How’s That “Culture of Encounter” Workin’ for Ya?

On Wednesday, May 22, Pope Francis called on Catholics and non-Catholics to build a “culture of encounter,” in which members of the opposing camps “meet one another doing good.” Apparently stealing a page from Fr. Z, he addressed some of his remarks to a caviling, composite EveryCatholic:

The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him…The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good.

That’s what Francis said. So far, much of the commentary seems aimed at clarifying what he didn’t say. Here on Patheos, Fr. Dwight Longenecker reassures anxious readers that Francis did not preach salvation through works alone. A Facebook friend posted this Catholic Thing piece, where David G. Bonagura, Jr. condemns the “Heresy of Good Personism,” a “pernicious shibboleth” qualifying everyone but a convicted felon as “a good person for whom St. Peter will happily open the pearly gates when his time comes.” Bonagura’s piece is a week old, but the fact that my friend posted it yesterday tells me he meant it to be read as a caveat against an over-generous interpretation of Francis’ words.

There are clear reasons why Francis’ actual vision might strike observers as less than compelling. For one thing, he rolled it out in a homily during a weekday Mass at the Domus Sanctae Martae; it hardly counts as a binding magisterial pronouncement. On the details of how this culture of encounter is supposed to evolve, the pope came up short. Most important of all, I think, is the fact that, where the concerns of today’s American Church are concerned, none of it seems very relevant.

If you define a culture of encounter as a search for common ground, then the Church, by the lights of its own leadership, has been participating in one for decades. (George Weigel gives a good overview of the inner-city renewal projects co-signed by the Bishops’ Conference under Cardinal Bernardin’s leadership.) What it got in return was nuns on the bus, Taoiseach Kenny at Boston College, and Andrew Cuomo in Albany. It was an encounter in the way a jailhouse rape is an encounter. Apparently in recognition of these concerns, Pope-Emeritus Benedict issued “De Caritate Ministranda,” a motu proprio requiring that Catholic charities be “managed in conformity with the demands of the Church’s teaching,” lest they become “just another organized form of social assistance.”

There’s also the fact that many of the issues most vital to Church teaching remain very much in political play. So far, 12 states recognize same-sex marriage, whereas 29 states ban it either by statute or constitutional amendment. Opposition to abortion is at an all-time high. The Obama administration has been getting some encouragingly bad press lately, and…well, it just feels like an awkward time to get all buddy-buddy with the opposition. That’s assuming the opposition wants to get buddy-buddy with us. Judging by the shock and disappointment expressed by gay-rights activists to Senator Leahy, who removed a same-sex partnership recognition clause from the latest immigration reform bill, it doesn’t.

“Morbid symptoms” is what Eugene McCarraher calls this sense of urgency, and the tone — by turns paranoid and nostalgic — it’s driven leading Catholics to adopt. He writes: “These mandarins of despair are correct to fret about the passing of their historical era. The old order they embody may fight on, but its condition is terminal.” Melinda Selmys goes even further. To her way of thinking, Christian dominance over American politics and culture isn’t dying; it’s already dead. She recommends that Catholics follow Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages right down to the last one, acceptance, because “it is only after acceptance that we can rebuild.”

I’m not sure whether either of these two is right. But when and if the Church’s political and cultural irrelevance is formally declared, those Kübler-Ross stages are going to be a bear, boy. I predict a lot of folks are going to tarry in “anger” for a month of Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Not that mourning, when and if we ever begin it, is going to go much quicker. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my six-and-a-half years with the Church, it’s that Catholics never get over anything, ever. We’ve bought up all the riverfront property in Babylon. According to McCarraher, the bishops and Bill Donahue are stuck in the 1950s and their memories of Mom’s apple pie. The LCRW’s gearshift is stuck in V2. SSPX types are still dipping their hankies in the blood of the Bourbons.

Am I any exception? As St. Paul would say, by no means. In my private moments, I still sigh over the parish I attended till 2010. This despite the fact that, while I was actually there, all I did was bitch about the scarcity of women who’d consider dating a 35-year-old.

It may only be Millennials, or whatever demographers are calling their kids, who can get this culture of encounter thing going in earnest. Unburdened by memories of the America the bishops are fighting to preserve, they’ll be able to see unbelievers as fellow “children of God of the first class,” not as the hosts of Midian. Let’s hope they come of age quickly. No encounter that begins with “We — actually, the Protestants, but same difference — used to run this place until you showed up” can possibly end well.

  • kenofken

    “….Christian dominance over American politics and culture isn’t dying; it’s already dead.”….

    It is, and it won’t be missed.

  • Eric Neubauer

    Dear Max,

    Thanks for your thoughts. It takes guts to put yourself out there. First, I don’t want to suppose on your outlook. But my observation of this post leads me to believe you see “this glass” as half full in relation to what the Pope said at mass. Let me share a few thoughts.

    First, I would not try to undercut the Pope’s teaching by use of technical terminology (“it hardly counts as a binding magisterial pronouncement”). When the Pope speaks the Catholic faithful should do there best to take it in and contemplate on its meaning in context of the particular message being shared at that time and in the larger body of his teachings.

    Second, I would not try and undercut the idea of a “culture of encounter.” For Catholics have a long history of encounter spirituality. Look at the cross (an encounter), the Eucharist (an encounter), the Sacraments (an encounter), good works (James 2 / an encounter) etc., etc., etc. Just because many within the Universal Church have promoted plenty of “encounter” ideas / methodologies that have been misplaced (at best) and leading the faithful down the wrong path (wide road / at worst) does not mean that we should be anti-encounter or approach encounter with hesitation. When you read the full text of what Pope Francis said it seems clear, Encounter is the place / space that many can and will experience the Living God – Christ our Lord. At the end of the day it is true – humanity tends toward that which is good (Our Creator).

