The Catholic Imagination, the Amazon Synod, and the Problem of Colonization

The Catholic Imagination, the Amazon Synod, and the Problem of Colonization October 14, 2019

Yes, the Catholic Church has a racism problem. This has been made painfully evident in recent weeks, between a well known pro-life personality’s racist attacks on a Black bishop, and the unnerving white supremacist backlash against the Amazon Synod. It’s manifested in the tolerance and even enabling of anti-semitism on the part of public Catholics, who are more accurate than I like to admit when they claim to be defending a venerable Catholic tradition. 

It’s written all over our history. It’s a moral albatross around our communal neck. Not only did we look away from the horrors done to Native peoples by white colonizers, we encouraged them. Not only did we ignore the centuries of kidnapping, rape, abuse, and enslavement of Black Africans by white westerners, we enabled the slave trade and provided a secure and welcoming faith community for slave-owners. We should have been on the side of the oppressed, but repeatedly we were the oppressors. And until we confront our own shameful past and make material amends, and until we deal with the clear and present evil of racism and prejudice in Catholic communities today, it’s questionable whether we have a moral high ground to stand on. 

Our legacy of racism in Catholic culture is evident in how we relate to the arts. There is a popular lament, among Catholic academics and writers, that the state of the Catholic imagination is woeful, that Catholic literature isn’t great like it used to be, that there are no new vibrant Catholic artists. The irony is that many of those who do the lamenting are themselves the gatekeepers of Catholic publishing, so they have only themselves to blame if Catholic writing is soporific. In the Catholic publishing world, there are so few opportunities for creative Catholic writers who are willing to push boundaries and ask hard questions. Editors seem to be on the lookout only for writers who combine massive platform with marshmallow content.

But the world of the market is not the world of the imagination. Insofar as there is such thing as a “Catholic imagination” – or at least, “Catholic imaginations” – the failure of the publishing world should not be taken as a failure of the muse. There are excellent Catholic writers and artists working today, and many of them are having trouble finding a publisher who is a) willing to take religious themes seriously, b) willing to step outside the lines of what we are and are not permitted to address. 

And there are actual Catholic writers at work in the literary world, recognized by the literary world – but not recognized by Catholics as Catholic, because they don’t fit into the approved boxes for “Catholic writer” as envisioned by a predominantly white male intelligentsia. 

The late magnificent Toni Morrison is one. Morrison’s Catholicism, which she herself chose as a young girl, is not just a blip on her timeline. Even her writer name, Toni, was derived from her baptismal name, Anthony – her given name was Chloe. And a profoundly Catholic sacramental vision of church and communion is evident in her work. It just isn’t evident to a reader who thinks that Catholic vision must be white vision – that church must be white church. 

Morrison is a Nobel-winning novelist. Why are Catholics not more willing to revere her as part of their canon? Is it because they are only comfortable with a white canon? Is it because they can’t imagine a Gospel message about liberation which doesn’t center them as protagonists? In which they are not the heroes, but the hypocrites, the white men the whited sepulchers? In which the harshest words of Jesus are directed not against some imagined secularist oppressor, but against them?

Another revered Catholic writer, Louise Erdrich, mingles native Tribal themes with Catholic themes in her novels, but how often is recognized as an exemplar of Catholic imagination? Multiply awarded poet Natalie Diaz similarly mingles imagery from her Catholic background with that of the Native experience.

Oh, one might say – but Morrison was lapsed! Erdrich is not orthodox! Diaz writes about her female lover!

Yet we revere the works of serial philanderer Graham Greene, even though his books were condemned by church leaders at the time. We view Evelyn Waugh as a paragon of the Catholic imagination, when what he really channels is the imagination of the British Empire, with rivulets of Catholic guilt running along the edges. Our revered Catholic writers over the generations have not all been pleasant, not all moral, not all orthodox, not all practicing.  But we feel comfortable canonizing them as saints of the Catholic imagination because they fit snugly into our western-centric notion of what that entails.  In many cases, we have confused western Europe with Catholic Christianity, and vice versa. We have taken a difficult, existentialist writer like Flannery O’Connor  and doused her thoroughly with the bleach of white bourgeois religion, until readers have forgotten how violent, vivid, and disturbing her work really is – how much a challenge to the culture of respectability.

It’s not that I don’t love Greene and Waugh. It’s just that when we make them the sole exemplars of some universal “Catholic imagination” we not only flatten them and miss their individuality; we confine ourselves to a narrow understanding of both Catholicism and imagination, continuing to marginalize the non-white, the immigrant, the Native, the colonized. We do in our art what we have already done in our politics.

We are missing out. We are losing the opportunity to learn from Catholic artists who have explored the sacramental through mythologies of the global south, the ecclesial through the tribal. We are specifically missing the social justice dimension of the Catholic imagination, when we ignore the writings of those for whom the cry to heaven for justice is real.

The Amazon Synod is providing us with a real challenge to move past our racist fear and loathing of cultures other than our own. It should remind us that the culture we view as “our own” is already the result of blending, assimilation, enculturation. And, yes, colonization and appropriation, so maybe we should not consider ourselves so morally superior?

But instead of embracing this opportunity for cultural enrichment, for a dynamic awakening of the Catholic imagination to new possibilities of religious expression and ecological rootedness, many Catholics are digging down deeper into racism. The non-western is derided as pagan – as though western Christian art weren’t already filled with Apollos, Sybils, and Athenas. Some have even gone so far as to view the native religions of the Amazon region as “demonic.”

If it’s not white, it’s scary, is the message I’m getting.

I want to say, look at the cultural opportunities! Isn’t this what the Catholic arts world needs right now?

But now that I am seeing the full extent of the racism and bigotry in Catholic circles, I wonder – do we even have the right to look to the religion and culture of the Amazon for inspiration?  To claim non-white and non-western Catholic writers or artists as “our own?” Repeatedly, over centuries, white westerners have made claims of cultural and religious superiority, and on the basis of these claims enslaved and colonized indigenous peoples. We have used Christianity as an excuse to tyrannize, “for their own good.” Even today, white missionaries are still acting as agents of the colonizing spirit, and the same Christians who support them then turn around and deny refuge to non-white people fleeing violence in their own countries – violence often caused by the imperialist activities of the U.S. and Europe.

Maybe the western imagination has been sucked dry, or maybe it has been contaminated by too many toxins of racism and prejudice. Maybe it needs a reformation, a purification, or at least a time out. But whatever we as Catholic artists choose to do, to reinvigorate our own Catholic imaginations, I think we need to be cautious, in light of our history, about looking to Native cultures for resources of inspiration for our art, our culture, our heritage, our work.

Because if we aren’t careful this could be just another species of colonization.

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