When I was ten-ish, my family was stationed in Germany. Being “stationed” makes it sound like the United States Army hired me and my five siblings to sit tight in a bunker and scan the horizon for the return of the Nazi Threat. In fact, only my father was bunkered-in. The only fascists I had the pleasure of facing were fashionable fascists: the skinheads who would gather in the city-center where I went to purchase Linkin Park CDs. They (the fascists) would scowl at the punks (who wore anti-fascist patches). Both parties would curse each other, listen to techno, and drink small, green bottles of Jagermeister that littered the ground like bullet casings when they left. Neither fascists nor antifascists would have appreciated the imperial presence of my father, dutifully working for the NATO alliance during the Bush years.
Americans were unpopular in Germany. (Or at least, I was unpopular in Germany, and, seeing that I was a brilliant specimen of humanity, could only assume that this judgement stemmed from a judgement of my nation rather than my person.) Once, when my friends and I were digging up turnips and launching them into the air (don’t ask) some “big kids” spat down my shirt and tried to steal my friends’ dog. They called us “Yankees.” We called them Krauts. They yelled that we “loved Bush.” We yelled back something about Hitler. Sticks were thrown. We retrieved our puppy.
This animosity was probably the result of teenagers being pimply and stupid (though an alternative explanation dawns on me as I write this: that I may have been stealing their turnips) but I believed the bad feelings of the German youth to be a direct result of America’s victory in World War II, the World Cup of Wars, in which the United States, a last-minute substitution, scored brilliantly, leaving the German team to smart for centuries after. This ten-year-old wisdom was popular on the NATO base: I remember my father reading a letter sent out to all the British and American officers informing them, in official, military terms, that it was not appropriate to settle local disputes over commodity prices by yelling, “We won the bloody war!” This was news to me. When we first arrived in Germany, an English officer assigned to showing us our house pointed into the foliage and informed the children gravely: “You’ve got a Nazi squirrel in your back garden. Left over from the bad old days. Never gave up the fight. Watch out for him.” In my mind, World War II was still ongoing; the Nazis had just become the neo-Nazis that littered the steps up to the shopping mall. This put me, an American, on the side of justice and right — their mortal enemy.
Unfortunately, the local skinheads must have been too addled by Jagermeister and industrial goth music to recognize my obviously patriotic gait, my blue jeans, my potential to participate in free and open elections. They never tried to murder me, torture me, or even conscript me into an outdoor recreational club. I was forced, by their apathetic and second-rate Nazism, to lie to my friends, spinning a marvellously tall tale in which a neo-nazi sniffed out my sympathies and chased me down cobblestone streets with a Luger, forcing me to steal a bike and make a great escape. In truth, I was more fascinated by the skinheads than afraid; amazed that anyone would pierce their nose and attach it, by a thin chain, to the nose of their lover; tickled by their dreary techno; awestruck by the tattoos and hairspray that expressed Europe’s political extremes. (And, now that I think of it, I may have made up that story to justify stealing a bike.)
By the time I was fifteen, my mother, a spiritually enterprising woman, moved us back to the United States so that we wouldn’t lose our faith among the empty churches of Europe. Before we left, she took advantage of being stationed in the land of historical Catholicism, and dragged us across the hoary Continent. This was easier when we were homeschooling (which was quite illegal for residents of the German state, so do keep it quiet). If our lesson was on Ludwig von Beethoven, we would high-tail it to his house for a day-trip; if it was on a dead Saint, we would pile into the 12-seater to venerate his bones. (I should mention that we were mortified by the 12-seater. In a place as post-Christian as Germany we may as well have strapped a banner on the back reading, “Come One, Come All to the ‘We Hate Contraception’ Travelling Side-show! Watch eight, authentically-related people pile in and out! Speculate on the level of guilt they bear for overpopulating the planet!”)
Once we entered the NATO base’s British school system (where we ate spotted dick and listened to fuzzy Anglican sermons) our trips were limited to school-breaks. I recall complaining that we were so often taken from our friends and their video-games: “Do we really have to go to Rome?” But to Rome we went, thank God, and to Paris and Oberammergau and Lourdes, because the Euro was good and the Dollar was bad. And wherever we went, we made sure to stay with religious orders. Monasteries, rectories, and guesthouses were the stuff of our travels.
I was too young to realize how odd this really was; how most American tourists do not pay for their keep by helping a flurry of French nuns do the dishes, committing to a few difficult hours of late-night prayer and adoration, or serving at the morning Mass. My mother was killing two birds with one stone, catechizing us and seeing Europe for cheap, much in the same way she gave us “cultural experience” by hiring us all out to pick grapes on a Rhine Valley vineyard, for which the vinter paid her in wine that we were all too young to drink. (We are still struck, I think, by the cleverness of her scheme, and often discuss it at family dinners). My impression of Europe was that it was a kind of vast Catholic playground abandoned by its children; a park of gothic cathedrals and romanesque abbeys whose imposing gates easily opened at a whisper to the security guard: “We’re here for the Mass.” This swept aside curtains and opened crypts for our curious eyes and (usually) folded hands.
