Two Years Later, A Different Colonialism

During his May 2007 visit to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI made some controversial comments about pre-Colombian cultures which incited a vehement outcry against him.  The Holy Father claimed that the indigenous American peoples were “silently longing” for Christ.  He said that Christianity had purified these cultures and made them fruitful, noting that “the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Colombian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.”  The Pope concluded that it would be a step back, not forward, to try to go back to native religions and to separate them from Christianity.

Many reacted strongly.  Indigenous leaders were especially offended, issuing responses like that given by Jecinaldo Sateré Mawé of the Amazonian Sateré Mawé tribe, who called the Pope’s remarks “arrogant and disrespectful.”  Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez demanded an apology, noting the “genocide” which occurred with the arrival of Christianity.  And much of the Western media decried the comments as another instance of Pope Benedict’s intolerance and narrow-minded Europeanism.

Fast forward two and a half years to last Sunday, when Pope Benedict gave the opening homily for the African Synod currently meeting in Rome.  Once again, the Pope spoke of colonialism and the West’s encounter with foreign cultures, although this time in a much different vein.  The Pope called Africa, “an enormous spiritual ‘lung’ for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope.”  He noted, however, a pathology that is attacking it, what he described as

. . . an illness that is already widespread in the West, that is, practical materialism, combined with relativist and nihilist thinking. Without entering into the merit of the origins of such sicknesses of the spirit, there is absolutely no doubt that the so-called “First” World has exported up to now and continues to export its spiritual toxic waste that contaminates the peoples of other continents, in particular those of Africa. In this sense, colonialism which is over at a political level, has never really entirely come to an end.

As Pope Benedict is apt to do, here again we find the Holy Father using a dominant sentiment in Western secular thought to offer a challenge to this thought on its own grounds.  European secularists (and many Americans, for that matter) have long been immured in a guilt-complex from their ancestors’ past sins toward native cultures.  Feeling sorry—and we should note, often legitimately—for some of the horrors occasioned by colonialism, large portions of the West have been led to reject the West.  Europe’s own history and heritage has been discarded in favor of a fascination with non-Western cultures which are idyllically thought to be purer, more peaceful, and more in tune with nature: a sharp contrast with the blood-stained, machine-wielding violence, greed, and intolerance that mark Europe’s past.

But how will the secular West respond today?  It regrets the imposition of Christianity which occurred when a Christian West met a pagan Africa.  Now, as a secular West meets a Christian Africa, will the sins of the past be recommitted?  Will the West once again hegemonically look down upon “primitive peoples,” believing that it knows what is best for Africa and other developing parts of the globe?

We hope not.  For at this moment in history, marked as it is by accelerated globalization and cultural exchange, the West has an opportunity to enter into true dialogue with other cultures—to listen to them and to learn from them and thus to put an end to the long and gruesome history of colonialism.  Without doubt, the West has much to offer developing nations, not least of which is its technological expertise which can assist in integral human development.  But the West also has much to learn, including the fact that true development cannot rest on advances in technology alone.  No, as the Pope has expounded most recently in Caritas in Veritate, such development also must take account of God and the spiritual dimension of the human person.

Whether the West is open to that lesson and will cease the exportation of its “spiritual toxic waste” remains to be seen.

© Vincent L. Strand and Whosoever Desires, 2009.

9 Responses to Two Years Later, A Different Colonialism

  1. Perez Christina says:

    interesting post

  2. Joss Heywood says:

    I think perhaps the Pope is exaggerating a bit – I noted that when African bishops offered to send some surplus priests to the USA to fill in gaps there, there was not a universal acceptance of the offer. So Africa may be a “spiritual lung”, but its spirituality is not easy to transplant.
    But the idea of a “secular West meets a Christian Africa” is also simplistic – it romanticises the variety of cultures and modes of Christianity that are found there, incorporating strong animistic elements, that many in other countries and cultures would not recognise as being particularly Christian.
    The reality seems to be that every country develops its own varieties of Christianity, and of Catholicism – the US varieties of Catholicism would seem strange to many of my (now) fellow-countrymen in Argentina! The Pope would do well to begin to recognise that his model of Christianity too is culturally limited and passing its sell-by date, and that respect for other cultures implies letting them discover Christ for themselves within the broad tradition without so much meddling from Rome.

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Mr. Heywood,

      Thank you for your note. I agree that local spiritualities are not always easy to transplant. At the same time, there are elements of specific local instantiations of Christianity from which other cultures and expressions of Christianity are able to learn. It seems to me the history of evangelization illustrates this truth. Right now, without by any means claiming that African Catholicism (obviously, that in itself is a generalizing statement as there are various expressions of the Church within that richly diverse continent) is perfectly or perfect transplantable, I think one can still argue that it has much to offer the universal Church. The same could be said about American Catholicism or Argentinean Catholicism. In a time of globalization, however, various local churches and cultures have more interaction with each other than in the past, and therefore must be open to encountering different expressions of the Church and not cling narrowly to their specific cultural Christianity. There is a great opportunity for mutual exchange here.

      When I said “a secular West meets a Christian Africa,” I used the indefinite, rather than definite, articles intentionally; my sentiment could be expressed as: “when that part of the West which is secular meets that part of Africa which is Christian.”

      Of course Africa is an exceedingly religiously diverse place, not only within Christianity, but also with significant Islamic and animist populations, to name just a few—not to mention the syncretism among these religions.

      As for the Pope’s version of Christianity “passing its sell-by date,” I have a sense that we may not agree on that one, but to enter into that discussion (or the one concerning what you call “so much meddling from Rome”) would be a vast endeavor which would take us too far afield.

  3. bill bannon says:

    Benedict avoids blaming the Church in both places (Church as pristine…which was not the view of Vatican II): native culture is to blame in Brazil and not the slavery and robbery permission given by Pope Nicholas V to Portugal in “Romanus Pontifex” 1454 (mid 4th paragraph and from “Dom Diversas” of 1452) with a caveat nullifying any future voiding of the permissions and confirmed in writing by three subsequent Popes (see “The Church That Can and Cannot Change” J.T. Noonan Jr./Nortre Dame); and in Africa, the toxic waste of the West is now to blame and African Catholicism is a lung (why are we then reading of unofficial wives of priests in some areas of Africa…the West doesn’t have that though Pope Alexander VI did). Benedict has not really gotten beyond defense Catholicism and some Pope in the future will get beyond that because he’ll tire of our constant defense coupled with criticism of others.

  4. hello,

    thanks for the great quality of your blog, every time i come here, i’m amazed.

    black hattitude.

  5. Edward says:

    As an observer unlike the angel wathers. I can only try and understand the intentions of Pope and the Publics intentions. I wonder is it is only because of tradition he does his job and not faith. Then I wonder if it is indeed just the media being satan and a corrupt world who does not hear the truth nor speak it lashing out to ridicule or voice a complaint against God and the church. Tradition is important for without it there would be no real evidence of the faith of the church yet I understand that new life is just that new life. We have to follow christ to his throne but by setting up a throne ourselves exalting an earthly throne. Christ came speaking as a farmer. Tell us about mustard seeds and sheep and sowing seeds , wheat and so on. Not as a Papacy ruler with treasures here. Probably it does not go over well the charity wealth he has to all those nations.

  6. Edward says:

    I have a blogspot my intentions are to help others undersand the contrast of modern times and gospels truth.

  7. Hey there everyone i was just introduceing myself here im a first time visitor who hopes to become a daily reader!

  8. Hey everyone just wanna say hello and introduce myself!

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