We can only obtain the universal through the local.
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 civilisation 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 globalisation and consumer culture to flatten and homogenise them. One of the great bogeymen of the document is a “cultural colonisation” 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 manoeuvre that only makes sense if we admit the persistence of difference? How can we be many and also one?
Those are the urgent questions driving an encyclical devoted to the siblinghood of all human beings. In its fourth chapter, “A Heart Open to the Whole World,” Francis suggests that “an innate tension exists between globalisation and localisation. We need to pay attention to the global so as to avoid narrowness and banality. Yet we also need to look to the local, which keeps our feet on the ground.” It is as dangerous for communities to “get caught up in an abstract, globalised universe” as it is for them to “turn into a museum of local folklore, a world apart, doomed to doing the same things over and over, incapable of being challenged by novelty or appreciating the beauty which God bestows beyond their borders” (142). The universal is “like a ‘final cause’ that draws us towards our fulfilment,” while the local is “capable of being a leaven, of bringing enrichment,” and each adds to the force of the other.
It’s striking that in both the Aparecida Document and Fratelli tutti, cities are given special attention as the places where this kind of synthesis most commonly occurs. “Faith teaches us that God lives in the city in the midst of its joys, yearnings and hopes,” the former says, “and likewise in its pains and suffering.” In the latter, Francis turns to the cultural riches of his homeland as an example of such a synthesis. “In Argentina,” he writes, “intense immigration from Italy has left a mark on the culture of the society, and the presence of some 200,000 Jews has a great effect on the cultural ‘style’ of Buenos Aires” (135). That kind of encounter isn’t just a natural product of proximity, according to him, but the fruit of a kind of intellectual discipline, a conscious straining to hold in tension two seemingly opposed but equally radiant goods: “I can welcome others who are different, and value the unique contribution they have to make,” he writes, “only if I am firmly rooted in my own people and culture” (143).
Francis is a model of this discipline. He has proudly displayed his own rootedness in the history and sensibility of Latin America, and of Argentina specifically—from its complex ecology to its unique theological currents, and even its intense and rivalrous soccer culture, of which he is a lifelong fan—while expressing his wish to reach all people, in urban centres and at the most remote and least remarked-upon borderlands, the “peripheries,” geographical and existential, of which he so often speaks. The two impulses, he seems to believe, depend on each other. We can only obtain the universe by way of the local street. Francis’s formula sounds a bit like the logic of the Incarnation, with its insistence that, in order to save the entire world, God needed to become a certain child, in a certain country, born to a mother whose name we claim to know. He ate real food, local to his hard-pressed corner of the world, and seems to have had special favourites among his friends. If Nazareth had had a soccer club, Christ might have been a regular in the stands rooting for it.
Fratelli tutti is not addressed to Catholics or anyone else in the United States in particular, despite the paranoia of some of Francis’s critics here, who chose to take its early October publication and distinctly anti-populist message as a direct repudiation of Donald Trump on the eve of the recent election. To the contrary, it feels refreshingly unfettered by our homegrown psychodrama.
Still, those Americans who read the document will find it a bracing experience. As I sat with it, I wondered if it offered a path between several yet unresolved ways of approaching race, identity, and culture that haunt my questions about this country. Francis’s fine parsing of the local and the universal, the collective and the individual, made me think—as, admittedly, I often do—about whatever we mean when we talk about “Blackness.” Some insist that it is an immutable category, more a kind of fate than a record of histories and experiences, and that Black people are resigned, always and everywhere, to a state of unfree sub-citizenship. The particulars of Black life, they say, make it impossible to draw analogies between our experiences and those of other oppressed peoples around the world—solidarity, for them, is an impossibility, more a cruel joke than a strategy for change. And some, focused on the history of chattel slavery in the United States but unwilling to engage with the history of American imperial behaviour, try to erect a hierarchy of racial-political claims to redress, placing the concerns of African Americans above those of immigrant groups and other people of colour: a politics of “blood and soil” with Black blood, at long last, made a priority. Others imagine a world utterly evacuated of racial concerns. In this vision, we’d all step out of our labels, stop calling some people “Black” and others “white,” and finally shrug off the nastiness of history. All we’d need is to stop relying on the false charms of the group, and finally live our lives as cosmopolitan individuals, ready to face the world alone.
These unsatisfactory options seem to rhyme with the scheme that Francis puts forward in the fifth chapter of Fratelli tutti, in which he repudiates both an unthinking, demagogic populism and a “dogma of neoliberal faith” that leaves all of a person’s problems up to the global market to fix. He posits, instead, the importance of a third kind of arrangement, that of a “people” who, keeping their common experience in mind, sail through history together, always looking for a fresh wind, open to the possibility of change. “The concept of ‘people,’” Francis writes, “is in fact open-ended. A living and dynamic people, a people with a future, is one constantly open to a new synthesis through its ability to welcome differences. In this way, it does not deny its proper identity, but is open to being mobilised, challenged, broadened and enriched by others, and thus to further growth and development” (160).
Here Francis reminds me of the Black feminist scholar, critic, and activist Barbara Smith, who coined the much-misunderstood term “identity politics.” Smith’s great insight was that a politics centred on our experiences as members of shunted-aside groups—as Blacks, as women, as lesbians, on and on—can refine our notions of freedom, first for ourselves and then, crucially, for others as well. Francis is just as attentive to the lessons offered, often harshly, by daily life. “Realities are greater than ideas,” he says in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium. This has been the bent of an American lineage that stretches from the later W.E.B. Du Bois, runs through the life of the entertainer and radical publisher Paul Robeson, and is evident in the works of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Each of them was an ardent internationalist, as interested and involved in the drama of decolonisation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as in the grand 20th Century struggles of Black people in America.
I can imagine Francis nodding happily toward Julius Nyerere, the late Tanzanian president and anti-colonialist, who grounded his arguments for pan-African socialism in the cultural memory of his own people. Nyerere—a pious Catholic who has inspired a local cult and a case for canonisation—invoked what he called “traditional African society” as a goad for movement into the future, toward what Francis calls “a universal horizon” of solidarity among sisters and brothers. “Both the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ individual were completely secure in African society,” Nyerere wrote in his essay “Ujamaa—The Basis of African Socialism.” “Nobody starved, either of food or of human dignity, because he lacked personal wealth; he could depend on the wealth possessed by the community of which he was a member. That was socialism. That is socialism.”
That is the Blackness I want—an open attitude toward identity and group experience, a peoplehood hungry for the future. Its voice rings out so clearly in those fleeting moments of the Mass and now, perhaps unexpectedly, in Fratelli tutti. It has its feet on the ground of race and ethnicity and place, and stretches outward, its heart and its arms aimed at the rest of the world.
Vinson Cunningham is a staff writer for the New Yorker. His writing on books, art, and culture has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and Book Review, Vulture, and the Awl, among others.
With thanks to Commonweal Magazine and Vinson Cunningham, where this article originally appeared.