting as motivated by discomfort with the inclusion of non-Western cultures as full partners in the life of the Church. “Pachamama is a demon,” Cardinal Burke flatly asserted at one point, because if anybody in the Church is an expert on Andean paganism, it’s Cardinal Burke.
One subject related to inculturation discussed at the synod, the idea of an “Amazonian Rite” in the Catholic Church, did not make into the Querida Amazonia exhortation; however, the fact that it was discussed at all is significant. There are currently two “uses” within the Latin Rite to which a future “Amazonian Rite” or “Amazonian Use” might be in some ways analogous. The Zaire Use, approved in 1988, is used in parts of Central Africa and contains inculturation-driven modifications of the Ordinary Form. The Anglican Use, authorized in 1980, is also inculturated, but (uniquely) the culture in question, that of High Church Anglicanism and English Christianity in general, is well within the mainstream of the developed Western world already.
The Anglican Use also has an obvious ecumenical dimension inherent in its very name; this actually is not unique, since most of the Eastern Catholic rites were originally Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox churches that returned to communion with the Bishop of Rome in early modernity. This ecumenical dimension has in the past involved incorporation of non-Christian philosophical schools into the life of the faithful, most famously in Pius XII’s resolution to the centuries-long Chinese Rites Controversy in 1939. Thus, although the Amazonian Rite idea raised concerns and generated pushback at the synod and after it, it would not be an unprecedented way of handling concerns around inculturation. Peripheral cultural and religious identities have been represented in the diversity of Catholic liturgical practice for longer than most Catholics realize.
One possible reason for Francis’s emphasis on peripheries might be a perception that the Church itself is becoming a more peripheral institution. Its traditional heartland of Western Europe is now largely post-Christian, while it is in decline in the Americas. Its growth areas in Africa and Asia are themselves peripheral players in global economies and global popular culture. Traditionalists often cite Benedict XVI’s prophecy that “the Church will become small” as a mandate for a smaller and purer religion, but I think that the emphasis on peripheries stems from the same insight. It’s possible that by the end of this century, practicing Catholics will make up a much smaller percentage of the world’s population than we do today.
The dangers of this situation are obvious, but it also presents opportunities. John F. Kennedy’s famous remark that “the Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity,” was mistaken, but what he meant by it is true. New avenues are opened up in difficult times or dangerous passages. A Church that is peripheral would be better able to minister to “the least of us,” something that Benedict’s prophecy also acknowledges. Already we see qualities of faith among Catholics in places like Iraq and Myanmar that put to shame the faith of so many in the West or in Latin America. The vocations situation in parts of Asia is much rosier—or at least more mixed—than the dire numbers we’ve become used to in the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) world over the past half-century. Additionally, Western Catholics are also made to think more seriously about the demands of our faith when it isn’t a cultural default.
Life as a Catholic is going to become very different over the course of the twenty-first century. It’s a strong possibility that the Church will become small, and also likely that the Church will become peripheral. “Going to the peripheries” and prioritizing issues like inculturation and the situations of small or at-risk groups is an essential task as we prepare for the changes to come.
Photograph: “The Parable of the Mustard Seed” by Sheila Sund, from Flickr. Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0 Generic.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.