Critics of Pope Francis often accuse him of disrespecting the traditions of the Church and rejecting the core values that make the Church what it is. Sometimes, they view Pope Francis’s openness to other cultures as proof that he wants to dilute Catholic identity into a syncretistic mesh and desires a new “one-world religion” to serve at the feet of the so-called New World Order. And now many are claiming that Fratelli Tutti is the latest attack by the pope on Catholicism’s very identity.
These critics are especially wary of the Holy Father’s openness to indigenous cultures, which they view as pagan or syncretistic and therefore open the door to heterodoxy. There is a tendency to equate Catholic culture with a particularly Western view, and therefore, to confuse defense of Catholicism with defense of Western civilization.
Pope Francis understands that the Church is “catholic” in the true etymological sense of the word. This means the Church must be universal in reach, not Western-centric. In fact, he seems to have a particular fondness for indigenous cultures. In Fratelli Tutti and throughout his papacy (especially in Querida Amazônia), Pope Francis defends indigenous culture from what he calls a “loss of historical consciousness.”
Of course, Francis’s openness to other cultures is not limited to Catholic indigenous cultures. He talks about dialogue and fraternity even with those who practice other religions. Yet, contrary to the fears of many critics, engaging with non-Catholic cultures does not mean sacrificing our identity as Catholics. Quite the contrary, fidelity to Fratelli Tutti requires us to reject such abuses. In fact, I would posit that Fratelli Tutti is the most traditional of Pope Francis’s documents (something I will explore in this and future articles).
How is this possible? As I said, Francis’s teachings are Catholic, and therefore universal in scope. Therefore, we must keep in mind that his teachings on the loss of a historical sense of culture must be read in a universal sense. This means that the wisdom of his message is also applicable to Western culture, even if it is not only applicable to Western culture, or even primarily applicable to it.
Loss of the sense of history
There are several passages in Fratelli Tutti where Pope Francis decries what he calls a loss of sense of history. In this encyclical, Francis actually introduces this concept with a quote from one of his earlier documents, the post-synodal exhortation Christus Vivit:
“If someone tells young people to ignore their history, to reject the experiences of their elders, to look down on the past and to look forward to a future that he himself holds out, doesn’t it then become easy to draw them along so that they only do what he tells them? He needs the young to be shallow, uprooted and distrustful, so that they can trust only in his promises and act according to his plans. That is how various ideologies operate: they destroy (or deconstruct) all differences so that they can reign unopposed. To do so, however, they need young people who have no use for history, who spurn the spiritual and human riches inherited from past generations, and are ignorant of everything that came before them” (FT 181).
Note that Francis warns that what threatens to uproot young people from their historical consciousness is ideologies. Even today, is it not clear that ideologies (left and right) are the forces attempting to provoke a divorce between Catholics and the authoritative and magisterial aspects of the Church? Francis (in continuity with his predecessors) has asked us repeatedly to undergo what amounts to an ideological “detox process” of our faith. No true connection with our Catholic tradition is possible until we do so.
Early in the document, Francis makes the point that ideologies—with their simplistic assessments of reality—destroy our sense of history and promote a kind of “deconstructionism” in which “human freedom claims to create everything starting from zero.” This deconstructionism is the ultimate anti-tradition. What the ideological worldview “leaves in its wake is the drive to limitless consumption and expressions of empty individualism” (FT 13).
A pontiff who emphatically warns against a limitless freedom purporting to create everything anew is in no way a modernist. By asking young people to reject this deconstructionist culture and return to their roots, Pope Francis calls them to rediscover their traditions and identity.
The need for identity
With this in mind, we can see clearly that Pope Francis spurns the individualism typical of our age. People do not exist as isolated monads, but are embedded in a community, which is glued together through a cultural matrix. In our contemporary world, nationalistic ideologues have gone out of their way to make idols of their own cultural identities. Francis condemns nationalism and this idolatrous view of identity several times throughout the encyclical. However, he is also very clear that cultural identity is fundamental for social cohesion and even for dialogue with other cultures.
“Just as there can be no dialogue with ‘others’ without a sense of our own identity, so there can be no openness between peoples except on the basis of love for one’s own land, one’s own people, one’s own cultural roots. I cannot truly encounter another unless I stand on firm foundations, for it is on the basis of these that I can accept the gift the other brings and in turn offer an authentic gift of my own. I can welcome others who are different, and value the unique contribution they have to make, only if I am firmly rooted in my own people and culture” (FT 143)
We must appreciate how vital it is to develop a true sense of our own cultural identities. We cannot defend other cultures when we disregard or have a disordered understanding of our own. Otherwise, we risk pressuring those from other cultures to view their culture as we view our own (and to discard it accordingly). The implicit message is to suggest, “Since my culture is not important to me, why should their culture be important to them?” Pope Francis warns against this when he says, “The solution is not an openness that spurns its own richness” (FT 143).
