As we’ve learned, Pope Francis is not one for detailed expositions of philosophical principles. He makes his points using simple one-liners and neologisms, expressions like, “We cannot be Christians part-time.” Once he even called us “riff-raff.” He leaves it to us to work out the details.
One phrase that recurs in the homilies of Pope Francis is “the culture of encounter.” What exactly is this? I will suggest in this essay that while the phrase means many things to the Pope, there is at least one perspective from which the Pope’s ideal of a culture of encounter forms a beautiful line of continuity with the thinking of his predecessor St. John Paul the Great. If you love St. John Paul, but wonder if his masterful work is being undone by the apparently ultra-liberal Pope Francis, you should read on.
What Does it Mean?
As I said, the Holy Father has used this phrase in many different contexts, but the setting that catches my attention, and the one I want to focus on, is the one where he talks about encountering the poor, the vulnerable, and the outcasts of the world. Here, the antonym of the culture of encounter is what he has aptly called the throwaway culture, where a human being who does not benefit us in some highly immediate and pragmatic way is removed from sight, presumably to become someone else’s problem to be solved.
We live in a world where ordinary neighborhood kids become monsters in the schools, a world of reality television, mothers who murder their children. Yes, ours is a throwaway culture.
How did we get here?
Cultural evolution is surely a complex phenomenon with too many variables to describe, so I would like to put my finger on what biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy has referred to as a lead point in a complex system of linear equations. The lead point is that specific coefficient which, when altered however slightly, has the greatest impact on the system as a whole.
Now, like St. John Paul, Pope Francis sees a massive fault line in modern thought, whose lead point is a deeply distorted notion of what a person is. Over the last five hundred years or so, lacking a trustworthy theological base, we have become bewitched by a terribly inept metaphor of the person. This metaphor shatters the person in two parts, one part being the “I,” the other being the “body.” It is simply impossible to overstate the damage we have done to ourselves and each other with this metaphor.
The ubiquity of the damage is manifest in our modern political rhetoric. Modern feminism, for example, appears finally to have jettisoned any pretense of feminine dignity, and has effectively boiled itself down to: “You have no right to objectify me, I can objectify myself just fine.” Think Miley Cyrus.
Or consider suicide (assisted or unassisted) which many say has reached epidemic proportions. What else could inure us to the tragedy of the self-inflicted death of another except an implicit—yet devastatingly false—premise that “my body belongs to me so I can do whatever I want to it?”
Your body does not belong to you. St. John Paul knew this, and Pope Francis knows it too.
Philosophical Foundations of Theology of the Body
Look closely at the claim that “I have a right to objectify myself” by committing suicide, mutilating my body, or giving myself over to physical or psychological enslavement by another person. Is your body really a possession that you can do with as you please? The theology of the body says no, as does the culture of encounter.
The great Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel is known to have had great influence on St. John Paul in articulating the philosophical foundations of the theology of the body. Like all great philosophers, Marcel simply helped us to clarify our confused thoughts by a careful look at concrete life as it is actually lived. He noted that in the relation of “having” or “owning” something as a possession, there is a separation between the qui (the who, a subject), and the quid (the what, an object). A qui encompasses or surrounds the quid, it can transfer ownership of it to another qui. For example, I might have tickets to a hockey game which I can conceal, or give to a friend, or burn them if I wish. This aspect of “having” is to have as possession.
Here is the reasoning that leads from metaphor to a disposable culture: The body is a possession, it is ours. We own it. Well, can’t people be deprived of their possessions in times of urgent need? Perhaps the less able-bodied have a duty to die. Perhaps a mother owes it to society to do away with a baby who is destined to be a burden on us.
This view depends on equating having a body with possessing a body. But as Marcel points out, the verb “to have” has far greater reach, and certainly more latent meaning than this single sense of “having” indicates. There is a genuine way to look at ourselves and our bodies that doesn’t do damage to them.
What then is it to really have a human body? Marcel gives a penetrating account. There is a more natural and more permanent form of having something that in the broadest sense is not possessing, but is rather implying. A right triangle, for example, has three sides and a 90 degree angle. Imagine if right triangles everywhere demanded their right to have whatever angle they wanted. Keep your laws off my 90 degree angle. We want to say, “But wait, little right triangle, you don’t ‘own’ your 90 degree angle, so you can’t do away with it as you please. You are a right triangle, and your being made a right triangle necessarily implies you have a 90 degree angle. No one can take it away from you. Not even you.”
I hope the connection to St. John Paul’s theology of the body is clear at this point. He was very influenced by these thoughts of Gabriel Marcel, as I am. But let’s take a look now at the idea of the culture of encounter. How is it an extension of theology of the body?
I said that in the legalistic formula of “having” there are two components the qui and the quid. The qui owns the quid and can do with it as he pleases. But we’re not talking about the legal sense. There are many laws we do not recognize as morally good. We are talking here about real Christian encounter.
In an encounter between two people, the model of qui and quid no longer obtains. The only possible authentic encounter is between qui and qui. Neither one can be bought or sold, objectified, ridiculed, or taken advantage of. But what if the culture is so poisoned that it views its interpersonal relationships in terms of the qui–quid model, seeing it as the most logical thing in the world? Well, then you have the throwaway culture. It is a place where human beings degrade themselves, kidnap children to sell them into sex-slavery, euthanize one another, goad one another into suicide, slander one another and crucify one another.
The theology of the body says a husband must encounter his wife as a person, not as a quid, as a what. Similarly, the culture of encounter says that the poor, the disabled, and the vulnerable are not a problem to be solved or a thing to be disposed of, or looked upon with condescension. They are people with hopes, dreams, and moral responsibilities, just like us. Back in the old days, Christians were afraid of the label “humanism.” Maybe Pope Francis frightens some people because he seems like a humanist, and we—not without good cause—have come to view humanists with suspicion because they were and are, for the most part, atheists. Well then, I say we take that word back. The only authentic humanism remaining today is the humanism of Christianity. The only way we can live this humanism is to live as Christ lived, to take each person on his or her own terms, to understand them and love them as creatures in the image of God. Nobody here is disposable.
This is the culture of encounter. It is how we are meant to live. Be not afraid.
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