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So the best we can offer is “encounter” and “dialogue”?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 05, 2021

The Jesuit journal in Rome, La Civiltà Cattolica, is co-sponsoring with Georgetown University a conference on “The Culture of Encounter” this Monday and Tuesday. The full title of the event is “The Culture of Encounter: The Future of Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue”. In encouraging the conference, Pope Francis emphasized that “this is the path toward building the future together.”

Of course, I grant that anyone familiar with the Jesuit leadership both in Rome and at Georgetown will not be confused into thinking this conference will include any substantive Christian content. But at least it can serve as the latest example of secularized Christian vapidity.

The “culture of encounter” (per Georgetown’s event page) is a “signature contribution of Pope Francis’s pontificate”. Well, yes, I’m afraid it is. Endless personal talk in largely secular terms was the great theme, I suppose, of the Pope’s latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. Its more formal title is “On Fraternity and Social Friendship”. For the Christian mission in the world, it raises a very low bar.

Now nobody would argue that courtesy and an effort at mutual understanding, along with an emphasis on our common humanity, should be ignored in the relationships we attempt to develop with others, regardless of their background. But it is interesting to note that the very age in which Catholic mission work has rapidly declined, and in some places disappeared, is the age in which all we can find to emphasize to each other are essentially humanistic ideas which may not even rise to the level of platitudes. Can we find support for these ideas in the Gospel? Yes. But the Gospel would not be distinctively the Gospel if these concepts were not situated at the very lowest end of the Gospel scale.

Hop, skip and…splat

Is it too severe to suggest that we can envision the majority of the participants as having the ability to take mincing hops and skips, only to slip in the mire of this world when it comes to the jump—the all-important leap across the supernatural divide to Jesus Christ? Our Lord became man to make this possible for us by enabling us to see the goal even here and now in this world. The key to the all-important “jump” is a willingness to train not in the Kingdom of This World but in the Kingdom of God, which is in but not of the world.

I have the same question when I hear the constant papal advice to bishops to console and support the victims of clerical sexual abuse (e.g., Pope encourages French bishops to support, console victims). Nobody quarrels with consolation and support, and of course we all want to choose a concerned and empathetic course of action which offends nobody—but doesn’t this also shine a glaring light on the whole problem of Catholic existence in a continuous worldly condition, for want of a better term, of “Christian neutrality”?

Where in the ecclesiastical establishment was the unmistakably dynamic presence of Christ Himself when the abuse was rampant? What better consolation than stopping the abuse through decisive exposure and punishment of the clerical perpetrators? For that matter, where is the unmistakably dynamic presence of Christ Himself in the intellectuals at Georgetown University or in the pages of La Civiltà Cattolica? Or, may God help us, in the pontificate of Pope Francis?

Grandpa Jeff’s new first rule: If our behavior is not distinctively and sacrificially Christian, it is most likely the latest worldly fashion, and is not really Christian at all.

Beware the Lowest Common Denominator

Let me try to state this more plainly. There are many authentically human values which can be discerned in the natural law, and these ought to lead us to see every human person primarily as a brother or a sister rather than as a fundamentally different and deficient “other”. Cultural comfort zones and prejudices, not to mention our own deeply-held self-interests, tend to alienate us from each other, giving rise to rationalizations of exclusion. So far, so good, but this is very little. For it is only in Jesus Christ that we learn of God as our Father, of the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit, and of our high calling to sacrifice—even to lay down our very lives—for others.

What else does it mean, as St. Paul enjoined us, to put on Christ?

Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. [Rom 13:12-14]

What else does it mean, as St. Paul said of himself, that Christ lives in us?

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. [Gal 2:20]

But instead (yes, instead) we are talking about a “culture of encounter” and “a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another” (as quoted from Fratelli Tutti on the conference’s event page). Really? That’s distinctively Christian? That’s all we’ve got?

It has been a long time since most academicians have had any inkling of the exciting, transformative power of the Truth, especially the truths God gives us to know only through Faith in Him. Instead, most tend to be happy going along to get along, often unconsciously regarding themselves to be in the forefront of grand new ideas which the culture of career advancement has taught them to think and to say. But when this becomes the pattern for the Church as well, it is no longer a source of wry humor.

So much more

Christianity embodies every authentic human good, but it is truly itself only when it does so much more—that is, when it transcends every purely human good by enabling the human person to be caught up in the life of God through Jesus Christ. If that “so much more” is not visible, if that “so much more” is not taught, if that “so much more” is not experienced by others, then the light of Christ has been hidden under the bushel basket of our own humanity. That’s what enables every form of abuse and every tepid response to it; that’s what enables endless academic conferences to congratulate themselves on mere intellectual self-indulgence; and that’s what enables grand talk without personal sacrifice, without reformation of life.

It is also what causes vapid teaching and preaching, an endlessly dripping indoctrination with goals that are all within our natural human reach. I mean goals achievable just as we are now, through minor attitude adjustments, and with no need for that last jump—that vital leap into conversion.

Now me, I prefer to skip all this intellectual candy and just eat chocolate—a more honest form of the same thing. But I am excruciatingly tired of the modern Catholic pretense of secular Christianity. And I can only thank God that acceptance and offering of this fatigue is, in its own small way, also a sacrifice for Jesus Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Retired01 - Nov. 06, 2021 1:36 PM ET USA

    Excellent article Dr. Mirus, indeed it appears that the current pontificate appears more interested in bringing an utopian "kingdom of man," where man is at the center and the measure of all things, than in continuing to make present the "Kingdom of God." Have not progressive Christians learned anything from the 20th Century when National Socialists and Communists promised and utopian kingdom of man, but ended up delivering hell?

  • Posted by: viclovesJesus8929 - Nov. 05, 2021 10:50 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Jeff, for sharing great insight and clarity on the current situation.

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Nov. 05, 2021 7:42 PM ET USA

    Part of the problem with Catholics today is the use of the word Christian. Catholics should never use that word, because there is one faith, one baptism, it is the universal faith, it is Catholic. People today think of Catholics as just one of many kinds of believers, and that is not theologically correct. We should start calling our separated brothers by the proper names, e.g. Methodist Catholics, Baptist Catholics, et al, because properly baptized IS Catholic. We need to take back the language

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 05, 2021 6:59 PM ET USA

    The personal coaches, feel-good-about-yourself artists, pep-talk presenters all urge you to be the best "you" that you can be. The Church used to urge us to be the best "Christ" that you can be. In the first instance we put on the world. In the second, we put on Christ.