This posting continues my previous post (just scroll down) about Pope Francis’ latest encyclical on social friendship and my attempt to relate it to my experience of living in “LoDo” or lower downtown Denver.
Early headlines saw the encyclical as a response to the pandemic, a call for renewal of the social world as we move through the crisis and suffering and begin to rebuild the fabric of social live at all levels.
Indeed, Francis tells us in his prefatory paragraphs that the pandemic erupted while he was in the midst of writing. The pandemic is not the cause of the encyclical, but it tragically exemplifies the fragmentation of social life which is central to Francis’ concern. Fragmentations and divisions at home and globally which have made the pandemic far worse than it might have been.
Yet the pandemic also has brought to light all the many ways that social solidarity has arisen to deal with the virus. Yes, the courage and love embodied in first responders of every kind – including store clerks and truck drivers who maintain the social good of our food chains. And now the teachers and parents and zoom technicians working with such dedication to continue the education of our children.
The pandemic emerges at various points in the letter as evidence both of our fragmented social relations and of our continuing forms of solidarity.
Denver’s on partial lockdown or whatever they call it. Restaurants in LoDo, of which there are many, are bracing for weather that will drive fewer diners inside. Most folks on the street wear masks. Especially true of the hundreds of construction workers who seem on strict orders to mask up.
The letter’s opening chapter, “Dark Clouds over a Closed World,” is a lengthy discussion of the fragmentation and loss of “social friendship” which prevails around the globe. Like all of the letter, the chapter is both informed analysis and moral argument. It is informed by good social science and philosophy and religious knowledge, and also by Francis’ own personal engagement with the events and trends, the tragedies and the goodness of our world. And it is written in a style which, as he says in the beginning, enables him to bring together many ideas and themes about our world and our great need for social solidarity.
One example of Francis’ scope and detail is his discussion (in par. 47) of the fragmentation and isolation caused by social media. They involve, he says, a real “risk of addiction, isolation and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development [especially for the young] of authentic interpersonal relationships.”
Then he continues, with a marvelous sense of our human need to touch and taste, these media “lack the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are a part of human communication. Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appearance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity.”
This detailed and discursive form of writing can bother any reader who wants to get quickly to the bottom line. Like students asking for short answers.
It’s the writing of a master teacher who leads students slowly towards real and not merely notional understanding. Only slow, even meditative reading will lead to real and transformational understanding.
LoDo almost anytime. Rushing hither and yon. Always connected by some kind of gadget. Quick lunch. Quick dash for the train or the free Mall-bus. Working while walking. Even couples walking in quick each connected to her/his own phone doing whatever folks do these days during their walking and riding times.
I know this risks stereotype, but the many Hispanic guys in construction here seem to be the only ones who just sit and shoot the breeze during their lunch and other breaks.
Maybe I see all this constant “busy-ness” because I’m so busy most of the time. At least in my head. What the Buddhists call “monkey mind.”
I’m pretty sure most of us have some sense of the “Dark Clouds over a Closed World” which Francis is talking about. We typically sum it up in terms of the election, covid, climate change, and the resulting mess of poverty, dislocation, migrations, wars.
Yet Francis, while addressing each of these topics in his opening chapter, is not content with a quick formulation of our ills. He challenges us in this long chapter to journey with him through present darkness and isolation, always reminding us of alternative goods and developments which are also present. Never allowing things to be reduced to the simplistic pictures of class or racial divisions which seem to polarize so many of us.
This pope is one smart guy. Way better than most of our pundits, even the good ones.
He travels to all parts of our world, often by jet, even more by speeches and letters to audiences around the globe. A brief glance at the endnotes shows him speaking to people at key locations folks in both Israel and Palestine, in Nagasaki and Mozambique…. And also to youth groups, professional organizations, and activist meetings in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the US.
So he knows a bit about the fragmenting social realities of our world, the conflicts and crises. And about the good work of so many to renew social solidarity.