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.