Pope Francis used a lecture to foreign diplomats on 10 January to launch a riposte against cancel culture.
Catholics who have been resisting the forces of secularisation and progressive values across the world will be grateful to him for turning the eyes of the Church towards a movement that poses the greatest threat to the Church for a generation.
The relationship of the Church with the forces of the political and cultural Left has been a fraught one. A hundred years ago, the social revolutionaries of Marxism 1.0 fixed the Church in its crosshairs and launched a brutal assault, imprisoning and executing Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants without discrimination in their attempt to crush the old order and initiate a new history. The state was to replace God and family. Heaven was abolished and the perfectly just social order replaced it. Those who refused to cooperate in this ideological revolution were identified as mad or bad, and “cancelled” permanently. The death toll in the Soviet Union is in the ball park of 40 million, and in China millions more.
The Church has flirted with the political theories of both the Left and Right in recent history.
Most recently, in the second half of the 20th century, liberation theology and an option for the poor saw the Catholic Church in Latin America attempting to borrow the language and analysis of Marxism, but with little lasting success.
Cancel culture has been variously attributed to cultural Marxism, high-octane political correctness and critical (race) theory. As a movement it has surged tsunami-like through the first decades of this new century. Birthed by the Frankfurt School’s Marxist strategists, a strategy was developed that intended to attack Christian culture and promote instead the redistribution of cultural and political power in the interests of diversity, inclusion and equality. With its utopian credentials, it has been called Marxism 2.0.
It is precisely its rootedness in Marxist categories of identity politics that make it such a formidable enemy to Christianity. Pope Francis was right to describe the cancel culture that it has created as “ideological colonisation”.
Christianity does not impose a monolithic cultural template on societies that have embraced the Gospel. Unlike Islam, and its recourse to sharia law, there has been no politicised prescription for Christendom. The Catholic Church has often been accused of imposing one, but the truth has been more complex. There has always been a virtuous struggle to Christianise the local culture rather than abolish it and replace it. When Pope Gregory wrote to St Augustine of Canterbury recommending he baptise the local culture rather than to repudiate and destroy it, he expressed a strategy the Church was to often adopt.
The Church has put a lot of energy into infusing Christian virtues and values into the surrounding ethos, wherever it has carried the Gospel. Abolition was reserved for containing child sacrifice or the burning of widows rather than eradication of the local culture.
Wokeism does not repay the compliment. It sets out not so much to rewrite history, but to expunge from it those it considers moral malefactors. One of its most lethal qualities is its determination to demonise by association. It is too easy to take for granted the Christian influence on the English legal system that you are innocent until proved guilty. Wokeism proclaims you guilty simply by sniffing out and identifying some, or any kind of association with those guilty of what it defines as thought crime. It is almost homeopathic in its hyper-sensitivity to what it denotes as moral and political evil.
The ideological colonisation that the Pope is confronting owns a series of values that are almost the direct opposition of Christianity.
As Christians, each life is held to be sacred since every human being is made in the image of God. Wokeism distributes value by membership of a group.
Christianity contains at is centre an offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. For the woke, there is no forgiveness. Thought crime is punishable by cancellation and social excommunication. In fact, the woke inquisition is happy to go back in time to excavate tweets from a decade ago if necessary. In mining any historic racism, it is willing to travel back centuries.
Christianity has a metaphysical view which is based upon a hierarchy where God is to be found both at the top as well as the bottom. The Father, creator of the universe, worshipped at its apex is balanced by the Son, who enters at the bottom as He rescues the helpless. For the woke, there is by contrast the flat plane of equality.
Of the many challenges to the Church and its vision of humanity and a society redeemed by compassionate love and forgiveness, cancel culture poses a lethal threat with its cosmetic invocation of so-called justice and equity.
The Pope may have come to the fray late in the day to martial the Christian conscience and call the Church to spiritual and philosophical arms, but it is a case of better late than never. The utopian mindset may wield considerable social power, threatening as it does the cancellation of those who commit thought crime in order to usher in a new world order. But the Church speaks to a deeper need of the human heart when it offers a forgiveness that resists all cancellation, and a hope that defies and resists the most ruthless forms of social reconfiguration and condemnation.
Gavin Ashenden is a Catholic layman and a former Church of England priest
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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