‘Ideological colonization’

It is a phrase straight out of the center-periphery idiom of Latin American “dependencia” thinking. Concepts like “ideological colonization” freely flow from the speeches of the Argentine Pope Francis, particularly when he speaks in Spanish. They mirror the realities of political oppression and the emancipatory struggles that have shaped the consciousness of an entire generation of Latin American activists and intellectuals.

While drawing extensively from Marxism, the semantics of dependencia easily eclipsed the orthodox formulations of Western communism. This was partly because the proletarian internationalism of the latter could not smoothly accommodate the type of Third World nationalism that, having taken shape in the wake of the anticolonial revolutions, continued to inspire the quest for new paths to development.

While Marxism highlighted the role of the working class in the birthing of a new socialist society, dependencia theory championed the cause of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and the excluded—beyond the categories furnished by Marxist class analysis.   While Marxism focused on the mechanisms of capitalism as it remakes the world in its image, dependencia theory chose to analyze the manifestations of imperialist domination in various societal spheres—not just in the economy or in politics, but also in culture and the arts, in science and technology, in the mass media, in education, in ideology, etc.

On the second day of his Philippine visit last Jan. 16, Pope Francis addressed the families that were gathered by the Bishops’ Commission on Family and Life at the Mall of Asia Arena. Without notes, he spoke eloquently in Spanish, and, as he spoke, his equally articulate interpreter, Msgr. Mark Miles, translated his words into English. As a sociologist, I find this speech one of the most memorable he gave in the Philippines, and therefore feel justified in extensively quoting from it. I draw from the unedited transcript of that speech.

The Pope spoke about the many joys of being family, the family’s unique mission in the world, and the important role it plays in the Church’s own mission. In many societies of the developing world, he noted, the family faces manifold pressures and dangers. Among these is “ideological colonization.”

“Let us be on guard against colonization by new ideologies. There are forms of ideological colonization which are out to destroy the family. They are not born of dreams, of prayers, of closeness to God or the mission which God gave us, the mission of the family. Just as our peoples, at a certain moment of their history, were mature enough to say ‘no’ to all forms of political colonization, so, too, in our families we need to be very wise, very shrewd, very strong, in order to say ‘no’ to all attempts at an ideological colonization of our families.

“… While all too many people live in dire poverty, others are caught up in materialism and lifestyles which are destructive of family life and the most basic demands of Christian morality. These are forms of ideological colonization. The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.”

When Pope Francis warns against these forms of “ideological colonization,” the flavor is unmistakably “dependentista,” but the reference is distinctly Catholic. Every deviation from the image that the Church conceives the family to be seems to appear—for the Church—as a threat to the family itself. It is fascinating to see this seamless religious appropriation of radical language in order to convey the timeless messages of the Church.

For, there is a sense in which one might view the Church’s staunch defense of its conception of the family as itself a form of colonization. I do not mean this as a criticism so much as a simple observation of what happens to all human institutions in the transition to modernity. They are delinked from their traditional couplings—that is, as they become autonomous, they also become more open to new relationships and influences.

This functional differentiation or, to use another dependencia term, autonomization, is an evolutionary process that all societies undergo. It is usually resisted by the older institutions of religion and politics—the Church and the state, in particular—accustomed as they are to exercising their ability to steer society in accordance with their respective self-referential understandings of the world.

Any nation that has been shaped by the heroic struggle against colonial domination will have no trouble understanding Pope Francis when he says, “Every people deserves to conserve its identity without being ideologically colonized.” I think he was specifically referring to population policies and programs that are imposed from outside, often in exchange for developmental assistance. I think he also meant that nations should explore and choose their own path to development, rather than allow themselves to be mesmerized and thoughtlessly seduced by the novelty of Western modernity. But, I don’t think he meant to say that all changes that do not conform to Catholic ideals constitute a form of colonization.

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