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Posted September 15, 2004

Comparing the workings of dialogue according to
Pope Paul VI and John L. Allen, Jr.

Rome Correspond: National Catholic Reporter

The Essential Principles of Dialogue
According to Pope Paul VI in Ecclesium Suam

This type of relationship indicates proposal of courteous esteem, of understanding and of goodness on the part of the one who inaugurates the dialogue. It excludes the a priori condemnation, of the offensive and time-worn polemic, and the emptiness of useless conversation. . . . It is an example of the art of spiritual communication. Its characteristics are the following:

1. Clearness above all. The dialogue supposes and demands comprehensibility. It is an outpouring of thought; it is an invitation to the exercise of the highest powers which man possesses. This very claim would be enough to classify the dialogue among the best manifestations of human activity and culture. This fundamental requirement is enough to enlist our apostolic care to review every angle of our language to guarantee that it be understandable, acceptable, and well-chosen.

2. A second characteristic of dialogue is its meekness, the virtue which Christ sets before us to be learned from Him: “Learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of heart.” The dialogue is not proud. It is not bitter, it is not offensive. Its authority is intrinsic to the truth it explains, to the charity it communicates, to the example it proposes. It is not a command. It is not an imposition. It is peaceful. It avoids violent methods. It is patient. It is generous.

3. Trust, not only in the power of one’s words, but also in an attitude of welcoming the trust of the interlocutor. Trust promotes confidence and friendship. It binds hearts in mutual adherence to the good which excludes all self-seeking.

4. Finally, pedagogical prudence, which esteems highly the psychological and moral circumstances of the listener whether he be a child, uneducated, unprepared, diffident, hostile. Prudence strives to learn the sensitivities of the hearer and requires that we adapt ourselves and the manner of our presentation in a reasonable way lest we be displeasing and incomprehensible to him.

In the dialogue, conducted in this manner, the union of truth and charity, of understanding and love is achieved.

The Spirituality of Dialogue According to John Allen: Common Ground in a Global Key: International Lessons in Catholic Dialogue, The Sixth Annual Lecture of Catholic Common Ground Initiative

Let me suggest five elements that seem to be at the core of such a spirituality.

The first is a dose of epistemological humility. We live in an era of instant opinion, where everyone is expected to have an opinion on every topic under the sun. The raw truth, however, is that we don’t know everything. We have to re-learn the discipline of withholding final judgment, realizing that we may not always have the requisite data or reflection to draw definitive conclusions. This is not a plea for relativism; where reason shows something to be true, or scripture and tradition posit something as definitive, the mind should not hold back assent. But even in those cases, there may be implications or dimensions we have missed, and dialogue can reveal them to us. Dialogue is, in other words, an essential element of the search for truth, but only if we are open to being shaped by the experience.

Second is a solid formation in Catholic tradition, as a means of creating a common language. Allow me to quote Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, the chief negotiator for the Holy see in its relations with the Israeli government and a noted canonist. Jaeger writes:

The essential condition is learning Scripture and Tradition, the Fathers and the Doctors. There were theological disputations in the past, but the disputants had precisely this, common ground, their common learning. Nowadays I observe that all too often the shouting match is between “gut” conservatives and “gut” liberals, whose common ground is their shared ignorance. I myself am very conservative doctrinally, yet, as a seminary professor in the late eighties and nineties, I was surprised to see that my would-be “conservative” students invariably assumed that the most extreme position on everything was always the most Catholic, without any understanding of Tradition. The solution is a renewed emphasis on the common ground of humanistic and Christian learning, so that we do not engage in “political” negotiation, but in a responsible “searching of the Scriptures.”

I don’t have Jaeger’s erudition, but I can only echo his conclusion. This, by the way, is one of the eternal problems in trying to explain Vatican documents to the American media market. The documents assume a classic Aristotelian/Thomistic cultural formation, while typical American responses to them, at least at the popular level, come out of a liberal, democratic worldview. The result is often misunderstanding.

