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Pursuing the Common Good, some personal reflections on attending the Vatican conference

I'll be reporting from the regular blog, but I tend to avoid personal recollections in the movement blog, and I think the community setting here is more appropriate for some of the more personal reactions. I'd like to take a jab at why I'm excited at attending this conference, which aims to update the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, 'in light of current social developments."

Report of the conference at the Vatican: Pursuing the Common Good: How Solidarity and Subsidiarity Can Work Together: Why the Conference is important to me

I have almost never done any live reporting/blogging from conferences, because I feel it difficult to be fully present at such conferences, and to think about reporting at the same time. What I’m attempting to do here is different, it is a report of the different readings I have been doing to prepare for it, and I’m assuming that the papers will broadly reflect what the speaker-authors will be saying during their oral presentations.

First, some general info. The event was organized by the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, with amongst the key scholar-organizers Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati. In all likelihood, I owe my presence here, as a total outsider, to Margaret, who had been listening at a presentation I had given in Tromse, Norway, about 2 years ago, for the Association of Critical Realism. Margaret Archer, I learned there, was one of the foremost contemporary sociologist, and I have a lot of sympathy for Critical Realism and its pretty common sense approach to reality which is a good antidote to any postmodernism that goes over the top.

Some personal details to give context to how I will approach this. I have been raised Catholic, but have never been well acculturated in the tradition, because my father was a very anti-clerical union representative, in a country, Belgium, where there had been a historical enmity between the Church and the nonbelievers. But I did do both Communions, and went to Church and Sunday school until I was about 13, never liking both, but praying for the Che and the causes I believed in at the time. I went through a period of strong critique and antipathy (basically because I did not feel the doctrine could adequately explain evil), but as a resumed my own inquiries in the world traditions in my twenties, I became again respectful of the implicit knowledge that is part of religious and spiritual traditions. Through a three-year self-study of the western philosophical tradition, experience and examination of the western esoteric traditions that are often imbued with Christological themes (I was part In my wilder years of Templar and Rosicrucian traditions, learned the Tarot and had a teacher of alchemy for a while as well), I came to re-appreciate ‘where I was coming from as a Westerner’. That whether we embrace the Church or not, we are imbued with the Christian tradition even when we abandon it. The best option for me then, is a vision of a contributory spirituality, which recognizes that every tradition, starting from a specific root-vision of the world (in which it radically differs from the others), discloses much of the world that can be seen from such vantage point. In some way, I see the peer to peer transition as a post-civilizational transition, in which awareness of perspectivity, and such radically different root visions, lead to new forms of a-perspectival, post-civilizational awareness. Post-civilizational, both because human consciousness is now confronted with all civilizational perspectives at the same time, and because it represents a potential change in the class structures that are characteristic of civilizational life.

In many ways, I consider myself post-secular, meaning that I do not ‘believe’ in any particular Revelation, but I’m equally convinced that it is particularly harmful to totally reject thousands of years of human tradition and knowledge, in particular the ethical values but also crucially the psycho-technologies that are part of religion and spiritual practice, and disclose many aspects of the human condition that are simply inaccessible in any secular way. I have no relationship with a personal creator (that simply does not work for me as much as I even would want it or tried to achieve it), but have experienced enough of the spiritual life to realize that a purely materialistic option, if it excludes such participation with spirit, is an impoverishment. In any case, I find many of these seeming contradictions, such as materialism vs. spiritualism, outdated debates, and I’m not very interested in knowing what comes first, the chicken or the egg, these are simply co-constitutive aspects of reality, which have to be approached integratively and inclusively, not with a priori exclusions.

I also consider our western societies to be post-Christian, it is, they have many aspects of the Christian value system embedded. Western secularism would not exist without having been prepared by the Christian tradition, and is itself an evolution of it. Therefore, I personally do not feel any antagonism to religious adherents, and find many valuable people who are seriously concerned with humanity and their fellow beings, oftentimes motivated by their interpretation of the value system inherent in their beliefs. Many socially progressive movements have their roots in Christianity and in particular in the various institutions of the Catholic Church. It is still true for me that if you see people doing actual concrete good to their fellow human beings, more often than not they have been inspired by their religious and spiritual values. I would also say that in my experience, most of the time, people that are open to spirit are simply more ‘open’, than those who radically reject it.

My general approach to other institutions and belief systems is integrative, i.e. I try to find the relative truths that it carries within itself, and I tried to find commonalities with the P2P Value System, so that fruitful common action may be possible, whatever the other differences that may be present. Any religious institutions has always been both part and parcel of oppressive structures, but at the same time, it has also acted as a counterforce to the abuses of purely secular power, and in this, has a significant socializing and civilizing role. The embedded value structures, which they always so radically imperfectly embody, are valuable treasures and crystallizations of human advances.

Finally, I’m not insensitive to the prestige that has been accrued by an institution that has been surviving for at least 1,500 years and still represents a formidable spiritual force. (As I finish this first entry, I’m already staying in a hotel located in the 15th century Revere Palace, in awe of all the history carried in its stones). Because it represents both my individual root identity and has such a strong role in our collective ‘western’ roots, I have a strong reserve of sympathy, that exists independently of the many critiques that I could also level against it. Because I now live abroad (sometimes jokingly referring to myself as a ‘refugee of western civilization), in a Buddhist country, I feel paradoxically closer than ever to my own cultural roots.

Finally, there are the institutions, and the people that embody it, many amongst the latter using the highest value systems to inspire their own actions for the common good.

All this being said, before being invited, I knew exactly nothing about the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, so this has been an interesting voyage of discovery. From here on, I bracketing my own perspectival biases, in order to discover a new terrain, and to examine which touch points it may have with my own attempts to develop a peer to peer theory. The above is just so you know ‘where I’m coming from’.

If you're interested check the regular blog for more.

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