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Culture of Encounter: Is Institutionalization Possible?

By: Jocelyne Cesari

August 23, 2022

Religions and Encounter as a Global Challenge

In his keynote address at the Culture of Encounter conference, Archbishop Paul Gallagher stated that dialogue, and therefore “encounter,” is the primary method for bringing peace into international diplomacy and global governance. However, encounter and dialogue are not synonymous. The latter involves communication between equals or at least a level-field interaction between individuals of good will, something that is not systematically present with encounter. When it comes to global affairs, such dialogue can only be successful if a greater attention is paid to the ongoing imbalance of power and unequal distribution of resources, things that will need to be addressed to make the culture of encounter possible.

According to Msgr. Gallagher, five essential principles support the building of a culture of encounter: a requirement of justice; a calling to effective action; a calling to responsibility and accountability; a fostering of creativity; and treating the culture of encounter as a source of forgiveness. 

How can these principles be implemented at the level of global governance? Religiously motivated individuals, even in significant numbers, cannot provide a relevant response to such a question. It is, however, possible to implement these five principles through collective work channeled within a specific organization. The double implication is that we may want to firstly expand our work from abstract discussion to more concrete modes of intervention and secondly shift from the individual to the community level in order to focus on the status of religious communities on the international scene. To do so, it will be crucial to explore the role of religions in building communities that are not only devoted to the transcendent order but are also catering to the societal challenges of our globalized world: from unjust market economies to refugees and climate change. Banking on individuals of good will is important but not sufficient to advance a culture of encounter, because ultimately the decision-making is in the hands of secular agencies with logics and modus operandi that do not take into account the perfectibility of humankind.

Let us keep in mind that religion was long the primary institution for societal cohesion and order, as emphasized by the founders of sociology such as Emile Durkheim. I deliberately use the term societal rather than social because it connotes the capacity of religions to offer norms and values to shape mainstream society, which goes beyond the providing of social services. As a matter of fact, it is only in the modern secular era that religion has been reduced to personal spirituality.

One way to promote this societal role of religion would be for the culture of encounter project to build on the way religious communities are already operating in different cultural, political, and religious contexts. At this junction in time, the pandemic has made us acutely aware of the loss of life and human dignity associated with immoral governance. That is one of the reasons why religious groups have been at the forefront of protecting social community over personal fulfillment or choice, often imparting the sense of commitment to their brothers in humanity over any conformity to specific rituals. 

Even more critically, religion is not only creeds or ideas but also entails governing bodies and institutions. In this respect, it is worth emphasizing that the Vatican is the only state based on a religious institution, not to mention that Catholicism has the longest history of interactions with the international system (see my previous essay on this site). These two features make the Vatican the most suited institution to develop the role of religion in global governance. 

This does not mean that the culture of encounter should be implemented through state action, but that the Catholic Church is the only religion that has a seat at the “international table,” even if symbolic. This could serve as a stepping stone to a more established status of religion in global governance. From this perspective, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development could play an important role on the condition that this not be seen as “church business” but as a means to  work with other religions to gain traction on the international scene. Undoubtedly, the current projects of the dicastery are global and encompassing, including Pope for Ukraine; Colombia: Caridad en la frontera; excommunication of the mafias; Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene; and, in particular, the creation of the the COVID-19 Commission in March 2020. The commission’s work is organized around four pillars, all central to global governance: the dignity of work; new structures for the common good; governance, peace, and security; and rebalancing social systems and ecosystems. 

Thus far, however, the existing commission working groups mainly collaborate with Catholic entities (e.g. local churches and charities) and Vatican-affiliated organizations, although they sometimes partner with universities and representatives in both the public and private sectors in order to assemble the necessary expertise. The working group focused on supporting global diplomacy and international relations has engaged with the United Nations and the World Economic Forum. The dicastery and the commission have also partnered with other religious groups to promote an interreligious response to the pandemic. In March 2021, they hosted an event titled “Advancing Integral Disarmament in Times of Pandemic”  that featured both representatives from other Christian faiths and non-religiously affiliated academics. 

Notwithstanding this progress, much more needs to be done to work more extensively and systematically with all religious traditions and secular agencies involved in some of the aforementioned issues. The goal would not be to promote the Catholic Church as the religious leader of global governance, which would be counterproductive for a culture of encounter. It would be instead to expand the boundaries of the administrative structures of the dicastery in order to build a plural religious institution dedicated to global governance. Such an orientation means that the Church would renounce its exclusive sovereignty across these issue areas in order to open them up to other similarly minded actors, religious and non-religious. Interestingly, such an orientation would meet the expectations of many followers of other religious traditions that are in a dire need of state-independent institutions. 

Such a global institutional innovation would be eminently political without being partisan. It would be moral. For example, as noted by Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., in his keynote address at the conference, secular politics is concerned with the end of conflicts, much less on issues of social justice and just peace. Encounters in the sphere of politics and encounters in the midst of conflicts that Rev. Sosa calls for may seem far out of reach of our culture of encounter project at the moment, but moral positions might be articulated by a collective religious entity at the international level. Such an institutional innovation might inform decision makers and public opinion across global issues such as education, human dignity, and social inequality.

In sum, the implementation of a culture of encounter at the global level requires the institutionalization of religious voices. Efficiency might be gained by channeling religious engagement from a multitude of perspectives into a single institution, similar to the non-governmental international agencies that deal with issues like human rights, development, or labor regulation. I am aware that such a scenario may seem unrealistic or naïve. It can indeed be objected that there will be a lack of credibility or even suspicion from other faith groups of a possible “imperialist” initiative from the Catholic Church. The other objection concerns the inertia or resistance to change of the administrative structures within the Vatican. But as Albert Einstein reminded us, “the world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” After all, who could have predicted the rise of the European Union after the Second World War? In some ways, an institutionalization of the culture of encounter could serve as its litmus test—taking religious communities at their word as institutions committed to  coming together to defend the moral principles of global governance and leaving aside competition and rivalry for the sake of the higher good.