Third, a proper spirituality of dialogue also requires patience. On this point, former Dominican Master General Fr. Timothy Radcliffe writes:

There can only be dialogue if we take time. It took 400 years for the Christology of Chalcedon to emerge. If we disagree with someone then one cannot make progress if one has put down a 20 minute meeting in the diary. The crucial issue is this: to what do we give that most precious gift which is time? God only gives us a little of it: 27,000 days on average. How shall we use them? If the unity of the Church is important, then we need to give time to those with whom we tussle, time to understand and to be challenged. A culture of activism means not just that we are all too busy, but that we are busy doing what is not perhaps so important.

Fourth, a spirituality of dialogue requires perspective, meaning the capacity to see issues through the eyes of others. This is a critical quality in global church with 1.1 billion members, a point brought home during the peak of the American sexual abuse crisis in Spring 2002. As you will recall, there was a drumbeat of criticism in the American press and in activist Catholic circles because the Vatican was not directly engaged. Officials of the Holy See, including the Holy Father himself, were sometimes assumed to be apathetic, out of touch, or even complicit in the cover-up.

I was in Rome during that period, however, and seen from there, the most important religion story of Spring 2002 was not the American situation, but the 39-day standoff between Israelis and Palestinians at Bethlehem’s Basilica of the Nativity. This was the drama on the front pages of newspapers, and the lead item on the evening news. While Americans were frustrated that the Holy See did not have a laser-beam focus on their crisis, some in the Vatican were equally shocked that the fate of the holy sites did not seem important to the American Catholic community. After all, America has enormous influence in the region, and the fate of their coreligionists in the Holy Land should have been of concern to American Catholics, yet few spoke out. In the end, a bloody denouement was narrowly avoided. One may argue that the Vatican’s priorities should have been elsewhere, but no intelligent debate is possible until the perspective of the other party is properly understood.

Fifth and finally, we must foster a spirituality of dialogue that does not come at the expense of a full-bodied expression of Catholic identity. There is no future for dialogue if convinced Catholics sense the price of admission is setting aside their convictions. If dialogue means we have to go fuzzy on abortion, to take one obvious example, it is dead. To return to our earlier question, why didn’t the Catholic Common Ground Initiative work? It’s not because it failed to respond to a real need. In fact, I sense a deeply felt desire among Catholics to overcome our internal bickering and divisions. That desire, however, is not the only, and probably not the strongest, trend coursing through Christianity. Today, I would assert that the strongest single impulse in the Christian community pivots on identity — the desire for a robust assertion of what it means to be a Christian. You can’t explain the phenomenal success of “The Passion of Christ” without understanding this impulse. It is perhaps most strongly felt by younger generations whose members did not acquire a strong sense of identity either in the home or in school, even Catholic schools. Hence the spirituality of dialogue needed is one that combines a vigorous assertion of identity, opening up our distinctive language and rituals and worldview to those who hunger for them, without ending up a “Taliban Catholicism” that knows only how to excoriate and condemn.

I know this audience hardly requires a closing fervorino, but let me end with a final reflection. Normal American ambivalence about Roman authority was given a turbo charge by the sex abuse crisis. A May 2003 poll in the Boston Globe found that 39 percent of Catholics in the Boston area would support the creation of an American Catholic Church independent of the Vatican. The news is actually worse, because among Catholics aged 18-39, the proposal for cutting ties with Rome rises to 50.9 percent. Granted that attitudes in Boston are sharper than elsewhere, this finding should be alarming for anyone concerned with communio between the universal and local church. Certainly, a formal schism is improbable. But if present antagonisms fester, a cycle of recrimination and suspicion could result, producing an endeclared rupture such as the Catholic world has already seen in places such as Holland, Germany and Austria.

Given that the United States is the leading political and commercial power in the world, and the Holy See the leading voice of conscience, then American Catholics and the Vatican should be collaborating on a Catholic perspective on global concerns.

Disagreements and tensions will always be with us, and can be healthy. The cause of human dignity, however, is not served by a breach between Rome and the American Catholic “street,” or within the American Catholic community between pro-and anti-Roman voices.

Hence there is no more urgent task than putting the church in dialogue with itself, at all levels and across all divisions. My hope is fired by gatherings such as this one, in which good will and devotion to the koinonia is so clear. For all of our faults, American Catholicism remains resilient and resourceful. We face a wounded civic culture in need of the contributions that a unified Catholic voice can bring. May the quest for a spirituality of dialogue lead us into that long-awaited “Catholic moment.”