Instead, we must understand, “A healthy openness never threatens one’s own identity” (FT 148). The Holy Father also criticizes a certain mindset that eschews its own culture in the name of a false, unhealthy openness. He goes on to explain why a disdain of one’s own culture is nothing more than a kind of elitism:
“This is a far cry from the false universalism of those who constantly travel abroad because they cannot tolerate or love their own people. Those who look down on their own people tend to create within society categories of first and second class, people of greater or lesser dignity, people enjoying greater or fewer rights” (FT 99)
“There can be a false openness to the universal, born of the shallowness of those lacking insight into the genius of their native land or harbouring unresolved resentment towards their own people”(FT 145).
The need for openness
Pope Francis also stresses that he has no intention of proposing “a completely enclosed, a-historic, static ‘indigenism’ that would reject any kind of blending (mestizaje)” (FT 148).
Having a firm grasp of one’s own cultural identity does not mean thinking that culture is static, self-referential, and closed within itself. Contrary to what ideologues might argue, identity does not stand in opposition to openness. In fact, the latter presupposes the former, and builds upon it. Only by having a firm grasp of one’s own cultural identity is one able to recognize its boundaries when encountering others. These boundaries are not hermetic: they are porous, yet must still exist. By knowing these boundaries one can recognize the differences between cultures and, therefore, how they can enrich one another. This mutual enrichment (which the Holy Father calls “mestizaje,” a word derived from “mestizo”), is what Francis has in mind when he describes a true, healthy, openness:
“A living culture, enriched by elements from other places, does not import a mere carbon copy of those new elements, but integrates them in its own unique way. The result is a new synthesis that is ultimately beneficial to all, since the original culture itself ends up being nourished. That is why I have urged indigenous peoples to cherish their roots and their ancestral cultures … The world grows and is filled with new beauty, thanks to the successive syntheses produced between cultures that are open and free of any form of cultural imposition” (FT 148)
In other words, Francis is not in favor of dissolving cultures into an amorphous indefiniteness where they end up losing both themselves and the enriching elements of the others with whom they come in contact. Rather, what is at stake is a kind of cross-pollination between cultures, in which they enrich one another while preserving their own cultural richness:
“The path to peace does not mean making society blandly uniform, but getting people to work together, side-by-side, in pursuing goals that benefit everyone. A wide variety of practical proposals and diverse experiences can help achieve shared objectives and serve the common good” (FT 228).
Through constructive dialogue among cultures, it is possible to achieve a synthesis among the elements (both intrinsic and extrinsic) of each culture. Even the achievement of this synthesis is in itself unique to each culture:
“This is not to opt for a kind of syncretism, or for the absorption of one into the other, but rather for a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides” (FT 245).
Dialogue between cultures must, according to the Holy Father, always try to avoid the twin squalls of indigenism and syncretism (which correspond ideologically to nationalism and globalism, respectively). This is true of Catholicism also. On the one hand, we must reject a false traditionalism that does not allow for development (which is not traditional in itself, since doctrinal development has been acknowledged by tradition since at least the time of St. Vincent de Lérins). On the other hand, we must equally reject a syncretistic betrayal of the basic tenets of our faith to appease other, extra-Catholic voices. As Francis said in Querida Amazônia, “Identity and dialogue are not enemies” (QA 37).
Indigenism and syncretism are not the only dangers to be avoided in the dialogue of cultures taking place in our globalized contemporary world. Pope Francis has also been consistent in denouncing the error of cultural and ideological colonization.
Interestingly (and for all the accusations that he is “liberal” on sexual matters), Pope Francis first used the expression “ideological colonization” in the context of gender ideology. In a meeting with families in Manila, 2015, he decried “forms of ideological colonization which are out to destroy the family.” Later on, in a press conference during his flight back home, Francis further clarified what he meant by recounting a situation he witnessed in the 1990s, when a minister of education who asked for a loan to build schools for the poor. The loan was given on the condition that those schools would teach gender ideology. He explained:
“This is ideological colonization. They introduce an idea to the people that has nothing to do with the people. With groups of people yes, but not with the people. And they colonize the people with an idea which changes, or means to change, a mentality or a structure. During the Synod, the African bishops complained about this. It was the same story, certain loans in exchange for certain conditions — I only speak of this case that I have seen. Why do I say “ideological colonization”? Because they take, they actually take the need of a people to seize an opportunity to enter and grow strong — through the children … Each people has its own culture, its own history. Every people has its own culture.”
Even if Francis’s detractors are sensitive to this specific kind of ideological colonization, we cannot restrict this concept to gender ideology alone. Economic and political pressure is regularly imposed to persuade native cultures to forego other aspects of their identity. This is especially developed in Querida Amazônia, where Francis talks about his “Cultural Dream” for the indigenous cultures of the Amazon Region.
In that exhortation, the Holy Father mentioned how desertification (namely caused by environmental exploitation of the Amazon by great economic interests) forces indigenous peoples into the outskirts of cities, where they “lack the points of reference and the cultural roots that provided them with an identity and a sense of dignity.” This “disrupts the cultural transmission of a wisdom that had been passed down for centuries from generation to generation” (QA 29).