My mother is Minnesota-raised; Old Europe turns her into an Italian peasant. She develops a slight accent, and takes to pulling out a rosary and waving it at whatever poor receptionist sits between her family and their basilica, relics, or exhumed and incorruptible Saints. We would make fun of her — “The bambinos would a-like to a-pray the rosario to Mama Maria” — but the sight of her faith usually melted whatever resolve the officials had to charge two euros for the upkeep. Our troop trundled past the tourists, pulling faces at the suckers who could only photograph the Catholicism we were learning to live. My mother understood that the wonders of Europe really did belong to her, and to us, by the rights of Baptism. This is the lesson I keep from her: Not by anything I had done to deserve it, but by grace, the Church is my home.
I do not mean this in the way a social psychologist might say that church communities provide a valuable sense of belonging for an increasingly lonely generation. They do, but who cares about all that. The Church is my home in the sense that I am a part of a body of believers, united in mind, quietly committed to loving each other throughout all the nations of the earth. As long as I belong to this body, I am never alone, no matter how geographically displaced.
Globalism gets a bad rap, but there is a real desire for globalism in the human heart, inaugurated by the revelation of the Jews and of Jesus Christ, that “there is one God and Father of all,” and that we love him by loving our neighbor, who is not limited by nation or class, but who meets us wherever we roam. This globalism is not based on our “common humanity” — a notion that is derivative of Christian teaching and feels lacklustre without it — but on the genuine possibility of all men “having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” One of the many reasons I am happy to be Catholic is that, unlike the promises of economic globalism, it really does quench the thirst for a global life.
Economic globalism only appears to be global — usually it is American, often Chinese. One experiences the quasi-catholicism of globalism when visiting a Starbucks in Nice, staying at a Hilton in Egypt, listening to the “business English” of the service industry in Berlin, climbing up a winding staircase of Oxford’s Bodleian libraries, with their roots dug deep into the 15th century, only to find its occupants doing the same thing as the library-inhabitants of Oxford, Ohio — using the wifi to check their Chinese phones. Undoubtedly, the capital-intensive globalization of communication technology and American brands are turning the world into the global village that so many hope for, but the global village is not really global — men are unified, not by anything that transcends the lot of them, but by the mutual consumption of American and Chinese technology that slowly levels the unique habits of the human person into the constant, daily activation of identical devices. There is a reason why, despite high hopes for multiculturalism, the vast majority of the internet is spelled out in English and Chinese, and local tongues are on their way to extinction. The world is being united by the mutual use of large technological systems owned and operated by countries with the capital to make, maintain, promote and distribute large technological systems. Men wave different flags and eat different foods, but spend their days increasingly dissolved in the same series of acts: updating their status, watching porn, following Google’s directions, ordering goods from Amazon, and so on.
A true globalism can not be so cynical. A true globalism cannot relish Mark Zuckerberg’s idea that “the more we connect the better it gets” when the capital and technological amassment in and through which we all connect belongs to Mark Zuckerberg, enriches him, and makes every culture a little more like his own. The internationalism offered by the Church is realistic, because it seeks to unify the nations by converting them all to a common belief. Economic globalism is unrealistic, because it seeks to unify the nations by converting them all to common market participation and consumption of products, while poo-pooing the very mediums through which diverse men can unify without violence — the mediums of mind and heart; of intellectual agreement and love. Though I have a familiarity with the Ugandan through our mutual use of American brands, and though I could navigate Korea with the same Silicon Valley technology as the Korean, nevertheless I have no home in any of these countries, no real belonging outside of the purchase of the same products. No one would take me in. No one would give me a meal. No one would open the gate to the holy place and invite me to pray.
The last time I risked homelessness in London, I felt no fear — I found a rectory and a priest who would keep me. When I wanted free access to a Dominican library in Oxford I heard the approaching friar-librarian mutter to the gatekeeper, “Does he look like a good sort? Catholic?” and I groped around for a rosary to wave about in imitation of my mother. When my wife and I risked temporary homelessness, we put a notice in the Mass bulletin, listed by the kind oratorians as a request to be considered “of your charity,” and were taken in by an ex-Carmelite novitiate and her husband. And when I find myself down and out in Paris, I will make my way to the Basilica Sacre Coeur; and should I end up broke in Slovenia, I will rustle through a list of Catholic Churches and hang about after the Mass; and should I end up dying in Nigeria, I will call a priest to bring me God and see me off. I am not afraid of the world; I am Catholic.
Real globalism unites the globe, not by recreating its members in the image of the techno-barbarian, but by appealing to a reality that transcends and calls forth every member of the human family — arguing, forcefully, that we are fallen, that we need to be saved, that death is not the end, that there is one God who is the father and savior of us all, that there is one Church, one prayer, and one movement of all things towards a final peace. Because this unity is one of belief, men may join the “global community” without becoming horribly alike. United in heart, spirit, and mind, they are free to be disunited in custom, cuisine, habit, tool-use, markets, language, needs, desires, and all the rest. Catholicism is the enemy of globalism, because globalism is a bad attempt at Catholicism, one that leads to a world unified into a large, functioning technological system and market economy without giving the world the common heart. The solution to the growing monster of globalism is not provincialism and populism, nor banal, American-style, cosmopolitanism, but conversion to the Catholic Church and obedience to her teachings.