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Pope Francis' Culture of Encounter and the Defense of Humanity

By: Julia Mourão Permoser

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter in a Time of War

The Culture of Conflict

In the 1990s, as I was coming of age and the end of the Cold War was still an unmistakable certainty, there was a very clear and palpable sense in world politics that ideological conflicts were a thing of the past. The liberal West had won the Cold War, putting an end to conflict. Some even rushed to declare "the end of history." Fallacious as this analysis always was, there was nevertheless a strong hope among many corners that, collectively, we stood at the dawn of a new world order, and that former enemies would now be able to resolve their disagreements peacefully within structures of global governance.

As I write these pages, Russia has just started a large-scale military invasion of Ukraine. Just as in my youth, there is today an equally palpable sense in world politics that history is being made. The difference is that the history that is being made today is not one to be celebrated, but decried. The current world order is crumbling, and ideological conflict plays an important part in its downfall. As Vladimir Putin's rhetoric and actions throughout the years have made abundantly clear, his attack on Ukraine is also an attack on the West and all that it stands for--including the cultivation of individual rights and liberties, the protection of minorities, the endorsement of freedom of expression, and the public celebration of diversity and pluralism.

This attack on key liberal-democratic values and principles is not exclusive to Putin. Similar attacks have been made, for example, by Donald Trump in the United States, JairBolsonaro in Brazil, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Jaroslaw Kaczyński in Poland, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Indeed, these leaders share many similarities, both in their rhetoric and their actions. Politically, they resemble each other in that they were democratically elected, but once in power, they displayed unmistakable authoritarian tendencies. When in government, they have worked to hollow out democratic institutions and have acted in disregard for democratic procedures or have attacked them frontally. In a nutshell, they have set in motion a process of democratic backsliding.

Ideologically, these leaders share in the same type of discourse that desecrates the values of pluralism and individual autonomy. They downplay the importance of state neutrality, deny freedom of expression, show contempt for facts, and either covertly or overtly attack scientists, judges, and the media, thus seeking to eliminate or neutralize sources of independent knowledge and opinion formation. They also challenge political liberalism by speaking and acting against the emancipation of women and by curtailing the rights of homosexuals and of national and religious minorities.

Finally, and this is important, they also resemble each other in their approach to religion. It is notable that all the leaders mentioned above have instrumentalized religion (in addition to national and ethnic identity) in the pursuit of their political objectives. Their approach to religion includes, on the one hand, making appeals to religious doctrine and enforcing a particular--state-sanctioned--understanding of religious precepts in order to legitimize their quest for power. Religion is thus used to provide sanctioning for policies that curtail individual and minority rights. On the other hand, their approach to religion also includes the co-optation of certain religious leaders and communities. This last point was very clear in Russia, where under Putin a symbiotic relationship between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) emerged that infused Putin's political program with a strong religiously-driven moral agenda, while at the same time also investing the ROC's symbolic power and ecclesiastical authority in support of Putin's rule.

The Culture of Encounter

In my view, it is against this gloomy scenario in world politics that we must evaluate--and commend--the important step undertaken by Pope Francis with the publication of his encyclical Fratelli Tutti. In it, Pope Francis defends a culture of encounter based on the notions of fraternity, civic friendship, human dignity, and openness toward the other.

He also addresses highly polarizing and controversial topics, taking a decisive stance and leaving no doubt as to where he stands on these issues. Chief among these issues is immigration. In his encyclical, Pope Francis makes an argument for more global justice, pointing out that the enormous inequality in wealth and life chances between countries are legitimate causes of migration. He argues for development policies that might mitigate such inequalities, but he also argues that, as long as such inequalities persist, developed countries must be ready to welcome migrants in their midst [n.129]. More than that, they should put in place concrete policies to protect refugees and ensure the cultural and socioeconomic integration of immigrant populations. Among the concrete policies he cites are the creation of legal avenues for migration, the creation of humanitarian corridors for vulnerable refugees, the provision of housing and access to basic services, the possibility of opening bank accounts, the right to work and to free movement, access to education, religious freedom, and family reunification [n.130]. He also calls for immigrants to be granted full citizenship, including equal rights and duties as well as the recognition of fully belonging to society [n. 131]. Further, he argues that immigrant cultures enrich the culture of their host countries, citing Latino culture in the United States and Jewish culture in Argentina as examples [n. 135].

He admonishes all those who "organize themselves in a way that prevents any foreign presence that might threaten their identity and their closed and self-referential structures" [n. 102] as incapable of acting as true neighbors. Directly addressing those who are hesitant or fearful of immigrants, he expresses understanding but asks that they "move beyond those primal reactions" and instead seek the encounter with the other in order to avoid becoming "intolerant" or even "racist" [n. 41]. Drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, he argues that in the face of a needy stranger, there is no neutral stance possible. Each and every one of us is either the robber, the person who looks away, or the one who lends a helping hand [n. 67].

In Defense of Humanity

The importance of Pope Francis' words should not be understated. By positioning himself so clearly, Pope Francis removes the possibility of political instrumentalization of his person--and, to a certain extent, of the teachings of the Catholic Church--for nationalist and nativist purposes. He lends his whole symbolic weight to a message of solidarity, fraternity, and peace. Instead of the clash of civilizations or the culture wars, he endorses the culture of encounter.

In this sense, in endorsing the culture of encounter, Pope Francis is removing himself from a certain political space--the political space of instrumentalization and co-optation by nationalist and nativist political actors. At the same time, however, with this encyclical Pope Francis is also stepping onto the political stage by taking a very clear stance on controversial political subjects such as immigration. Immigration is a topic that divides. It generates strong cleavages not only within and among nations and political parties, but also among Catholic believers. By taking such a strong stance, the pope exposes himself to criticism. To use Hannah Arendt's term, he "ventures into the public realm," daring to take action and to expose himself publicly in the name of a certain trust in humanity. In this sense, his call for a radical form of alterity and solidarity is a daring political act--one that is absolutely necessary in today's world.