The pontiff expands on all these ideas in Fratelli Tutti. Just as in the case of the internally displaced indigenous peoples of the Amazon, this disruption of cultural transmission can also happen during the process of immigration, especially when immigrants are pressured by adherents to certain political ideologies to simply assimilate indiscriminately to the country receiving them. In the encyclical, he promotes careful and respectful planning (on a global level) for the reception of immigrants:
“Such planning should include effective assistance for integrating migrants in their receiving countries, while also promoting the development of their countries of origin through policies inspired by solidarity, yet not linking assistance to ideological strategies and practices alien or contrary to the cultures of the peoples being assisted” (FT 132).
This kind of cultural disruption doesn’t only happen for people who are forced to journey outside their homelands. It also happens at the supranational level, where “economically prosperous countries tend to be proposed as cultural models for less developed countries” (FT 51). This may cause, in poorer countries, a certain “resistance to native ways of thinking and acting, and a tendency to look down on one’s own cultural identity, as if it were the sole cause of every ill … A shallow and pathetic desire to imitate others leads to copying and consuming in place of creating, and fosters low national self-esteem.” This low self-esteem can then be exploited by the opportunism of financial speculators and powerful interests, to “create a new culture in the service of the elite” (FT 52).
Finally, cultural colonization can be imposed by the media or even supranational bodies like the United Nations. It bears emphasizing that, while Francis (in the same line as Benedict XVI) has lauded the UN and asked for this organization to take a greater role in regulating economic activity and conflicts worldwide, he nevertheless cautions that “this calls for clear legal limits to avoid power being co-opted only by a few countries and to prevent cultural impositions or a restriction of the basic freedoms of weaker nations on the basis of ideological differences” (FT 173).
All of this amounts to cultural colonization where people “end up losing not only their spiritual identity but also their moral consistency and, in the end, their intellectual, economic and political independence” (FT 14).
The solution: the cultural polyhedron
What is the solution to this cultural colonization? Contrary to the measures proposed by many of his critics, Francis does not believe Catholics should respond to this threat by lobbying for the dismantling of supranational bodies like the UN (FT 173, 257). Nor should we take part in political attempts to seize power and thus impose cultural colonization ourselves (FT 92).
Rather, Francis proposed the solution during his January 2015 in-flight press conference (the same one where he first explained the concept of ideological colonization):
“When conditions are imposed by colonizing empires, they seek to make these peoples lose their own identity and create uniformity. This is spherical globalization — all points are equidistant from the centre. And true globalization — I like to say this — is not a sphere. It is important to globalize, but not like the sphere but rather, like the polyhedron. Namely that each people, every part, preserves its identity without being ideologically colonized”
Francis uses this image of the polyhedron again in Querida Amazônia (you may recall that the title of one of its subsections is “The Amazon polyhedron“). He uses the it again in Fratelli Tutti paragraphs 145 (“our model must be that of a polyhedron, in which the value of each individual is respected”) and 215 (“The image of a polyhedron can represent a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations”).
The image is designed to illustrate that necessary balance between identity and openness Pope Francis describes. The new twist in Fratelli Tutti is that the cultures of those with political and economic power must be open to cultural enrichment themselves. Rather than looking down on the cultures of those they have a responsibility to help, they must approach others with an attitude of dialogue and listening. It is possible that they will find that the cultures of the poor and marginalized they encounter will help provide the antidote for their own social ills. As Francis taught in Querida Amazônia:
“Factors like consumerism, individualism, discrimination, inequality, and any number of others represent the weaker side of supposedly more developed cultures. The ethnic groups that, in interaction with nature, developed a cultural treasure marked by a strong sense of community, readily notice our darker aspects, which we do not recognize in the midst of our alleged progress. Consequently, it will prove beneficial to listen to their experience of life” (QA 36).
This type of cultural interchange can also greatly benefit the Church. Francis says in Fratelli Tutti that, “Immigrants, if they are helped to integrate, are a blessing, a source of enrichment and new gift that encourages a society to grow” (FT 135). This is particularly applicable in the United States, where immigrants from Latin America come from a predominantly Catholic culture, while the United States is greatly influenced by its Protestant past. American Catholics who ally themselves with an anti-immigrant mindset for political gain should remember this.
Finally, to protect people and cultures from the potential danger of national and supranational bodies encroaching on national sovereignty, Francis urges support for “popular movements that unite the unemployed, temporary and informal workers and many others who do not easily find a place in existing structures” (FT #169).
“What is needed is a model of social, political and economic participation “that can include popular movements and invigorate local, national and international governing structures with that torrent of moral energy that springs from including the excluded in the building of a common destiny” (…) This, however, must happen in a way that will not betray their distinctive way of acting as “sowers of change, promoters of a process involving millions of actions, great and small, creatively intertwined like words in a poem”. In that sense, such movements are “social poets” that, in their own way, work, propose, promote and liberate” (FR #168)
Critics might argue, however, that in this encyclical, Francis does not link the concepts of “loss of historical consciousness” and “cultural colonization” to Tradition and Church teaching, but approaches them from a purely secular perspective. However, the principles outlined in Fratelli Tutti both implicitly and explicitly allow us to apply the concept of cultural polyhedron to the Church. In this document, Pope Francis gives us the tools to preserve Catholic identity while allowing openness for enrichment from outside. I will explore this idea in my next article, “Fratelli Tutti, a fresh perspective on tradition.”
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.