Starting off this year’s conference at the Portsmouth Institute, on “Understanding the Francis Papacy,” Anna Bonta Moreland spoke on Friday morning. As an Argentinian, herself, and a professor at Villanova University, Moreland’s purpose was to give some biographical background and cultural context for Pope Francis. (See video below.)
The pope’s time as a bishop in Argentina was defined by crisis. His experience is with a society in which the cords of tranquility have broken — that is, after the collapse. Moreland was the first of several speakers over the course of the weekend to refer to Francis’s characterization of the Church’s proper attitude as that of a “field hospital”; the bombs have fallen, and the wounded are everywhere.
Moreland emphasized that over 50% of population of Argentina fell into poverty during its crash. She also brought up social changes and cultural “deterioration,” particularly around sex and the family, which began much later but moved much more quickly in Argentina than in much of the West.
Placing Francis in this context, Moreland plucked out a thread that would appear again and again during the conference: The biggest open questions are whether the pope’s understanding of the world applies on our culturally diverse planet and, in any case, whether his consequent approach will be beneficial or detrimental.
Watching things unravel from the perspective of the United States, it doesn’t take but so much imagination to believe that we live in a world prior to a big collapse, at a time when (we can hope) it can still be avoided. Will a pontiff who behaves with a view toward rebuilding a collapsed society help to avoid or usher in a collapse that has not yet happened?
Moreland brought into relief — both with her words and with her behavior —the deep diversity of the world. This isn’t the superficial tabulation of categories that permeates politically correct rhetoric, under the assumption that we’re all substantively the same with different colors, shapes, and practices — Disneyland diversity. It’s the much more real (and interesting) diversity of societies that actually believe different things about the world.
“It’s difficult for those of us in the U.S. to fully appreciate classist tensions,” Moreland said, “given the ethos of the United States.” In a place like Argentina, the upper class still considers one’s last name to be of tremendous importance. “It’s completely ridiculous.”
In the United States, saying that somebody “is not educated” is a statement of condition, not of essence. In Argentina, the related phrase translates more as “he doesn’t have manners,” which, she said, “is code for, ‘he’s not from the right social class.’”
Even the Americanized Professor Moreland exhibited the deep cultural diversity that can affect how people relate to each other. Particularly during the question and answer period, she had a clear reluctance to talk about sensitive political issues, like the role of Nazis in Argentine society; she made clear that she was treading very lightly on subjects that seemed rather academic to the general audience in attendance.
I asked her, at lunch, whether her reluctance indicated concern that her words might have consequences for her family, like an expatriated dissident taking care not to bring harm to family members still trapped in a totalitarian society. “It’s nothing like that,” she said. What she described was almost like a social etiquette deployed as a cultural defense learned during a period of political imprisonment.
At one point in her speech, she parenthesized, “while we’re getting to know each other,” as if she were presenting intimate details about her family, rather than political analysis. Inclinations like that are evidence of the way in which a society enculturates practical lessons that affect behavior long after the immediate risk is gone.
This deep diversity brings the immediate question for American Catholics to a point: If Pope Francis is leading his Church on social and economic issues in a way that assumes a calamity already having happened, and if he has a sense that classes are at least significantly rigid, and if his experience leads him to believe that people have an innate and unhealthy reluctance to discuss political matters, he may be greatly misunderstanding something about the United States and its role in the world.
A prescription of breaking down walls and redistributing wealth will have different effects in different societies. Moreland closed her talk with this line: “It might be that when practicing emergency amputations in the field hospital, intellectual conversations about what it will mean to walk are best set aside for later.”
But what if — on a global scale —the more pressing problem is to consider the consequences of taking the final steps of cultural and political revolution, upending enculturated protections and evolved economic principles? That chat about being able to walk is extremely important to have before one takes an action that risks a loss of legs.
Here, politics might be critically important. Moreland called Pope Francis “anti-Americanist” and has more faith in international organizations. Yet, she also said that, given his experience in Argentina, Francis doesn’t have much good to say about international businesses. Intellectual biases of the global elite against the United States may be obscuring, for Francis, the reality that the elites pursuing these two means of international organization are not, in fact, cut from different cloth.
Moreland repeatedly turned to Francis’s focus on the poor, on people, and on his “theology of encounter.” But to act on the assumption that elites organized under the banner of governments or non-profits are somehow more selfless than elites organized under the banner of businesses could be a catastrophic error.
An American free-marketer might wonder who truly encounters people: those who take it upon themselves to confiscate and redistribute wealth, while setting restrictions on behavior across the planet, or those who seek to find people to buy their goods and services and hire other people to put those goods together and transport them. By definition, government, business, and religion are different ways of interacting with people, and none will be perfect by the lights of the other, but as a starting point, which of these ways of thinking of other people is more in line with Catholicism?
All of this said, the view that begins to emerge of Pope Francis’s role in the world is obviously in keeping with a metaphor that’s been deployed in this space before: In the West, especially, a cultural wave has flooded the land and is now receding. Whereas church leaders have found it necessary to stand firm against the tide, now they must turn around and catch what souls they can, as they’re swept out to sea.
When it comes to Pope Francis’s understanding of the world and what it needs, the question is whether the landscape more resembles post-Katrina New Orleans or something more like the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain. Are we in a world in which a catastrophe has occurred and the field hospital is necessary, or has the flooding been part of a natural cycle that, if we are wise, could leave the land more fertile for spiritual revival?
To answer incorrectly would be to miss opportunities and increase suffering and cynicism, rather than relieve it.