Aldo Moro, the ill-fated Italian statesman during a different politically volatile era in Europe some 40 years ago, was renowned for his diplomacy. Especially admired for his skills in crafting conciliatory language, he was one of the few who could see agreement in opposing parties finding “parallel divergencies,” a favorite euphemism of his. Unfortunately, his efforts as a peacemaker were silenced tragically by the violence he sought to mollify through respectful dialogue.
Today we still have hopes in finding “unity in diversity.” Yet the concepts neither noun defines are quite connected by the magic of a preposition. Taken literally, the one cannot accommodate the other without some compromise. Broadly speaking, the phrase suggests nothing more than mutual respect for cultural differences. When referring to food or fashion, the experience of cultural variations can be surprising and even delightful. Much can be learned from the exchange of information about political, social and even religious practices. Fundamental moral values, however, do not admit of compromise and to speak of “unity in moral diversity” would be as meaningless as marrying oil with water.
The Church has grown richly throughout its score of centuries through engagement, if short of marriage, with different cultures. Our Canon Law is indebted to Roman jurists for its foundations. The dignity and vibrancy of our worship spaces owe much to the labor and talents of our multi-ethnic and multi-national heritage. Witness almost any papal event and be enthralled by the scope of our Catholic identity which finds expression in such differently beautiful words, gestures and forms of art.
The spirit of respect for the contributions of different cultures is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the newly issued guidelines on intercultural competence for ecclesial ministers which were presented by the Committee on Cultural Diversity at this week’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. The profound appreciation of the many cultures of the world, articulated so persuasively in the conciliar document Ad Gentes (Decree on Missionary Activity of Vatican II) now finds a new expression in a formation tool which promotes the New Evangelization through competence training in knowledge, attitudes and skills. The committee has apparently done its homework well, according to the initial reception, having piloted the program in three different locations among each of six (arch)dioceses and developed practical materials such an introductory DVD, a manual with content and methodology, a listing of best practices, a glossary of terms and other resources. As one participant in the pilot sessions noted, “The workshop is calling us Catholics to be more intentional about our Catholicism, to “re-propose” our faith in and for our U.S. culture.” Thus it is not about diluting or losing our Catholic identity in the midst of diversity but affirming it even more effectively.
Diversity has often been used as a codeword by secular evangelists for moral relativism. In the name of “tolerance,” its ideological cognate, programs have been foisted upon students and families in our public school system, for example, that advocate social behaviors that are morally repugnant to the consciences of those who believe in the objective nature of moral truths about the nature and dignity of the human person and the actions that serve our humanity. Thus “diversity” in lifestyle “choices” cannot include divergence from respect for the meaning of marriage, the moral worth of every human being from birth to natural death and the equality of all people regardless of gender, race, nationality, religious belief or any kind of social or political status.
The main point of respect for the richness of cultural expression is that our unity in the faith in Jesus Christ is what impels us to spread the Gospel of His presence in many different forms — Christ “lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his” as the poet captures it (Gerard Manley Hopkins in “Kingfishers Catch Fire”). It is the faith that informs and is illuminated by the ways in which it is expressed, not the diversity of behaviors of which the human species is capable that defines what might become of the faith.