On Monday, the Pope had some interesting things to say about cancel culture and tried to offer a lesson in historical thinking. Here is the relevant part of his address to the Vatican’s Diplomatic Corps:
The diminished effectiveness of many international organizations is also due to their members entertaining differing visions of the ends they wish to pursue. Not infrequently, the centre of interest has shifted to matters that by their divisive nature do not strictly belong to the aims of the organization. As a result, agendas are increasingly dictated by a mindset that rejects the natural foundations of humanity and the cultural roots that constitute the identity of many peoples. As I have stated on other occasions, I consider this a form of ideological colonization, one that leaves no room for freedom of expression and is now taking the form of the “cancel culture” invading many circles and public institutions. Under the guise of defending diversity, it ends up cancelling all sense of identity, with the risk of silencing positions that defend a respectful and balanced understanding of various sensibilities. A kind of dangerous “one-track thinking” [pensée unique] is taking shape, one constrained to deny history or, worse yet, to rewrite it in terms of present-day categories, whereas any historical situation must be interpreted in the light of a hermeneutics of that particular time, not that of today.
Multilateral diplomacy is thus called to be truly inclusive, not canceling but cherishing the differences and sensibilities that have historically marked various peoples. In this way, it will regain credibility and effectiveness in facing the challenges to come, which will require humanity to join together as one great family that, starting from different viewpoints, should prove capable of finding common solutions for the good of all. This calls for reciprocal trust and willingness to dialogue; it entails “listening to one another, sharing different views, coming to agreement and walking together”. Indeed, “dialogue is the best way to realize what ought always to be affirmed and respected apart from any ephemeral consensus”. Nor should we overlook “the existence of certain enduring values”. Those are not always easy to discern, but their acceptance “makes for a robust and solid social ethics. Once those fundamental values are adopted through dialogue and consensus, we realize that they rise above consensus”.
Read the entire address here.
A few thoughts:
- First, it is important to understand this address in context. Francis is writing to Vatican diplomats. His remarks about cancel culture must be understood in this context. He is calling his diplomats to seek common ground, find “common solutions,” listen to people of other beliefs, and engage in dialogue. So-called “cancel culture” does not contribute to these ends.
- When Francis talks about dangerous “one-track thinking” he sounds like a historian. Historians know that the human experience is complex. They understand nuance. They do not sing one note or paint with broad generalizations about people and movements. We see too much of this today, even among so-called historians.
- Francis’s commitment to freedom of expression suggests that there is often some truth on both sides of any issue. We must do our best to respect and announce truth wherever we find it. It is also worth noting that Francis focuses heavily on vaccines and science in another part of this address. He urges Catholics to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Here he implies that there are some approaches to public life (in this case public health) that are less worthy of our attention than others because they are not based on science, facts, and truth.
- Francis’s comment about rewriting history in terms of “present day categories” is worth considering. In order to understand the past, we must understand the people who lived in that era on their own terms, not ours. Such an approach celebrates the human dignity of all of God’s human creation. But when it comes to Christian ethics and public policy (as opposed to the discipline of history), things get more complicated because ethics often change over time. (For example, in the 19th-century South it was ethical to own slaves.) On the other hand, Christianity also teaches that some ethical or moral concerns are “enduring.” This is why we need to listen to one another and engage in dialogue with those with whom we can find some common ground. This begins with understanding both the past on its own terms and the legacy the past has left us in the present. People in the past were indeed products of their time, but let’s not pretend that they didn’t make choices that left a legacy–both moral and immoral–that we are still dealing with today.