Debora Tonelli

8 May 2024


Plural Catholicism: The Challenge of Narrative

Religious pluralism today is a destiny and a mission that no religion can escape. It contains within itself numerous challenges: an epistemological challenge, referring both within the doctrinal tradition of one’s own religion and to the confrontation with other ways of configuring the meaning of the world. A political challenge, with particular reference to the inclusion of minorities and religions other than those that traditionally inhabit a given territory. A social challenge, insofar as religious pluralism cannot afford to become an object of disintegration. But also an economic one, a legal one. It is therefore a phenomenon that we cannot ignore and that urges us to rethink the way we inhabit the world. After all, the world has also, so to speak, changed its face. Increased political, social, economic connections prevent us from looking at it by remaining anchored in our geopolitical and cultural location. Every phenomenon, every event, requires to be analyzed from multiple points of view, or rather, from a multiplicity of political-cultural localizations, at least as many as the actors involved. The resulting complexity of gazes necessarily generates tensions toward both universalism and particularisms, in which there is no shortage of contradictions, between the aspiration for universalism and particularisms that, alone, seem able to guarantee us some form of identity, situating us in a tradition with its practices, rituals, and belief systems.

Decolonial thought, including theological thought, contributed to overcoming the tensions between the “center” and the “peripheries” of the world that had characterized the relationship between Christianity and colonized lands. In the path of epistemic emancipation, Christianity turned out to be a Christianity, Western Christianity, in its historicity and contingency, not always able to be an expression of the good news in territories other than its own. Thus, the universal aspiration of Catholicism spread across the five continents has to reckon with the plurality of historical forms that embody it, express it, and bring it into existence, that is, with the plurality of possible narratives, ranging from the proclamation of the good news to forced conversions from the possibility of redemption to the destruction of the so-called local traditional religions that constituted the identity of the subjugated peoples, from the proclamation of the Gospel to its translations into vernacular languages, which not infrequently become contaminated by it, but also contaminate its message, transforming its beliefs and doctrine. How to narrate this Catholicism without rethinking its history as a whole? How does the mobility between “center” and “peripheries” internal to it reconfigure its identity? And how does this internal mobility foster or limit dialogue with other religions?

Since the Second Vatican Council, dialogue has been the privileged instrument of the Catholic Church both toward the variety of cultures within it and toward other religions. Only through it, in fact, is it possible to construct a common narrative, in which the variety of points of observation – and narrative epicenters – are comprehensible to all others. The transformative power of dialogue is what distinguishes it from negotiation (economic, diplomatic) and argumentation (legal, philosophical) is precisely the capacity for active listening, the suspension of judgment, the gratuitousness with which content enjoys between the interlocutors. Dialogue is devoid of the pretense of gain typical of negotiation, in which each interlocutor is firmly grounded in his or her own identity and focused on his or her own goals in order to achieve his or her purpose by conceding the least. Dialogue is also orphaned of the claim to prevail: having reasons does not necessarily mean being right. Recognizing the value of the other’s reasons is part of the transformative process that does not invest the content and the interlocutors together. Dialogue is thus the ability to pause on the threshold of the irreducibility of differences, a kind of training in listening and welcoming just where it seems impossible to proceed further. Through dialogue, the interlocutors recognize each other as equals, moving beyond power relations, both accepting the transformative process triggered by the encounter with the other. The result of the dialogue will be a common goal and become part of the new story of both.

Within Catholicism, dialogue occurs on multiple levels, those involved in potential conflict situations and which can, instead, be a resource for rethinking its tradition as a global narrative. A first level is the theological, i.e., doctrinal, level, which refers to a tradition built mostly in the West and which only in recent decades has been enriched by reflections from other cultural contexts. This level, often invisible to most members of a believing community, profoundly affects the practices and belief systems that constitute religion. It is, indeed, a second ground of potential conflict but also a resource for addressing dialogue between cultures. Finally, spirituality, that is, the individual faith experience, through which the individual lives and elaborates his or her intimate belonging to the believing community. These three levels are intertwined without necessarily coinciding in a person or, even less, in a community: a theologian may be neither practicing nor spiritually involved, a practitioner may be neither theologian nor spiritual, a person dedicated to the spiritual life may be neither theologian nor practitioner.

While the spiritual level, located in the intimate sphere, seems to be sheltered from potential conflict, theology as doctrine and religion as a system of practices and beliefs require hermeneutical and epistemic revision. Narrating the pluralism intrinsic to Catholicism is still the challenge of inclusion, without being able to impose the vision of a “center” anymore. A challenge that, among other things, transcends the theological sphere and contaminates the economic, political, juridical, and social spheres. The dialogical method promoted by the Council Fathers offers Catholicism a valuable tool for regeneration: building dialogue means reconstructing a common narrative that allows the common roots of the past to be reinvigorated in order to face the challenges of the present and future.


Cover photo: Father Celso Taibo burns incense during a palm Sunday mass on April 14, 2019 at Lady of Grace Parish Catholic Church in Barrio Manasse, Buzi District, Sofala Province, Mozambique. Photo by Zinyange  Auntony / AFP.


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