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Babel or cosmopolis?

Babel or cosmopolis? May 4, 2015

Sr. Katarina Schuth, O.S.F.

Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., the Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at the University of St. Thomas (MN), explores the impact of different cultures on the intellectual life of Catholic universities in the new issue of Integritas. Her essay raises a critical question: in this age of globalization, what ought to be the role of universities in promoting mutual understanding among peoples? Specifically, how ought Catholic universities rise to this challenge?

Reflecting on her essay, I recalled the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11: the story of God scattering people and confusing their language, so that in their hubris they might not build a tower to the heavens. Babel represents confusion, miscommunication, xenophobia: in short, the roots of intercultural misunderstanding that give rise to war.

Much of the world today is Babel. For Schuth, though, Catholic universities are places that can draw from what the Church has learned about intercultural encounter. She tells the story of a community that had to learn how to be fluent in different cultures and languages in order to share the story of the gospel. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17: 19-32) and Peter’s speech in Cesarea are early examples: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).

Schuth points to later missionaries such as Cyril and Methodius, and Matteo Ricci, who understood that authentic evangelization meant coming to a deep appreciation of language and culture. To her examples we could add Junípero Serra, whom Pope Francis will canonize when he visits the United States this Fall.

To be sure, there has not been a seamless history of engagement with different cultures over the church’s history. Even the examples of Cyril, Methodius, Ricci, and many others, show controversy, even from within the Vatican. Ricci, for example, was the target of the “Chinese Rites controversy,” whom one scholar has described as the greatest internal struggle in the history of the Catholic Church outside of the early Christological councils. At issue is how Christian faith ought to be practiced in different cultural contexts. The Chinese rites controversy lasted centuries; only after Pope Benedict XV issued his encyclical Maximum Illud (“On The Propagation of the Faith Throughout the World”) in 1919 and after the Chinse rites oath was abolished under Pius XI in 1939 were Chinese styles of worship regarded as compatible with Christian faith.

Schuth highlights the theology of the Second Vatican Council as central in developing a more inculturated approach to Catholic mission in the modern era. She points to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, for example:

While it transcends all limits of time and confines of race, the Church is destined to extend to all regions of the earth and so enters into the history of mankind. (LG 9).

She points too to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes:

…this council can provide no more eloquent proof of its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up, than by engaging with it in conversation about these various problems. The council brings to mankind light kindled from the Gospel, and puts at its disposal those saving resources which the Church herself, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, receives from her Founder (GS 3).

Schuth goes on to point to the development of theology since Vatican II, highlighting the way that Pope Francis–the first pope from a part of the world colonized by Europeans–writes about the new task of intercultural encounter.

Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God (Evangelii Gaudium 272).

If xenophobia is represented by the Biblical image of Babel, what Schuth points to in her essay is a growing model of a Catholic cosmopolitanism: that is, a spirituality of global encounter that in every place sees the face of Christ in the other.

Universities can be places that can step out of the stream of distorting relationships: distortions that pervade our society because of unequal economic resources, various forms of xenophobia (racism, sexism, etc.), and so on. To the extent that Catholic universities can develop authentic hospitality– to welcome the stranger as Christ–they will be places constantly asking questions about what makes contemporary relationships unequal. She writes:

The universal nature of the Catholic Church and its commitment to incorporating all cultures and peoples corresponds with the response of Catholic colleges and universities to educate their students to appreciate and respect the many peoples that constitute Church membership.

Yet she issues a cautionary note:

The mere existence of these programs [that introduce students to other cultures] does not guarantee success in the desired outcomes: respect for the life and dignity of every person and an understanding of the oneness of the human family. These values, if adopted, ensure that each student grows in the willingness to be responsible for others, whatever their culture and origins. Faculty need to make certain that international studies are not just occasions for tourist-like travels.

The great challenge is to push back against rootless cosmopolitanism, toward a model of authentic relationship, authentic friendship.

Read her whole essay here.


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