Catholics watching the intensifying debate over “cancel culture” could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the sudden interest in a phenomenon we have been dealing with, and fighting about, for decades or longer. How do you say “Been there, done that” in Latin? Drawing lines around orthodoxy and authority has been part of the DNA of Christianity since the beginning, as evidenced by arguments over Gentile converts at the Council of Jerusalem and Christ’s nature at the Council of Nicaea.
Inclusion often won out, as with the mission to the Gentiles and the Donatism controversy. Then again, Galileo. The modern era and the reaction of a defensive (sometimes slipping into paranoid) mindset of Fortress Catholicism had the church hunting for heretics more than converts, and modern means of communication made “delation” – such a polite term for such an underhanded practice – even easier. Pius X was a master of the art, as conservatives like him tended to see Modernists under every bed. During the reign of John Paul II and his righthand man, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the concerns often focused on what was going on in every bed, and the culture of denunciation flourished.
Social media has provided a hyper-efficient means for anyone who wants to de-platform or outright cancel Catholics they find objectionable, and now most anyone with an Internet connection can be a tinpot inquisitor. The shift has been so swift that we now have a pope who is the object of Catholic cancel culture rather than its driver.
Yet the Catholic Church under Pope Francis may, in fact, have a lesson for everyone in this debate, from the heresy hunters on the right who dominate cancel culture – in the church and in society – to the emerging progressive Puritans on the left.
Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has slowed the Roman machinery of inquisition and denunciation almost to a halt. He has instead preached a message of inclusion and outreach, accompaniment and discernment, and he has saved his harshest words for those in the hierarchy who judge others while sparing themselves. At the same time, he has not silenced or censured even senior church leaders who disagree with him, despite their machinations against him or their pseudo-schismatic levels of criticism of his papacy.
This reflects an approach that Francis spelled out early on in his opening speech to the 2014 synod at the Vatican. Francis told the bishops from around the world that the tone of their discussions should be characterized by the Greek term parrhesia – literally meaning to “say everything” or, in this context, to speak freely and boldly. “A general condition is this,” the pope said. “Speak clearly. Let no one say: ‘This you cannot say.’ ”
“You need to say all that you feel with parrhesia,” he continued. “And, at the same time, you should listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say.”
This was a sea change for the church, as Francis well knew (he himself never forgot having his own talk for a synod years earlier censored by Vatican officials). It’s also a good way to think about our current debates, or, rather, our debates about debates.
A recent Twitter thread by Teresa Bejan, a professor of political theory at Oxford and author of Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, prompted these reflections as she invoked parrhesia as the hermeneutical lens for the cancel culture controversy.
“Parrhesiastic speech is thus ‘free’ in the sense of being freely or frankly spoken, without fear or favor towards one’s audience and how they might react,” Bejan wrote. The opposite of parrhesia “isn‘t just silence, but *unfree* speech – flattery, hypocrisy, dishonestly telling the audience what they want to hear and only that. A society without parrhesia is thus a society of ‘yes’-men ruled by an overwhelming norm of conformity.” That’s an observation that ought to ring painfully true for those who have followed the courtier culture that marks ecclesiastical dynamics.
What Bejan highlights, however, is that parrhesia is not simply about establishing and defending a legal right. Cancel culture is, in fact, a debate about culture, that is, a debate involving people and their sensibilities. “One also needs to be able to *trust* one’s audience to be tolerant when it comes to things they don’t want to hear,” Bejan continued. “[T]he legal right to free speech is insufficient to protect parrhesia, and parrhesia is valuable. We must therefore cultivate a culture that tolerates disagreeable speech … We must do this *not* because we value the disagreeable speech as such, let alone its content. But because the alternative is a brutalizing and conformist culture of fear in which the weak, vulnerable, and unpopular suffer most.”
Francis’ promotion of genuine synodality is key to building such a culture in the ecclesial context. Everyone can speak his or her mind at synods; propositions are adopted with a supermajority vote, and even those propositions that do not pass are included for the record. A synod is not a winner-take-all, zero-sum game. But there are other Catholic practices that can also move us beyond the temptation to cancel and de-platform, such as the well-known, oft-ignored Ignatian presupposition “that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it.”
Also critical is the acceptance of legitimate dissent; it’s a noble tradition within the church that was largely erased in past decades. Dissent not only allows the church to breathe and to grow but it serves as a key pressure valve to let off steam and foster healthy conversations instead of explosive arguments. The alternative is what we see so often today, a “dubia” culture of catechism Catholicism in which a believer (or even a pope) must respond with reductive “yes-or-no” answers. A wrong answer, or no answer, equals heresy, or schism. Exactly who is the heretic or the schismatic then becomes a matter of further debate.
A truly ecclesial culture must also allow room for mistakes, incorrect answers and a gradual growth in understanding – by all sides. This means practicing of the fundamental virtues of forgiveness, mercy and charity. They ought to be central to the Christian life, but they are too often missing in Catholic culture today – and they are practically banished from the discourse of our secular puritanism as principles are placed above people. Yes, the church has something to teach here. But first we must learn.
David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.