Two decades into the new century and emerging from a global pandemic, we face a new challenge: an increasingly fractured world divided along political, social, and religious lines.
Pope Francis has pointedly described the fragility revealed by the COVID-19 crisis. “For all our hyper-connectivity,” he wrote in 2020 in Fratelli Tutti, “we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all.” The world has been drifting apart, the pope lamented. “Ancient conflicts thought long buried are breaking out anew, while instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise.”
From the start of his pontificate, Francis has not only diagnosed the global crisis. He has also proposed a way forward: the development of “a culture of encounter” in which, as he put it in May 2013, “we can also speak with those who think differently, as well as those who hold other beliefs, who do not have the same faith.” Encounter, for Francis, goes beyond dialogue to engaging difference with a stance of humility, generosity, and patience towards those who think and live differently, drawing on the fundamental human unity that lies behind our political, social, and religious divisions. At the height of the pandemic, his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti called for a “culture of encounter capable of transcending our differences and divisions” and encouraged people to dream and act “as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth, which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.”
Over the course of 2021 and 2022 the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University is collaborating with three Vatican partners—the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, the Dicastery for Culture and Education, and Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue—to convene a global network around Pope Francis' concept of a "culture of encounter." Working groups made up of diverse scholars and practitioners will explore three related themes: creating a culture of encounter, forging global solidarity, and reforming global governance. The project is generously supported by the GHR Foundation.
The culture of encounter not a utopian or a specifically Catholic project. It is realistic in that it begins with the fact of human plurality: the encounters of different peoples, cultures, nations, religions often sharply at odds, that characterize the world throughout history and especially today. No single prescription for our global moment, whether liberal, democratic, nationalist, conservative, or authoritarian, can command universal assent—or ought to. A culture of encounter, however difficult to sustain, may represent the only viable way to negotiate and bridge differences for the global common good on issues from climate change to social and economic development and peace.
Thomas Banchoff, Berkley Center director and vice president for global engagement, Georgetown University, is directing the project. It was announced at a conference in Rome on November 8 and 9, 2021, organized by the Berkley Center and the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.
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