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Culture of Encounter: As Found in a U.S. Suburb (of All Places)

By: Paul Elie

August 23, 2022

The Culture of Encounter: National and Local Dynamics

John Henry Newman, in his essay “On the Development of Doctrine,” first published in 1845, explains that the Catholic Church defines a doctrine only when it is already widely accepted by the faithful. The essay—which some say presaged the Second Vatican Council—was written in part to defend the Catholic approach to doctrine broadly and in part to defend Catholicism’s strong Marian piety against low-church and Church of England critics who derided it as Mariolatry. In a passage about the doctrine that Mary is Theotokos—the Mother of God—Newman developed the point that the belief in Mary as the Mother of God (challenged by the Arians) was an early one, and “the spontaneous or traditional feeling of Christians had in great measure anticipated the formal ecclesiastical decision” at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Newman’s point was one I found hard to grasp when I read it as a college student in the 1980s, because it ran against a conception of the Church in which popes summarily make declarations that the Catholics of the world are obliged to accept—a notion I’d acquired partly through journalistic clichés about the papacy and partly through the Vatican’s way of proceeding under Pope John Paul II.  

Our discussions about Pope Francis’ idea of the culture of encounter have brought Newman’s insight to mind. Of course, the idea of a culture of encounter is very far from a doctrine. It’s an idea intimated in a papal encyclical, a description of an approach to human dealings. As an idea, it’s at once attractive and elusive—elusive in the sense that it is hard to define succinctly. But as an approach, it is the very opposite of elusive: it names a way of doing things that most American Catholics have been following for most of our lives, not so much out of virtue as out of historical and cultural necessity. 

As our discussions of the culture of encounter at the May 2022 conference in Rome made clear, one source of the culture of encounter is Vatican II, which was framed as Catholicism’s encounter with the modern world—and which initiated or refreshed Catholic practices that are conducive to encounter, whether interreligious dialogue or a spirituality that sees everyday life as shot through with the grandeur of God.    

In the United States, those encounters were quickened by a pair of changes (related to each other) in everyday life. Immigration, desegregation, and geographic and social mobility led for people of different backgrounds—race, ethnicity, religious belief—to live together in new ways, albeit imperfectly and with plenty of conflict, and this change altered the ways Catholicism was imparted by the Church and grasped by the faithful. At the same time, and partly in response, Catholic everyday life changed such that Catholics were no longer raised and schooled in a tight Catholic enclave—family, parish, parochial school, Catholic college—and then seen going “out” into “the world.” That pattern, common for much of the twentieth century, was made more intense just as it was ending—made so through the experience of the baby-boom generation, whose coming-of-age and going out into the world coincided with the Church’s turn toward the world via Vatican II. For the next generation—the one I belong to—things were different. The world was all around, and the Church was changing in the midst of it, and we came of age in the world, apprehending Catholicism as it shaped us. 

The experience of some of the Catholics who are my regular conversation partners, just as an example, complicates the idea that Catholics are Catholic “first” or originally and meet the world only later. One grew up Lebanese and Maronite in Detroit; another Italian American in Oklahoma; a third in a large Irish American family in proverbially Scandinavian small-town Minnesota; and a fourth in an Ivy League town, his father a mathematician, his mother a poet educated by the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles. And there’s the son of an Italian American and a French Canadian who grew up among evangelicals in Florida. 

My own Catholic coming-of-age, which took place north of Albany, New York, also illustrates the point; indeed, it’s my upbringing, I think, that has made me aware of how strongly post-conciliar Catholic experience diverges from the Catholics-going-out-into-the world pattern. 

Upstate New York does not enjoy a reputation for cultural variety, but as a state capital, with a cluster of colleges, Albany was enriched by the Civil Rights Act, by the 1965 Immigration Act that opened the United States to new arrivals from South Asia, and by the comings and goings of state employees: many native New Yorkers roosted in our suburb, and many upstaters went to New York City regularly on state business. 

The suburb where I grew up had much of the narrowness of proverbial postwar suburbs, but it was far more diverse than the common images allow. The neighborhood where my family lived had equal numbers of Jewish families and Catholic ones. In public elementary school, the student I was usually paired with was a daughter of immigrants from India; on the bus, the students most obviously college-bound were two brothers, Black Americans, whose sister was off at a grand university. Catechism involved leaving the public-school scene via carpool for a couple of hours on Wednesday nights to sit in classrooms at the local parochial school, and it was surprising to learn which kids from public school were Catholic—the enigmatic daughter of an architect who lived in a modernist house; the basketball star never seen apart from his teammates except for these hours. Then in high school, one member of our backstage crew was a little wilder than the rest of us, and over time I found out why: His family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he soon had to decide whether to stay in the community or go his own way. The tension was seen in his wildings and in his wiry body; seeing him—and learning his story from our faculty advisor, who was deeply involved in the Methodist church—I was startled to think that he was reaching a turning point in a process I felt I was just beginning.  

That process was one of religious commitment, which, for me, took place at Fordham, in the Bronx. My freshman roommates were a New York Catholic-school troika: Italian from Queens (St. Francis Prep), Irish from Brooklyn (Xavier), Slovak from Westchester (Fordham Prep). But the student I eventually roomed with was an English citizen, and a physics major, and in conversation he approached things through categories quite distinct from the Catholic ones: the empirical standards of physics and firsthand experience of the Church of England, which left him sure, at the least—and he was right—that most of the Catholics around us had no idea how other Christians worshipped or how many points of contact there were between the different churches’ traditions and rites. 

My point in all this isn’t that Catholic formation wasn’t a central part of life for the Catholics I know—only that it didn’t happen prior to or apart from life in a variegated society. And my sense is that such experience was fairly typical. Rare is the Catholic today whose Catholic formation hasn’t involved regular encounters with people of other backgrounds and other faiths. To live in our time, to be self-aware in our time, is to be aware that one’s own faith tradition is one among many—and is to encounter others not as “the other” but as people whose lives, whose strivings, are vital and complex and so can’t be described through reductive formulae, whether about “minorities” and “diversity” on the one hand or about “unbelievers” and “our common Christian heritage” on the other.  It is to be prompted to ask oneself, on a regular basis, “Well, what is it that I believe, and how did I come to believe it, and what are these beliefs such that I hope to convey them to others?” It’s my experience that one’s beliefs are alternately firmed up and challenged through such encounters, and it’s my guess that our colleagues in the Culture of Encounter and the Global Agenda project have had similar experiences in Nigeria, in Serbia, in Australia, in Chad. 

Francis’ idea of the culture of encounter, then, is, among other things, a description or ex post facto account of such experiences. And it serves as a reminder that in our time, religious and cultural variety is basic to Catholic experience—an insight that might enable us to foster a culture of encounter that already exists and that has shaped us, whether we recognize it or not.