    In addition, you are right – in the day and age in which we live (post-Christian culture) many have rejected the idea of a dialogue (common ground) for the popularity of polarization and the fame of being a one-sided hero. Preaching to the choir is easy. What is hard is loving and being in dialogue with the ones who don’t agree with you / who don’t love you. I, for one, have not given up and have been in fruitful dialogue with those on the other side of the political / faith experience aisle. I believe BXVI and JPII were examples of such dialogue.

    Final observation. While it is easy for us to be critical in the moment of the Pope or other religious leaders – reading our message into their text. I have come to realize that many of our religious leaders have amazing insight and the history of the Popes (esp. modern era) speaks to the prophetic wisdom that they have had. That wisdom from our Popes can be seen (often) only in hindsight. Therefore, I have given great defference to the Pope when he speaks. I am slow to react allowing myself time to consider what is actually being said.

  • ID Sue

    As a Catholic working locally in interfaith dialogue, I can tell you that the culture of encounter is working well. The pope’s comments yesterday were sent to me via email over and over again by Catholics and non’s alike, including my atheist counterparts, who are encouraged at the local level to open up to an evolving Church and new papacy. I take issue with several points in this article, not by what is written necessarily but by how it is written–thinking almost depressed and tinged with a cynical coloring. Such black and white conclusions are premature.
    I am glad I read it however off putting the title of it is–smacking of a Sarah Palin phrase that leads one to thinking they may read a ‘gotcha’ article. I found below it listed a wonderful article entitled Fun With Muslims which I really enjoyed. Be careful with titles as you stretch to reach readers.

  • Daria

    “… it’s that Catholics never get over anything, ever. We’ve bought up all the riverfront property in Babylon.”

    This is one for the future Quotable Lindemann.

  • tedseeber

    I will believe that “Good without God” exists the day the last Planned Parenthood clinic is closed due to lack of use. Until then, there is the slight matter of a 55 million strong genocide that keeps me from believing that the other side even intends to do good.

  • JP

    Its all in Father Malachi Martin but no one listened.

  • Howard

    The Church *is* politically irrelevant. When the likes of Ted Kennedy die, we are helpfully reminded that it is OK to plant him in Catholic ground. Granted. Maybe he repented at the end; we in the public would never know, so go ahead with his funeral. However IT IS SCANDALOUS FOR THE ARCHBISHOP TO ATTEND HIS FUNERAL. Precisely nothing in canon law mandates the presence of even an auxiliary bishop. And of course, the strenuous objections of our prelates to the policies of the present administration should not be taken *so* seriously as to jeopardize a chance to hobnob with the Important People at a prayer breakfast.

    But is the Church culturally irrelevant? No. As the Church wanes in influence, our “culture” becomes increasingly about the N+1th season of Survivor, media tarts wearing meat dresses, and new ABC sitcoms to celebrate our increasing perversity. We have fantastic structural engineers, but no visionary architects. We have some of the best orchestras ever, and sound systems that can bring them to everyone, but we have no more great composers. We have Kindles, but no more great authors. The Church will survive this crisis, but unless the Church survives with some strength and influence, our culture will not survive.

  • Robert Homan

    Yeah I think maybe one of the things here is not to mistake politics for the personal in terms of a culture of encounter… perhaps in the political realm we should take stands and be firm, but never on a personal level… or perhaps the two arent seperable.

  • Howard

    My understanding is that he was laicized, in which case he should not be called “father”.

  • tedseeber

    Only a man who really hates his brother would tolerate him jumping off a cliff.

  • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/ Melanie B

    Perhaps in attending the funeral said archbishop was thinking more about the corporal work of burying the dead and the spiritual work of consoling the grieving more than the political ramifications. And then there are the works of counseling the doubtful and instructing the ignorant, which I think are more effectively done when you don’t make political stands over someone’s dead body.

  • Proteios

    It has. The problem is nothing of merit has replaced it.

  • kenofken

    The Constitution and plural democracy are pretty good fallbacks. When all else fails, we could actually try to run this country the way it was envisioned.

  • Jerry Lynch

    The whole of judgment rests, according to Scripture, on whether or not we do good for the least of these; our eternal fate rests on this alone. Faith without works is dead. Our primary purpose as Christians is to train ourselves up to be of optimal service to the lost and needy, end of story. This is the only common ground. The great love is to be as Christ was in the world, our new commandment: love others as I have loved you. Did Christ love others as he loved himself? No, he was love itself, fully self-sacrificing and unconditional, the source of his being the father.
    While we dally with debates about a gospel of works and throw most of our weight into politics, the needy and lost suffer and die. Like another Francis said, “Preach the gospel always, and where necessary use words.”

  • Howard

    Yes, the rich and famous are so much more sensitive than the hoi polloi that they need the special attention of the bishops. When the poor die, they a parish priest or maybe even a deacon can oversee their funeral, because their grief does not need so much consoling. Or does the archbishop regularly attend the funerals of the poor and unknown of his diocese?

    Yes, of course abortion is just a political issue. We wouldn’t expect the archbishop to miss a big event because dead had supported a city manager form of government over a mayoral form, so he shouldn’t miss the funeral over other trivial matters like abortion, right?


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