The last half-century or more has seen notable shifts in societies, cultures, and the church. Many people are deeply disturbed by these changes, and their insecurities and anxieties have increased as these changes have themselves led to cultural instability and social fracturing. Both the cause and effect of these changes and the associated unease is the reality of a pluralised world. The mono-cultural uniformity and generally shared worldview of former days is gradually disappearing. It is being replaced by a globalised world in which diverse cultures, competing worldviews, and different faith traditions is our new reality.

We can mourn this loss and seek to preserve what remains, or we can read the signs of the times in light of the Gospel and engage the challenges of our world with faith in God’s wisdom and trust in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit quietly at work in these very changing realities we fear. If we courageously choose the latter then we must also be sensitive to the pain and loss experienced by those who feel alienated by the pluralised reality of a changing world. When the web of assumptions that hold belief and meaning together begins to tear, and the world appears to be becoming increasingly chaotic and senseless, many people experience the pain of social dislocation and psychological alienation. They no longer experience the comfort of inherited certainties, stable belief-systems, and shared practices. This is a painful psychological experience that can lead many into the security of spiritual havens of faith systems and institutions that offer established traditions, absolute truth, and unchanging forms of religious worship. This spiritual security and cultural permanence becomes a lifeline for many who find the modern world and its changing realities a threatening place.

When we perceive the world as a frightening place and experience hostility toward our worldview and way of life, we retreat into the security of our local identities. We reinforce these identities as a bulwark to protect us from an antagonistic society, and we begin to draw lines demarcating us from them. Those who wrap themselves in the comforting cloak of a clearly-defined identity often do so in opposition to other identities, rather than in relation to them. And herein lies the problem. I believe that an acceptance of plurality as constitutive of reality, and therefore as constitutive of the Church, is vitally important if we are to negotiate constructively through the tensions and conflicts of today’s world. This means that our identity as Catholics is strengthened when we recognise and encourage a healthy plurality in relation to and not in opposition to each other, to other faiths, and to the world. One of the features of our experience of contemporary Catholicism is the increasingly divisive rhetoric around what it means to be a faithful Catholic these days. Catholic media, the internet, and interaction with fellow-Catholics reveals a saddening experience of alienation, opposition and polarisation. This is clearly not what Christ wants for His church. His words and prayers in the gospels are that we be one as He and the Father are one, that we are brothers and sisters to each other, and that peace and unity among all peoples is His abiding will for the church and the world.

Perhaps one of the principal causes for division and polarisation is the gradual loss in this age of a genuinely Catholic vision of legitimate plurality within a larger unity. Central to the Catholic intellectual tradition is the value of an integrative approach to knowledge and the fostering of unity in diversity. Underlying this is an intellectual attitude of critical enquiry into all fields of human study. This spirit of inquiry does not shy away from valuable insights that appear as contrary to revelation, doctrine and moral norms arising from a comprehensive investigation into human knowledge. The Catholic intellectual imagination favours a both/and over an either/or approach to the truths of faith and human living, holding in creative tension apparently irreconcilable truths. Essential to this approach is the belief in the ultimate unity of knowledge and the counterbalancing belief that human understanding is also limited and partial. The complexity of the human person and the quality of his/her relationship with ultimate truth is irreducible and can never be given a final answer this side of eternity.

The conflicting viewpoints over contemporary issues such as papal authority, tradition, social-action, and liturgy needs to be understood within the larger context of the plurality of thought, spirituality and practice that has always been a feature of Catholicism. This in turn needs to be set against the horizon of the cultural and ethical pluralities of the society in which the church finds itself and proclaims the truths of the Gospel. These potentially divisive issues reflect the reality of a Church that is confronting pluralism at a practical rather than only at a theological level. That such a plurality – differences within a common field – is possible, is the sign of a living Catholic tradition that has progressed beyond the need to seek and impose a uniform thought and praxis. This does not necessarily mean that we succumb to relativism in doctrine, ethics and worship, but that we recognise that the parameters given us by tradition are broader than imagined and that we believe and live across the rich diversity of a faithful Catholicism.

Catholicism is universal, not uniform. That’s why I can have devotion to Saint Anthony of Padua and Our Lady of Fatima, and you can have devotion to Saint Faustina and Our Lady of Lourdes. That’s why you can be a Dominican and I a Franciscan. Why you can focus on pro-life politics and I can focus on Justice and Peace. Why I can belong to the parish rosary group and you to the parish charismatic prayer group. And why we are both Catholics who live and worship in the same parish or in countries very far from each other. Conflict arises when I fail to hold this plurality as distinctive of Catholicism and so seek to impose a uniformity of prayer and praxis (usually my prayer and my praxis) on the whole church. Once we’ve established that there is only one way, my way, of being a faithful Catholic, then it is not only easy to dismiss those who do not hold to this way, but to regard them as a threat to the true identity of Catholicism. And this is the sad position the Church finds itself in today. In an age where we increasingly experience our local certainties being interrupted by ideas and values from other worlds of meaning, the tendency is to circle more tightly around our particular identities. This invariably leads to an ideological mentality that encourages polarisation and so threatens the unity that is a core identity of the Church. At the heart of our Catholic identity is openness to the other and the dynamic of the interplay of ideas and values that strengthen rather than threaten our identity. Faithfulness to our intellectual and spiritual tradition means engaging the healthy plurality of thought and praxis through nurturing conversations with our rich tradition and across the whole range of contemporary Catholic thinking.

In the second part of this reflection, to be posted here soon, we will explore how we might begin doing this.