Dear friends, I cannot fail to express my concern about manifestations of intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia that have appeared in various parts of Europe. Often this reaction is motivated by mistrust and fear of the other, the foreigner, those who are different. I am even more worried about the disturbing fact that our Catholic communities in Europe are not exempt from these defensive and negative reactions, supposedly justified by a vague moral obligation to preserve an established religious and cultural identity. The Church has spread to all continents thanks to the “migration” of missionaries convinced of the universality of the saving message of Jesus Christ, meant for men and women of every culture. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been temptations to exclusivity and cultural rigidity, but the Holy Spirit has always helped overcome them by ensuring constant openness to others, viewed as a positive opportunity for growth and enrichment.
I have bolded the most extraordinary part. Pope Francis believes that there is no moral obligation to preserve a Catholic religious identity in Europe. He states this as the man entrusted to lead the Church. He believes it is a moral thing for Europe to become Islamic, as this shows openness to the other.
This puts ordinary Catholics in a difficult position. If they remain obedient to Pope Francis, they are gravely disloyal to the Church.
There are of course serious objections to the moral view of Pope Francis. First, it is uncannily similar to a secular liberal political philosophy. In liberal philosophy, there are no substantive goods. What matters instead is my own will and my own choices. However, for the system to work I have to accord to others a similar freedom to follow their own will and their own choices. Therefore, the moral thing in a liberal system is not to discriminate against others, to be tolerant, to be open, and to be nonjudgemental. If a liberal wants to signal his virtue he can do so by demonstrating that he is most open to the person most other to him, which most liberals today assume to be Muslims. Pope Francis is signalling virtue just as a liberal would, rather than as someone who believes that there are objective goods to uphold in life, as you would expect a Catholic to do.
The second objection relates to something else that Pope Francis has said on the issue:
The only continent that can bring about a certain unity to the world is Europe...China has perhaps a more ancient, deeper, culture. But only Europe has a vocation towards universality and service...We can speak today of an Arab invasion. It is a social fact...How many invasions Europe has known throughout its history! It has always known how to overcome itself, moving forward to find itself as if made greater by the exchange between cultures.
Bonald answers as follows:
Depending on how you read it, it is either insulting to the West or insulting to everyone else. What is this “vocation towards universality and service” that only Europe is burdened with? Why can’t Europe be happy as one people among many? Are our artistic heritage and distinct customs not as satisfying as those of others? Is it arrogance, that we can’t bear that any other people should excel in their own ways that we don’t? Either way, a “vocation towards universality” sounds like a spiritual defect. On the other hand, if it means a striving toward transcendence, toward objective truth, what would Francis be saying about other civilizations? That the Muslims and the Chinese hold to their beliefs and their morals not because they think them true and right, but just because they are theirs, as a means of collective self-assertion? But this is preposterous!
Unfortunately, the pope gives no justification for Europe’s unilateral “vocation towards service”. Why do we exist to serve other peoples rather than vice versa? Why does this “exchange between cultures” seem to go only one way?
I'd like to add something along similar lines. The Jesuits do often emphasise the idea of service. But if service is at the heart of a moral life, as per Jesuit beliefs, and only Europe has a vocation toward service, as per Pope Francis, then it is given to Europeans to be moral actors, whilst everyone else is there to be acted upon. This hardly seems to give everyone an equal human dignity.
Finally, the Pope's account of the moral purposes of man seems very thin, to the point that it seems more like an ideology than a sophisticated theology. To suggest that I have no particular loves, no identity, no cultural attachments, no personal duties, but only an abstract, universal duty to serve the other, treats me like a cipher, like a cellophane man, as if I were not gifted with any place or genuine personality of my own, as if I had no created nature of my own to develop and fulfil together with those I have the closest and most profound relationships with. I cannot believe that those who have been stripped down in this way really have the most to give to anyone either near or far. When we disembed people we usually disorder them and render them unfeeling to genuine and lasting loves and attachments. A certain plane of the human experience is lost to them and is difficult to recover. A theology should not have any such corrosive effect, it should aim to deepen rather than to detach. This is not achieved when a singular belief in service for the other is employed to scorch the ground beneath it, to clear a path for universality - which will not even be the universality of the Church but of some other tradition. A more sophisticated understanding is necessary to avoid this harm, one that does not begin and end with just one type of moral act as representing the sum of the good.