NCR on ‘The Ethics of Encounter’

Kelly Stewart writes:

It is a truism, perhaps especially in left-leaning Catholic circles, that Catholic social teaching is the church’s best-kept secret. Marcus Mescher’s The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity seeks to bring this best-kept secret to the fore and make it accessible to U.S. Catholics. Mescher argues that Catholic social teaching offers invaluable resources for navigating contemporary social problems and building what he calls a “culture of encounter” in a country beset by individualism, social division and unjust hierarchy….

He argues that moral relativism and social separation make us unable to see one another, to communicate with one another, to be in solidarity with another, across lines of difference. Genuine encounter, guided by an expansive view of neighbor love and informed by Catholic social teaching, provides a way out of this impasse and toward a more just and connected society.

Yet Mescher argues that Catholic social teaching is too abstract for most people to know how to live what it teaches. While abstract principles — he names human rights, environmental stewardship, the preferential option for the poor and the notion of the common good — are strong, there is too little guidance as to how these principles can be applied in particular situations….

This is where an ethic of encounter comes in. The major purpose and the strength of The Ethics of Encounter is as a guidebook for Catholics to apply Catholic social teaching to their everyday lives. Mescher emphasizes the importance not simply of rules and principles, but of moral formation. Taking up virtue theory, he argues that we make ourselves into the sorts of people we want to be by behaving like the people we want to be: we become courageous, for example, by repeatedly performing acts of courage. The point is not just self-improvement for its own sake. The process of self-transformation shapes us to be the sorts of people who can also shape society.