As it always does, the Pope’s New Year’s speech to diplomats yesterday ranged over a broad landscape of issues and conflicts in a troubled world. But while it was about many things, the landmark foreign policy speech was really about one thing, globalization — and especially the Latin American Church’s view of it.
Viewed from “the north Atlantic” the speech appeared to defy the usual left-right categories in expressing as much concern for the family, religious freedom and the unborn as it did for migrants, the environment and nuclear weapons.
But in Francis’s world-view, the threat in each case is linked to what the Latin-American bishops gathered in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007 called a “change of era.” They meant by this a technology-driven globalization that was bringing with it a mentality and set of values at odds with the continent’s humanist, Christian traditions.
This wasn’t, to be clear, simply an anti-modern rant. In their signs-of-the-times discernment, the bishops saw much that was positive in the contemporary era. But it is striking how much what they saw as positive was essentially in reaction to this globalization.
In the Aparecida document the change of era is portrayed as bringing about a breakdown in the bonds that bind. The forces of dissolution came from what it called “a kind of new cultural colonization through the imposition of artificial cultures, belittling of local cultures and tending to impose a uniform culture in all sectors of society.”
The term ‘colonization’ made it clear that this was coming from the outside — from the centers of power — and that Latin America was in a position of vulnerability in the face of the threat. But Francis has never located the “colony” in the United States as such, and in his address to European leaders on receiving the Charlemagne prize he framed Europe, too, as being under threat from it.
In other words, the colonization is not coming from any particular country but rather faceless, stateless, anonymous sources of power of the kind that one of Francis’s favorite thinkers, Romano Guardini describes in The End of the Modern World.
Hence Aparecida’s use of the word ‘artificial’ to describe the culture. Rather than a true, organic culture arising from the values and traditions of a particular people, it is a ‘Coca-Colonization’ — values imposed by the technocratic values of capitalism and consumerism, which may be associated with America but are in reality stateless.
Aparecida defined those values as exalting the self-sufficient individual, indifference for others, contempt for family and community, and a transitoriness in human relations, as well as “an exaggerated affirmation of subjective and individual rights” along with an indifference towards the rights of societies and cultures. Those who particularly paid the price of this mentality, the bishops said, were the poor and vulnerable.
Put Aparecida alongside yesterday’s speech, and the pope seemed to be speaking straight off it, lamenting the way “debatable notions of human rights” were being advanced that are “at odds with the culture of many countries” who “feel that they are not respected in their social and cultural traditions, and instead neglected with regard to the real needs they have to face.”
In the very name of human rights, Francis warned, “we will see the rise of modern forms of ideological colonization by the stronger and the wealthier, to the detriment of the poorer and the most vulnerable.”
The term ‘ideological colonization’ has been invoked often by Francis to describe the way faceless technocratic global power coerces traditional cultures: In linking aid to population control, imposing ‘gender ideology’ through textbooks, and weakening the bonds of family. Sometimes the term is coterminous with intolerant secularism, sometimes it refers to a vision of unity which fails to respect cultural diversity.
On the flight from Manila in January 2015, the Pope suggested reading Hugh Benson’s dystopian 1907 novel, The Lord of the World, to understand the idea of ideological colonization. Benson portrays a world, which Francis clearly believes is being advanced in the ‘technocratic paradigm,’ in which secularism and atheistic humanism triumph over religion and morality, relativism rejects ethical boundaries and where, in the name of tolerance, religion is banned, and euthanasia and abortion are socially acceptable.
He sees such a mindset in ostensibly benevolent international agencies. In his UN address in September 2015, for example, he warned that “without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits” and a sound vision of human development, the UN charters could end up enabling “an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.”
“Ideological colonization” reflects the pope’s concern, above all, for the impact on the developing world of such policies and mentalities, which is why he has invoked the term in reference especially to Asia and Africa.
As cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, he referred often to the rise of a pensamiento único, a uniform way of thinking, associated with relativism and progressivism, which as pope he includes in the term ‘ideological colonization.’ In 2005, for example, he referred to a globalization in which “thinking has become the same, eliminating the diversity that marks all human society.”
Yet this does not make Francis hostile to international cooperation — far from it. His Charlemagne speech was an attempt to bolster the foundational values of the European Union in the face of ideological colonization, just as yesterday he saluted the 1917 League of Nations and the later 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His concern, rather, is that such bodies act to contain, rather than promote, the liquefying forces of globalization, in defense of culture, values, civil society and the vulnerable in all their forms.
He cites, for example, the Universal Declaration’s right to form a family and to the protection of the family by state and society, contrasting this with the view that the family is an obsolete institution. For Francis, the recovery of the family is key to resisting the technocratic dissolution of social bonds.
The “rock on which to build solid foundations” of society, he told the diplomats, “is precisely that faithful and indissoluble communion of love that joins man and woman, a communion that has an austere and simple beauty, a sacred and inviolable character and a natural role in the social order.”
It is little surprise that all this is bundled together with an SOS over unemployment, people-trafficking, borders closing to migrants and the increasing demands placed on workers by the logic of profit.
Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes, a key figure in the Latin-American episcopal council (CELAM) in the run-up to Aparecida whom Francis recently named as Primate of Mexico, published in 2003 a wide-ranging paper on globalization and the new evangelization. The paper, fruit of years of consultation and discussion, contains the big thinking about globalization that later appeared in Aparecida.
In it free-market fundamentalism, consumerism, secularism, abortion, the sundering of sex from relationships and the rise of divorce, as well as the “universalization of cultural models” are all seen as part of the same tide bringing environmental destruction, mass migrations, and a new rationality that “puts the demands of competition and profit before people’s lives.”
In the same way, the pope lamented how “the demands of profit, dictated by globalization, have led to a progressive reduction of times and days of rest, with the result that a fundamental dimension of life has been lost – that of rest – which serves to regenerate persons not only physically but also spiritually.”
Francis’s program is to strengthen the bonds of politics and civil society to resist the colonization of technocracy, and yesterday was his bid to persuade the world’s nations to join him.
It expressed, above all the view from the periphery, which — as he has often said — offers a clearer vantage point from the center. Yesterday, the diplomats assigned to the Vatican got a chance to look at the world through the same lens.