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Diversity, Reason, and Catholic Faith

by James G. Murphy, SJ


Catholic faith is reasonable, and Catholic faith always involves reason, in the broad sense outlined in St. John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical letter Fides et Ratio.   It is through that faith-grounded reason that the Catholic Church must respond to the challenge of diversity today. While much spoken of, as in the common claim “We must affirm our diversity”, the meaning of that diversity is not always clear. Thirty years ago, pluralism was much spoken of, but has been less mentioned of late, with the focus shifting to diversity. 

There is an important distinction to be made: it could be put in terms of the distinction between plurality and pluralism. Plurality (with respect to cultures, including art, religion, philosophy, and the like) names the fact or state of affairs that planet Earth and nearly all nations and societies on it are characterized by a plurality or diversity of cultures.   Pluralism names the positive evaluative attitude one could take to that fact. Today, the term ‘diversity’ is used in place of ‘plurality’.   What is important is that we do not lose sight of the distinction between the descriptive notion and the evaluative or normative notion. It is an important distinction of reason.

Without doubt it is also something distinctive about modernity (by which I mean the Enlightenment mentality, in science, politics and philosophy) that it took the fact of cultural diversity seriously. While it had not been ignored in previous centuries, it had not been taken as philosophically significant, since most of the world’s population was unaware of it.   With the arrival of the Romantic movement in the early 19th century, the diversity of cultures, languages, ways of life and related phenomena came to be valued more: a great richness, evidence of humanity’s cultural creativity. Here the descriptive notion blurred into a more normative notion, of cultural diversity as inherently good.  Of course, the idea that culture is good by definition wasn’t new. Traditionally, whether in empires or small hill-tribes, the notion of culture was normative as well as descriptive: that was the classical notion of culture – notably found in the Chinese and Roman empires, among others – essentially holding that there is only one culture, we have it, and all others are barbarians.   That did not begin to change until the late 19th century witnessed the emergence of the social sciences, which took an empirical rather than a normative view of culture.

To accept, as a matter of fact, that there is a diversity of different cultures, while simultaneously holding that culture is good by definition and that the more cultures there are the better, lands one in relativism. Relativism is incoherent, and on many points self-refuting. Hence it matters that there be two notions, one descriptive and the other normative, and that they not be conflated. Diversity is a fact. We can all affirm the value of diversity of cuisine and art-forms. But a certain kind of ethical diversity in a specific context may not be a good thing. Working out whether it is good or not requires an exercise of reason. Here, we have to accept the fact of the diversity without embracing it, i.e. valuing it. In addition, diversity must not be reified: one can embrace a particular other culture, or maybe several (if one has the time and interest), but one cannot embrace the abstract fact of difference or diversity per se.

Pluralism, the normative or evaluative notion, can never be uncritical, on pain of ceasing to be evaluative either negatively or positively.   It includes the following elements: (1) It goes beyond mere acceptance of cultural diversity to viewing it as, in principle, something enriching rather than confusing, a tapestry of many colors and not a Tower of Babel. (2) It entails a limited respect for the culture of any group, not because of the content of the beliefs and values of that group, but because it is the culture of persons, and all peoples have an equal right to cultural choice and (from others) cultural respect. (3) As evaluative, pluralism refuses to accept the claim that all cultures are equal in value or goodness and holds to the proposition that evaluation of cultural practices and beliefs is not solely relative to context.



As presented in the previous paragraph, pluralism is a reasoned normative stance. First, it proposes openness, as a starting point, with respect to other cultures, seeking the good in them. That includes openness to the idea that reasoning patterns may be somewhat different in a particular other culture. It is natural to expect that reasoning may be done somewhat (but not completely) differently in another culture. Second, pluralism is not uncritical: it seeks, from a starting point of openness, to evaluate different elements in another culture, and is prepared, with caution, to find some being lacking to some degree. It was not impossible at all for some 17th century European Jesuits to recognize that in some ways East Asian cultures “did things better” and that Europe could and should learn from them. Third, pluralism at its best is a quest for value: it evaluates critically to find what is good or outstanding in order to acknowledge it.

The common criticism made in the last fifty years is that reason is tainted, perhaps utterly so, by western thinking and values. At least it can be acknowledged that western forms of reasoning were indeed “western” and may need more refined analysis. We can accept that reason is “situated” in gendered, class-based, ethnic, race-based, and other ways. For some, this might undermine reason’s validity or authority in toto. But reason is not like a scientific theory or set of doctrines, which might or might not be true, or whose justification might or might not be adequate: reason is a social practice, and it is inherently dialogic. The mere fact that it is reason itself which points (in somebody’s assertion) to its situatedness, is open to hearing that, and adjusting for it, should suffice to refute the claim that acceptance of cultural diversity or upholding the value of a pluralist attitude requires one to abandon or limit reason.

Reason and Catholic Faith

In the case of the Catholic Church, since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) it has moved in a pluralist direction regarding world cultures.   Interestingly, in section 3 of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, after speaking of “the dialogue of the Church with the cultures of our times” St. John Paul II continues: “There is only one culture: that of the human person, by the human person and for the human person.”   While the text offers no particular gloss or explanation, it seems that what is meant is that since every culture is a human culture, as such the scope of human reason can link all of them.

