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Catholic Tradition under the Condition of Interculturality

In January 2024, the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU/FIUC) celebrated its Centenary with a conference held in Rome. There were amazing reports about the huge contribution which Catholic Universities can make, especially by integrating students from poor families, or students from other faith traditions; or when they manage to encourage various academic disciplines to search together for sustainable forms of producing, governing, doing economy, and caring for a sustainable ecology. Equally impressive were the reports about the recently established worldwide network focussing on service learning. I was deeply impressed by the serious moral engagement and broad vision presented in the field of academic education deemed to face current societal and ecological challenges and to form young people who can engage in a better future.

Diverging Understanding of Catholic Tradition

Though all participants were united in a universal mission of quality education, a Round Table on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition made the question explicit whether we can assume that everybody shares the same understanding of what this is – Catholic Intellectual Tradition obviously being a term coined in the English language not so long ago. Does it play a role for this engagement in Catholic education, and to what extent? Is a shared understanding of tradition needed to explain the worldwide initiatives? It was not entirely surprising that different positions were present at the round table: One argued, e.g., that Catholic Intellectual Tradition is far too broad and varied, with the effect that it allows everybody to pick whatever he or she likes. This kind of “autonomous choice” was viewed critically and instead of adherence to any kind of tradition, clear norms given by the teaching of the Church were propagated in order to offer more practical orientation for action. Another position, in contrast, argued that it was precisely an expression of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition to respect and foster autonomy and personal conscience and that therefore a major focus of education must lie in helping students exactly to develop a personal capacity of conscientious decision making. Contributions showed that being open to receive students from other faith traditions, to celebrate together and have shared interfaith prayer services can create a communion of students which serves as a model for a peacefully cooperating society. Therefore, Catholic Intellectual Tradition was interpreted in the line of promoting openness for interfaith and intercultural encounter in a society marked by plurality. It became clear that the ways in which Catholic Intellectual Tradition was captured varied significantly.

The differences and implicit tensions between these positions reminded me of the Synodal process in which the Catholic Church finds herself. What is so challenging when Catholics from different continents reflect on how they can be best on the way together? How should we understand the hermeneutical processes taking place and how are they referring to tradition? All these questions which motivate taking on special pastoral, spiritual and procedural processes during the Synod, can be explained as integral parts of intercultural theological-ethical discourse. Such a discourse is based on three elements, which I would like to sketch briefly.

The Shared Ability To Make Judgments Based On Reason

All participants in an intercultural dialogue possess the ability to judge what is good and right to do for now, even if ways of coming to a conclusion may vary and be shaped in a more individual or more communal way. Even claims that refer to tradition or to the teaching of the Church, can do so only based on a judgment saying that the outcome of this is what is correct and ought to be done from the point of view of reason. Because all judgments are based on reason, they are open to justification and argument and therefore can be questioned by others. Next to this capability of personal moral judgment, a commonality exists in all cultures, namely an implicit underlying understanding of life as worthy of protection and of human beings as equal, which builds the fundament of our interaction with others. This basic moral understanding, which intuitively motivates everyone to discourse with others, is in the intercultural philosopher Hans Schelkshorn’s definition, the “culturally differently interpreted well-being of human and non-human life”[1].

Culture That Shapes Our Spontaneous Feelings About Right and Wrong

Nevertheless, depending on the culture in which we have grown up or are embedded, there are certain forms of acting and behaviour that we are more easily happy with than with others. Cultures have a unique power to shape one’s moral feelings about what is to be done and what is not to be done, and especially about how we should do things and how not. These customs and beliefs impregnate our anthropological vision in more detail. They shape the way in which we understand the tasks of women and men and their relationship, the variety of gender and sexuality, the tasks of the young and the elderly in society, the importance of individual freedom or family coherence, the role of science and technology, also the way in which members of a parish and clergy interact. Because we do not suppose any longer that cultures are hermetically separate from each other, but rather acknowledge that due to the global media and globalized economy the cultures permeate each other, we can conclude that many of us live in hybrid cultures and experience changing attitudes besides the strong shaping force of the culture we live in.

Faith Which Develops Based On And In Critical Dialogue With Tradition

In intercultural theological ethics, another factor is added, namely faith and its tradition. In the Catholic Church, tradition has played an important role as point of reference and identity next to the Bible, at least since the period of the Reformation. Such an engagement with history requires the acknowledgment of reason that creates a dialogue between the past and the intellectual challenges of the present. Faith is not only impregnated by cultural backgrounds, but also developing in history. Since our moral insights develop within history, our interpretation of tradition with regard to its applicability for today is subject to development. We choose those elements of our history which can be argued as legitimate and authentic expressions of faith today. This is why tradition as point of reference seems to be unreliable to some because different Christians might refer to different elements of tradition in support of their argument. In the end, also arguments referring to tradition need to undergo justification by reason.

Intercultural Dispute Over Tradition – The Example of Fiducia supplicans

Faith is always a personal appropriation of revelation which was passed on in history and within a culture. Therefore, a critical appropriation of one’s own culture is important, and the more our Church wants to be synodal, the more knowledge and exchange about other culturally embedded Christian faith traditions is vital. In many regions of the world, such a critical appropriation of one’s faith tradition has not yet been embraced and developed in a written form. This is why it is often narrowly linked to culture because there is no space for interpretation and critical engagement provided. We can assume, therefore, that the plurality of expressions of lived faith within the Catholics of today will become more visible in the future with the rising amount of synodal encounters all over the world.

