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International Relations and the Geometry of the Culture of Encounter

By: Scott Thomas

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and Global Governance

The culture of encounter and its related concepts of human fraternity, inclusive citizenship, and social peace are profoundly related to a central question in international relations: How do we see, interpret, and explain the world?

Pope Francis’ model of the world, the geometric form he uses to describe his vision of the world, is not a globe or a uniform sphere. (Recall, it is really only since astronauts aboard Apollo 8 took the first dramatic pictures of Planet Earth from space in 1968 that the meaning of “global” began to gain its current significance.) His model of the world is a “many-faceted polyhedron”: a geometric, three-dimensional form, made up of multiple sides or faces, with angles, lines, and spaces. His most popular example, drawn from his favorite sport, is a football or soccer ball. He has used this model in a variety of his major papal addresses and documents: Evangelii Gaudium (2013, n. 236); his “Address to the Council of Europe” (2014); Querida Amazonia (2020, n. 28); and Fratelli Tutti (2020, n. 145, 190, 215).

Now, debates over dogma, doctrines, theologies, ideologies, and theories of international relations all develop in response to what is perceived at the time by their proponents to be a specific problem. You have to discover what this problem is, or otherwise it’s possible to get lost in theory, lost in theology in ways that make both seem irrelevant to the real world, to everyday life, and to the everyday struggles of ordinary people, those who are poor, often on periphery, what Pope Francis calls “God’s holy faithful people” in the Argentine theology of the people, which he now extends through encounter, dialogue, and friendship to members of other religious traditions (Fratelli Tutti, 5, Chapter 6).

Jose Maria Bergoglio, as part of his various leadership positions, faced the problem of how to overcome the deep social, economic, political, and theological polarity, division, and tensions within the Jesuit order and in Argentine society and politics. In one early indication of his thinking, as a student in Germany he saw a painting in Augsburg titled Mary, Untier of Knots, brought a copy back with him to Argentina, and promoted her veneration in Marian devotions. Over time, he developed his model of the polyhedron as a way of acknowledging the knotty problems he faced in practice, with their complexity and interrelatedness–a perspective he shared with a global audience early in his papacy in Evangelii Gaudium (n. 217-237). Pope Francis dramatically used this same Marian image even in relation to war, ‘You know how to untie the tangles of our hearts and the knots of our time,’ during his recent Consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 25, 2022.

The model of the polyhedron goes back to the German theologian Romano Guardini and his Catholic form of “dialectical thinking,” the subject of Bergoglio’s unfinished Ph.D. dissertation (It is also related to Guardini’s “concept of contrasts,” which offered Bergoglio a new way of seeing Argentina’s problems). In this dialectical approach, Bergoglio grasped the way a culture of encounter to transcend divisions and differences could be portrayed as a polyhedron. Its multiple sides, angles, lines, and spaces showed how the tensions between piety and social justice, diversity and particularity, localization and globalization can be valued, respected, and still be brought together to “form a variegated unity, in which ‘the whole is greater than the parts.” It was a way to “represent a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreement and reservations” (Evangelii Gaudium n. 237; Fratelli Tutti n. 215).

Fratelli Tutti states that if people are in dialogue with those they encounter around them–the culture of encounter as a way of living–then there is “the opportunity to express our innate sense of fraternity,” and in a variety of encounters we have “the space we need for co-responsibility in creating and putting into place new processes and changes” (Fratelli Tutti [FT] n. 77). There is also the space to act boldly and creatively with new ideas and new projects to promote healing, reconciliation, and economic well-being. (FT n. 225, 231). In other words, it is in spaces such as these (in line with the model of the polyhedron) that religious engagement and secular-religious partnerships can offer the funding, facilitation, and support for the kind of human agency, vision, creativity, and imagination which emerge from new forms of encounter and fraternity through interreligious dialogue and collaboration at each level of analysis, especially the grassroots level, where there are the poor and the marginalized, God’s holy faithful people.

The geometry of the culture of encounter portrays a strategic vision of collaboration with multiple actors, both secular and religious, operating at multiple levels of analysis–individual, society, state, and international society, a framework used by scholars of international relations.

  • Level of International Society: “Good politics will seek ways of building communities at each level of social life, in order to recalibrate and reorient globalization and thus avoid disruptive effects.” (FT n. 182, 138, 142, 189, 259, 261, 280). Globalization is a set of global processes–socially, politically, and economically constructed in one set of ways that can be constructed in other ways that benefit ordinary people and the common good. Fratelli Tutti strongly supports the strengthening of the United Nations, international law, and regional integration (on issues of slavery, trafficking, human rights, dispute settlement, etc.)
  • State, Society, and Community Level: “Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people” (FT n. 82). Fratelli Tutti argues genuine human fraternity respects “peoples,” differences, rooted in their culture, and cultural authenticity, and yet is open to the gift of others, rather than subject to homogenizing forces of globalization (FT n. 95-100). These levels show why encounter and aspects of the theology of the people are transferable concepts, relevant at different levels of analysis, and through interreligious dialogue, can be applied to other societies, cultures, and religions.
  • Individual Level: “At the same time, there are no peoples without respect for the individuality of each person. 'People' and 'person' are correlative terms. Nonetheless, there are attempts nowadays to reduce persons to isolated individuals easily manipulated by powers pursuing spurious interests.” (FT n. 182).

Thus, the geometry of the culture of encounter offers a way of seeing the world, one which is hopeful and creative and can be related to global issues and global governance. “Agency,” in Pope Francis' political anthropology, is the way that the vision, creativity, and imagination of individuals, “peoples,” groups, and organizations can mobilize and collaborate, as an active dimension of hope, on specific global issues, identifying the specific spaces (the polyhedron), at each level of analysis, to meet immediate needs, develop specific projects, and even start to build new institutions over the long term.