Ex Corde clearly takes reason to be dialogic. It speaks of the importance of the Church’s “dialogue with people of every culture,”   noting that “traditional cultures are to be defended in their identity.”   It notes the importance of dialogue between “Christian thought and the modern sciences.”    It specifically directs Catholic universities to the importance of promoting “dialogue between faith and reason.”  

Reason’s scope is wider than that of a particular large-scale metaphysics or metanarrative. The decline, though (fortunately) not the elimination, of science’s and the Enlightenment’s prestige has made it respectable to note that reason also functions in the value-based disciplines: its scope is wider than the natural sciences. Furthermore, its scope is wider than that of Aristotelian logic, as the development from around 1900 of symbolic logic, inductive logic, and a remarkable number of logical systems has shown that logic, while always systematic and rigorous, does not necessarily lead in only one direction. Nor does reason. Reason certainly can eliminate the incoherence and the implausibility of different worldviews, religions, and ideologies, but it does not always point in only one direction.

Reason includes logic and systematic inference, as well as what the sciences and humanities offer. Today more attention is paid to what reasoning is, and not just to reason’s, i.e. philosophy’s, deliverances. In recent years, philosophers, distinguishing reasons from motives and intentions, have given considerable attention to what it means to act for a reason.    Robert Brandom’s many works have elaborated at length a substantial case for the claim that the meaning content of a proposition is determined less by what it represents and far more by the inferences that speech-norms allow us to make to it and from it. 

To claim that faith is compatible with reason need not (and probably ought not) be taken as a claim that Christian faith can be proven to be true or justified. It is better to take it that living in Christian faith includes a reason-driven, reason-seeking, reason-finding life. Jesus sometimes demands more faith from people; it is not a blind faith, but rather one that is – in a wide sense – reasonable. There is no appeal to blind faith when he challenges his hearers to read the signs of the times for themselves. When asked for his authority to teach, he gives reasons. He repeatedly teaches and is acknowledged as such at various points: to teach is to make significant claims, and to give reasons for them. 

Thus, when the Christian community, the Church, conscious of the Great Mission (“Go, teach all nations ….”    ), encounters an unfamiliar culture, it is called to engage with it. This is not a matter of calling for blind faith but of, first, coming to know that culture, through open-minded and critical reasoning, and second, giving reasons for the gospel that it offers. This is not something without bite. In Evangelii Nuntiandi, St. Paul VI remarked: 

Evangelization loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols…. But on the other hand evangelization risks losing its power and disappearing altogether if one empties or adulterates its content under the pretext of translating it.


At a different juncture in the text, he puts the point in somewhat stronger language:

… it is a question not only of preaching the Gospel... to greater numbers of people, but also of affecting and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, mankind’s criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation… [W]hat matters is to evangelize human culture and cultures.


What he is speaking of could be summed up as ‘reason’: engaging with new or changing cultures, seeking to understand them, fleshing out their coherence and implications, confronting anti-human or anti-life cultural customs, and introducing Christian reasons into the dialogic chain of reasoning which, relative to the particular dialogue, casts light. Accordingly, the Church – in its inculturation and embrace of certain aspects of cultures as well as its critical challenge to them – acts from reason as well as faith.


















1    John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, encyclical letter, Vatican Website, September 14, 1998,

2    In The Interpretation of Culture, Clifford Geertz defined culture as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men [sic] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.” Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 89.

3    See “From Diversity to Pluralism,” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, accessed July 8, 2021,

4    It also seems to be the case that greater awareness of cultural diversity, notably in contemporary cultural melting-pot societies, is often accompanied by reduction in diversity: think of the rapid dying-out of a significant number of “smaller” languages in recent times.

5    See Bernard Lonergan, Doctrinal Pluralism (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1971), 5.

6    For a fuller treatment, see John Kekes, The Morality of Pluralism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).

7    Vatican II 1965, “Pastoral Constitution of The Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes,” Vatican Website, December 7, 1965,, part II, chapter 2, esp. sec. 44 and 53; see also Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, apostolic exhortation, Vatican website, December 8, 1975,, sec. 19-20; and John Paul II Catechesi Tradendae, apostolic exhortation, Vatican Website, October 16, 1979,, sec. 53.

8    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, encyclical letter, Vatican Website, August 15, 1990,, sec. 3.

9    Ibid., sec. 6 and 43.

10  John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, sec. 45.

11  Ibid., sec. 46.

12  Ibid., sec. 15.

13  See, for instance, John Skorupski, The Domain of Reasons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Anthony Simon Laden, Reasoning: A Social Picture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); T.M. Scanlon, Being Realistic about Reasons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

14  See, for instance, Robert Brandom, Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), and Robert Brandom, Reason in Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

15  Mt. 28:19-20.

16  Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, sec. 63.

17  Ibid., sec. 19-20. The end of Ex Corde refers to: “the salvific action of the Church on cultures.” John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, conclusion.


James Murphy, SJ

James Murphy has been Associate Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago since 2009. Prior to that he was lecturer in philosophy at Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Dublin, Ireland for many years. He has written articles on issues of public policy (in the Irish-EU context), as well as a monograph, War’s Ends (Georgetown University Press, 2014) on the ethics of going to war. His main interests lie in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science. He has written course-textbooks in philosophy of science and philosophy of the person. He is currently completing a monograph on how we relate to (or confront) history. He is a Catholic priest, and a Jesuit.

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