Georgetown University Georgetown University Logo Berkley Center Berkley Center Logo

The Culture of Encounter and the Church as a Global Learning Community

By: Johannes Wallacher

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and the Catholic Church

In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis presents the vision of a new global fraternity, a “sense of belonging to a single human family” as a prerequisite for “working together for justice and peace” (Fratelli Tutti [FT] n. 30). He rightly states that amid the pandemic, for “all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all.” (FT n. 7).

No one will be able to deny that global challenges have become more urgent. But at the same time the resistance to overcoming them through international cooperation has grown considerably in recent years. Consequently, Francis' concern is to “intend simply to consider certain trends in our world that hinder the development of universal fraternity” (FT n. 9). The pope notes regressions in this regard, referring especially to populist and nationalist movements (FT n. 11) that are reviving in various countries, as well as racist tendencies that appear in both open and hidden forms (FT n. 20). That this is also the case in countries with comparatively large Christian and Catholic influence is highlighted by Francis in several places. The pope also sharply criticizes the persistently high gender inequalities (FT n. 23) and new forms of exploitation, slavery, and organized crime (FT n. 24). For him, these are all evidence that world society is far from its claim to guarantee the universal validity of human rights for all.

With his vision of global fraternity and social friendship of all people, regardless of their belonging to a particular nation, ethnicity, culture or religion, Francis does not oppose globalization per se, but rather “a cool, comfortable and globalized indifference” (FT n. 30) that often accompanies it. Francis thus places himself in the long tradition of the Church's social teaching, according to which it has always been the task of the Church as a universal church to reflect ethically on social developments and to offer guiding principles for orientation. Even more than his predecessors, Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of dialogue with the sciences and other religious communities.

The Catholic Church has significant potential to advocate for a culture of encounter in a number of ways. As a worldwide community and global actor that is also rooted in very different cultures, it can be an advocate for transnational justice, universal human rights, and the protection of our common home. The rich spiritual and moral traditions of Christianity and other religions provide an important source of strength and motivation for personal and structural change, enabling global fraternity and a new, deeper form of encounter.

However, this rich potential also entails a responsibility for the Church that is at least as great. It must find a balance between universalism and particularism in order, on the one hand, to do justice to its universal claim to preserve unity in a global perspective, and on the other hand, to leave room for differing cultural traditions and respective developments.

At least theoretically and in principle, this problem seems to be solved by recognizing the principle of enculturation, i.e. the necessity of integration into the particular cultures. The Second Vatican Council and some local churches have given important impulses in this regard. In the end, it is always a question of adequately balancing the universal message of the Gospel with more particular forms and shapes. As far as concrete answers to these questions are concerned, the Second Vatican Council has admittedly left more questions open than answered. What is needed above all are clear and verifiable rules for unavoidable disputes appropriate for particular contexts, more contextual theologies and forms of evangelization, and a more consistent application of the important structural principle of subsidiarity, also internally.

As an institution, the Church has long struggled with the tension between centralism and local autonomy, with the situation often being quite different from the perspective of different countries and cultural traditions. Hierarchical structures with clear authority are the basis for being able to speak with one voice globally, for example, when the Holy See, thanks to its status under international law, can also become active through diplomatic channels. Not infrequently, however, central hierarchy can reinforce paternalism in individual local churches, which slows momentum for internal reforms and effective inculturation efforts. For example, it is becoming increasingly questionable to deny women equal access to certain rights that are considered universally valid in civil society.

Looking forward, much will depend on whether the Catholic Church itself succeeds in overcoming internal polarizations and fragmentations through a culture of encounter and, as a learning community, can live up to its claim of unity in diversity. The Synod on Synodality for all the dioceses around the world initiated by Pope Francis is an important sign of hope and an opportunity to practice a culture of encounter within the Church. The commitment to guarantee unity in diversity and advance processes of learning and encounter will become the litmus test of how credibly the Church can stand up for and promote global fraternity and social friendship among all human beings for the sake of the global common good.