In one very important way every pope is like each one of us: he comes from a specific time and place. For some commentators, this can be seen as a very limiting characteristic. To use St. John Paul as an example, the fact that he came from a traditionally Catholic culture that was forced to live under the totalitarianism of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia made for easy conclusions as to why he said what he did in the areas of morality, politics, and economics. Western media was, to put it kindly, a bit condescending towards many of John Paul’s statements, especially in the realm of human sexuality.
A similar situation has occurred with Pope Francis, but with more open hostility. While the leaders of the cultural and political Left tended to metaphorically pat John Paul on the head with an “isn’t it cute how out of touch he is” look on their faces, the Right – as well as the Left – goes apoplectic when Francis criticizes the economic and cultural policies that hold sway in the West. This is understandable for those who equate capitalism and the hegemony of American “values” with the Faith, but it should not be the response of those who are Catholic first and American second.
Embedded in Chapter 3 of Christus Vivit is a typical “Franciscan” criticism of the secular West, what many consider to be one of his “go to” issues: cultural and ideological colonization. For my money, one of the most important paragraphs (78) in this entire Apostolic Exhortation is as follows, and deserves to be quoted in its entirety:
It is true that people in power offer some assistance, but often it comes at a high price. In many poor countries, economic aid provided by some richer countries or international agencies is usually tied to the acceptance of Western views of sexuality, marriage, life or social justice. This ideological colonization is especially harmful to the young. We also see how a certain kind of advertising teaches young people to be perpetually dissatisfied and contributes to the throwaway culture, in which young people themselves end up being discarded.
The exportation of aid, the pope rightly asserts, comes with burdensome strings attached – strings directly related to “American values” that are very often at odds with those of the people that the U.S. is “helping.” Since the American vision of “social justice” is nothing more than a tarted-up version of “might makes right,” which includes the right to kill your unborn child, it is important that the Vicar of Christ, the most important moral voice in the world, speak up against it.
This approach of manipulating people in order to achieve certain cultural and economic goals is one that hinders not only the young people of developing countries, but also those in the developed West. And in some ways – since the “Western views of sexuality, marriage, life or social justice” are the waters in which the young of the secular West swim, including through the propaganda known as advertising mentioned in Paragraph 78 – the danger is even more pervasive for our children than for those who might come from a nation and a culture that has a system in place to combat such beliefs.
In his original preface to Brave New World Aldous Huxley noted that “as political and economic freedom diminishes sexual freedom tends compensating to increase.” He could have included the decrease of cultural freedom as well, but even without it the point is well made. Young people, even those who don’t live in the decadent West, are victims of Huxley’s truism. In addition, every one of the other problems that young people face that are mentioned by the Holy Father can be traced back to what Huxley saw in the early decades of the 20th Century – especially that of the false utopia of unlimited technology.
Francis warns of this brave new technocratic world, where ability quickly becomes necessity (if we can do it then we should do it), and where we, and especially the young who have known no other world, are virtually unable to unplug from screens, devices, and the allure of all that is at our fingertips, for good or for evil. Pornography, bullying, and the general de-personalization of relationships – things that have been brought to epidemic levels by universal access to technology – are among the many problems that the pope brings to light as he discusses all that young people come up against in their daily struggles.
Given all that he has said here and elsewhere, there is no doubt that Francis would see the relevance of the next sentence in Huxley’s assessment of the modern world: “And the dictator will do well to encourage that [sexual] freedom. In conjunction with the freedom to daydream under the influence of dope and movies and the radio, it will help to reconcile his subjects to the servitude which is their fate.” The ancient Romans called it “bread and circuses.”
There is also no doubt that Francis would propose that the only antidote to a fate of servitude for today’s young people, and for all of us, is the binding of ourselves to the Cross of Christ through living out the Gospel. The choice cannot be avoided, but the choice is one of each individual free will: servitude to our desires and the desires of those who control the levers of earthly power, or sacrificial love offered to Christ and all who bear His wounds.