Summary: Proper cultural exchange among nations is even more important than economic; we must have profound respect for the whole human person when cultures interact.
October 19, 2009
The North American Martyrs
Caritas in Veritate
The coincidence of the Feast of the North American Martyrs with article 26 of Pope Benedict’s encyclical brings to mind an historical reality connected with the European settlement of America. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was a distinct difference between the way the Protestant settlers and Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries treated the native Americans. In general, the English Protestant settlers lived parallel lives with the people they called “Indians.” There was no real attempt to live with them, or to understand their cultures in any but an academic, detached manner. The result was a latent hostility that often erupted into battle, particularly when the natives seemed always to ally with the French in the various wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In general, the French and Spanish missionaries tried to Catholicize the natives through living with them or building agricultural communities for them. The system often broke down, but it was certainly more respectful of the native culture than the English Protestant system.
Pope Benedict, recall, asks the world to consider every dimension of the human when we are speaking of human development. Cultural development is at least as important as economics, because it encompasses the whole of the human person on a more than superficial level. He says, “Today the possibilities of interaction between cultures have increased significantly, giving rise to new openings for intercultural dialogue: a dialogue that, if it is to be effective, has to set out from a deep-seated knowledge of the specific identity of the various dialogue partners.” Cultural exchange is increasingly a matter of commerce. Recall the visit of the Vatican museum exhibit to Texas a few years ago. Tickets, souvenirs and other commercial tags characterize everything like this. There are two real dangers in such exchange: cultures are viewed side by side without critical thought. This leads many, especially the undereducated, to a kind of cultural relativism “that does not serve true intercultural dialogue.” I think of placing Gregorian chant next to rap music. The former is the highest form of monodic music; the latter barely qualifies as music. But some would say that they have equal cultural value. Moreover, relativism reduces the chance that cultures will enter into dialogue. The second danger, the Pope says, is just the opposite: “that of cultural leveling and indiscriminate acceptance of types of conduct and life-styles. In this way one loses sight of the profound significance of the culture of different nations, of the traditions of the various peoples, by which the individual defines himself in relation to life’s fundamental questions. What eclecticism and cultural leveling have in common is the separation of culture from human nature. Thus, cultures can no longer define themselves within a nature that transcends them, and man ends up being reduced to a mere cultural statistic.” It is always a threat to man that he, made little less than godlike, would be reduced to his material worth and behavioral patterns.