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I’m always moved by those moments when a part of the Mass angles my vision just so: suddenly, I can hold in mind, all at once, deep specifics and vast abstractions. Blessing the wine, the priest says, “fruit of the vine and work of human hands,” and I ground that image in a particular time and place, envisioning a bunch of dusty grapes and a pair of browned hands—a woman and her work. Almost as quickly, though, I’m thinking about the rain that fed the vine, and then I’m off contemplating the tangled evolutionary process and network of intimacies that produced the picker. Before long, I’m in the stars. That’s what makes up the Body—contingency on one hand and the cosmos on the other.
For years now, Pope Francis has been placing his finger on this tension between the universal and the local, asking us to see it not as a problem but as a gift. During the Latin American Episcopal Council’s fifth general meeting in 2007, he was chosen to oversee the drafting of its final document, known as the “Aparecida Document,” after the Brazilian city in which the gathering was held. It is an expansive, often startling examination of the cultural, political, and spiritual situation in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as an exhortation for the Church to shake off its stiffness and “go out” among the people, especially the poor, and “chart the way toward the civilization of love.”
The Aparecida Document has in many ways served as an inspiration for Francis’s papacy, and it set forth themes that he’s taken up and developed in his writing again and again, especially in his discussions of personhood and politics. The document describes the need to cherish the “variety and wealth” of Latin America’s indigenous and mixed-race cultures, and it laments the tendency of globalization and consumer culture to flatten and homogenize them. One of the great bogeymen of the document is a “cultural colonization” that acts as global capital’s handmaiden, “spurning local cultures and tending to impose a uniform culture in all realms.” But it also refuses to indulge any kind of provincialism, and is notably alert to the dangers of cultural stagnation; instead, the document insists on the possibility of fruitful exchanges between cultures, and on the need for groups to change, develop, and stretch toward harmony with others as history rolls forward. Cultures, just like the Church, aren’t edifices rotting atop their foundations but boats stroking through time, charting their own irreproducible courses toward “a common historic destiny.”
In Fratelli tutti, Francis further elaborates this strain of his thought, diving into one of Christianity’s touchiest paradoxes. How can we take into loving account each of the world’s cultures, appreciating it for what it is, searching it earnestly for “seeds of the Word” and unlikely points of commonality, without—as has too often been the case throughout the Church’s history—raiding its riches through colonial domination, or asking its members to shed their particularities and join some featureless, blandly celestial community of shibboleths and rules? How can I understand my sorry self—beset as I am by specifics: my race, my class, the family into which I was born—as part of a Church that claims to be universal? How to square, on the one hand, Paul’s assertion that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female” with, on the other hand, his account of having “become all things to all people” in order to spread the Gospel—a maneuver that only makes sense if we admit the persistence of difference? How can we be many and also one?