The basic elements of intercultural theological ethics can help to understand the relationship of culture and Catholic tradition. As a good example, the recent statement “Fiducia supplicans. On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings” issued by the Dicastery on the doctrine of Faith on December 18, 2023 may serve.[2] Public reactions to this text show clearly the challenges embedded in intercultural ethics and the need of engaging in a critical appropriation of culturally embedded faith tradition.

With regard to the attitude towards homosexual couples, cultural differences are well known. The concluding document of the first global meeting of the synod on synodality[3]  avoided mentioning the phrase “LGBTQ” in order not to endanger the acceptance of the text which was voted upon paragraph by paragraph, while polygamy entered into the text. However, the regional questionnaires in preparation of the Synodal meeting had brought up this topic, and this was probably the reason why it was taken up by the Dicastery’s declaration Fiducia supplicans after the first meeting of the Synod. The document proposed spontaneous blessings in informal contexts of couples living in so called “irregular situations”. Not surprisingly, an immediate reaction by some of the African bishops followed who have publicly stated that they would not apply such blessings to homosexual couples.[4] Homosexual couples as well as divorce and remarriage have normally not been accommodated in African cultural tradition, which has developed many forms of marriage to ensure procreation and avoid divorce, e.g. by offering polygamy as remedy. The reaction of the African bishops not only mirrors conformity with political regulations in some of the countries where homosexual activities are punishable by law, but also shows the culturally shaped understanding of sexual relationships, marriage and community life, as well as an underlying patriarchal system.

On the other side, we can argue that also the strong wish to accept homosexual partnerships within the church and to find good solutions for divorced remarried couples which we can find in many dioceses of the West, is shaped by culture. In such a culture, the dignity of every human person is linked to equal rights. Scientific knowledge and social reality are reflected in legal standards which offer a place for homosexual partnership or marriage and therefore make a denial of the mere existence of homosexuality, as it can be found in the statement of the president of the African bishops’ conference, simply impossible. It is also a culture where people hesitate to question personal decisions of others out of respect for privacy.

Both sides may relate themselves to Catholic tradition – one by arguing for the need to stick to the understanding of marriage as sacrament as it was developed in the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century – and the other one by relating itself to the importance of reason which includes dialogue with scientific knowledge, which has been a distinctive feature of Catholic theological tradition, at least during the Middle Ages and since the modern times.

But where can the Dicastery’s document be positioned? It does not engage in a critical evaluation of the teaching on marriage, e.g. by examining earlier forms of marriage reflected in history. Rather, maybe influenced by yet another cultural context, it intends to broaden the ecclesial perspective by leaving aside doctrinal questions (liturgical blessings) and related moral categories (moral requirements for blessings), and encourages spontaneous engagement with people who seek support through a blessing. With its pastoral approach, Fiducia supplicans offers a third way in comparison to the two opposite approaches of “nothing should change because it is morally unacceptable” and “a radical change is needed because it is morally required”. It reminds the faithful that life’s reality is variable and mostly imperfect, and it explicitly intends to take away moral pressure: “For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection“ (FS 25), and: „In this way, every brother and every sister will be able to feel that, in the Church, they are always pilgrims, always beggars, always loved, and, despite everything, always blessed“ (FS 45). In a way, the text conveys the message that where we cannot come to terms because we cannot mututally accept our arguments, we need to find a third way of concentrating on what is acceptable for both parties and at the same time helpful for those concerned.

This tension is similar to when we engage in intercultural theological ethics and find that reason is not shaped the same everywhere and that without engaging in exchange on our ways of reasoning and our emotional limits shaped by culture, it is difficult to move towards each other. The intermediate position of Fiducia supplicans allows the African bishops to broaden their vision at least by encouraging them to accept and bless at least individual persons in so called “irregular” situations. This could be regarded as a step forward in relationship to the former statement of the CDF that there could not be any (liturgical) blessing because the moral condition was not met. On the other side, the document seems to preclude that European bishops develop and apply liturgical blessings for homosexual couples, for which forms have been already developed; however, it is questionable whether this holds where imminent pastoral need is given; this is how, in the previous year, the Belgian bishops have argued when they decided to adopt a liturgical model for blessing homosexual couples.[5]

It is obvious that the understanding of the lived reality varies and that from a moral point of view, many arguments need to be exchanged in the future to draw closer the positions. As of today, the proposal of the Dicastery might present, in the light of the approach of Amoris Laetitia, the best way forward that is possible at this moment. It shows a Church, in which tradition plays a vital and not always critically reflected role, and it makes us aware of the fact that its doctrine develops under the conditions of intercultural exchange on matters of faith and morals.

[1] Hans Schelkshorn, Dialogische Vernunft und die Grundlagen interkultureller Ethik: Thesen zu einer Revision der Diskursethik, in: Niels Gottschalk-Mazouz (Ed.), Perspektiven der Diskursethik, Würzburg 2004, 203-235, here 213.

[2] Dicastery For The Doctrine Of Faith, Declaration Fiducia Supplicans On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings (Dec 18, 2023), rc_ddf_doc_20231218_fiducia-supplicans_en.html (retrieved Jan 23, 2024).

[3] XVI General Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, First Session (4-29 October 2023), Synthesis Report: A Synodal Church in Mission, documents.html (retrieved Jan 23, 2024).

[4] Walter Sánchez Silva, Cardinal explains how African rejection of Fiducia Supplicans was handled | Catholic News Agency (Jan 22, 2024) (retrieved Jan 23, 2024).

[5] Edward Pentin, Belgian Bishop Bonny: Our Decision to Bless Same-Sex Unions Is “Not Going Against the Pope” (May 19, 2023), National Catholic Register, (retrieved on Jan 23, 2023).