Pope Francis and the Catholic Way of Dialogue

“Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.”

That, according to Pope Francis, is the response he gives when leaders ask him for advice about how to resolve their societies’ internal differences. It is, he recently told a gathering of prominent Brazilians, the only way for societies to avoid the dead-ends of what Francis called “selfish indifference” and “violent protest.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the Church provided powerful examples of how to proceed along this path. A case in point was the manner in which the Catholic Church in Poland in the face of constant—and, at times, extreme—provocation never ceased talking to the Communist regime, despite the fact that the conversation was with people who were generally of ill-will and who supported an evil political system.

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For many Catholics today, however, the very word “dialogue” doesn’t enjoy the best of connotations. When some hear this phrase, it immediately conjures up memories of theologians of the 70s, 80s, and 90s who apparently imagined that dialogue implied watering-down and even rejecting key Catholic truth-claims. In some instances, Catholic exponents of dialogue didn’t seem to grasp that any serious dialogue with others pre-supposed that the Catholic participants in the conversation actually knew and believed what the Church taught. Even today some Catholics ask for “more dialogue” to avoid affirming Catholic teaching precisely because they’ve apparently dialogued their way “beyond Jesus.”

Looking beyond, however, the immediate past, the truth is that Catholics have always engaged other religions and philosophies. The Church Fathers, for instance, didn’t hesitate to “plunder the spoils of the Egyptians.” They took concepts from non-Christian sources and used them to clarify important points of Church teaching, including dogmas as complex as the Trinity.

This reminds us that the Church regards dialogue as much more than simply a means of resolving social tensions. It’s also central to the evangelical dimension of what Francis calls “a culture of encounter.” For the ultimate objective of such encounters isn’t only greater understanding of others’ positions. We seek to understand others’ views (however incoherent they might be) so as to deepen knowledge of—and spread—the truth that finds its fullness in Catholic faith.

There are, of course, tremendous risks associated with dialogue. Furthermore, as every businessman knows, not all risks pay off. In more-than-a few cases, Catholic dialogue with the modern world has proved less-than-fruitful.

Some, for instance, regard the attempt of the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner to reconcile Catholicism with modern German philosophy as an example of an ultimately unproductive conversation. In his History of the Catholic Church (2012), the historian James Hitchcock suggests Rahner ended up “increasingly unwilling to affirm classical Catholic doctrine and increasingly hostile to the exercise of magisterial authority.” This is surely not what the Church wants to result from dialogue.

Nevertheless there are examples of successful dialogue by Catholics, the most famous being Saint Paul’s encounter with the Athenian philosophers in the Areopagus. Saint Luke’s account of this event is well-known (Acts 17:16-34). But what’s important for our purposes is the way Paul engaged the Athenians.

Paul didn’t start by citing the Hebrew canon, let alone preaching Christ crucified. Instead he pointed to a reference point—an altar to “an unknown God”—acceptable to all parties to the conversation. Paul then quoted well-known Stoic sayings to further the discussion. In doing so, he established his credentials as someone who took seriously powerful reference-points for the educated Greek mind.

The point of Paul’s exercise was to dispose his audience to listen to what he had to say. As Acts tells us, Paul eventually worked his way around to speaking about the resurrected Christ. At this point of the conversation, many of Paul’s listeners mocked him. Others brushed Paul off with a polite “we’ll-get-back-to-you.” Yet some of Paul’s listeners in Athens continued listening and eventually became Christians. Even more importantly, Paul set the stage for on-going exchanges between Christianity and Antiquity that continue yielding fruit to this very day.

This, however, wasn’t the only feature of the early Christian dialogue with Greece and Rome. It also involved explaining, by word and deed, the Church’s conviction that many pagan beliefs and practices were absurd, evil, or both. Among others, these included actions such as abortion and infanticide, the pagan view of women as essentially unequal to men, and the ancient world’s cosmology of gods and goddesses.

In other words, the Catholic way of dialogue has never implied abandoning key tenets of Catholic faith and morals. The objective is to listen to and talk with others in order to promote the truth that Catholics believe is definitively revealed by Christ and entrusted to His Church. Sometimes this means Catholics must question their listeners’ beliefs—albeit in a respectful way and after finding a common starting-point for discussion.

Thus the Catholic can say to, for instance, to the convinced Marxist: “Yes, you’re right. Modern man does seem alienated from his world. But the reason for that alienation doesn’t lie in their relationship to the means of production. Alienation is ultimately derived from a lack of love.” Such an argument was made by Karol Wojtyła in his philosophical writings. Likewise the Catholic can say to the libertarian: “Yes, you’re right. Many people are too inclined to let freedom be sacrificed to an all-leveling egalitarianism. But you can’t build a coherent vision of liberty based on hedonism, skepticism and utilitarianism.”

A contemporary example of this faithful approach to dialogue, I’d suggest, is our great pontiff emeritus, Benedict XVI. Take, for instance, the manner in which he discussed environmental issues.

Long before becoming pope, Joseph Ratzinger saw something good in worries about threats (real or imagined) to the natural world. Yet having affirmed such concerns (some even labeled him the “Green Pope”), Ratzinger then asked the same people why they seemed rather nonchalant about violations of what he called “human ecology.” Put another way, if you’re anxious about the natural world and want to protect it from random destruction, shouldn’t you be at least equally worried about attempts to encourage entire societies to live contrary to the natural moral law that, as Paul affirmed, is embedded in human reason itself?

That Pope Francis shares this conception of dialogue seems clear from these powerful words spoken during his recent (and rather under-reported) address to a gathering of Jesuits to mark the feast-day of Saint Ignatius of Loyola:

Christ is our life! Likewise the centrality of Christ corresponds to the centrality of the Church: they are two focal points that cannot be separated: I cannot follow Christ except in the Church and with the Church. And in this case too we Jesuits—and the entire Society—are not at the centre, we are, so to speak, a corollary, we are at the service of Christ and of the Church, the Bride of Christ Our Lord, who is our holy Mother the hierarchical Church (cf. EE, 353). Men rooted in and founded on the Church: this is what Jesus wants us to be. There can be no parallel or isolated path. Yes, ways of research, creative ways, this is indeed important: to move out to the periphery, the many peripheries. For this reason creativity is vital, but always in community, in the Church, with this belonging that gives us the courage to go ahead. Serving Christ is loving this actual Church, and serving her generously and in a spirit of obedience.

In the sixteenth century, Jesuit giants such as Matteo Ricci travelled to what was truly the periphery of the world then known to Europeans. Ricci immediately understood that the civilization he encountered in China was a highly sophisticated society. He consequently mastered the Chinese language and devoted considerable energy to exploring Chinese literature and philosophy. Much of this involved conversing with erudite Confucian scholars.

Yet Ricci never lost sight of the ultimate point of such dialogue. Ricci’s famous book, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven¸ certainly underlined parallels between Catholicism and Confucianism. But Ricci’s book wasn’t just an exercise in comparative philosophy. Its purpose was to open Chinese minds to the possibility that the completeness of truth is found in Catholicism.

And this makes sense if, as Francis says, Christ is our life. For why would we not want others to share in the fullness of that life? Yes, there are dangers to any dialogue. If, however, the true end of dialogue is kept in mind and we have faith in the truth of Catholicism, we surely have nothing to fear.

Editor’s note: Pictured above are Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew greeting each other at a historic meeting in the Vatican on March 20, 2013.


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