Travails of Dialogue

Prior to the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church had been polemically arrayed against other groups, including the non-Christian religions, non-Catholic Christianity, and the modern world. Pope John XXIII deserves the credit for having seen that this posture was interfering with the mission of the Church. Following his lead, Vatican II renounced anathematization and espoused dialogue.

The Dialogic Turn

The new stance of the Church was expressed during the Council by Paul VI’s first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (1964). God, he maintained, initiated a dialogue of salvation by turning to the world in love, making himself accessible through revelation, and appealing for the free response of faith. Imitating God’s action in Christ, the Church must address the world in the spirit of dialogue. It should clearly proclaim the message of salvation as revealed truth, but should do so humbly, in a spirit of trust and respect for the sensitivities of the hearers. Such a Church would listen before speaking and would be alert to discover the elements of truth in the opinions of others.

Paul VI in this encyclical spoke of three concentric circles of dialogue with those outside the Church—the world, the monotheistic religions, and the other Christian communities. Then, in a closing section, he spoke of the possibilities of dialogue within the Catholic Church itself—a dialogue predicated on the supposition that the members of the Church are bound by the word of God and are obedient to the authorities instituted by Christ. By setting evangelization within the context of dialogue, while continuing to insist on authority and submission, Paul VI made an important though cautious advance.

Pope John XXIII had founded the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in 1960. Paul VI, implementing his own vision of the three concentric circles that surrounded the Church of Rome, set up additional secretariats for Dialogue with Non-Christian Religions and with Non-Believers. The three secretariats corresponded to the documents of Vatican II on Ecumenism, on Non-Christian Religions, and on the Church in the Modern World.

John Paul II was an enthusiastic participant at the Second Vatican Council, and in his book Sources of Renewal he sought to explain for the people of his diocese of Cracow the importance of dialogue within the Church and with the three great sectors of humanity that lie beyond the visible limits of the Church. The concept of dialogue appeals to this pope because of his personalist orientation in philosophy. He pays tribute to philosophers of dialogue, such as Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, for having enriched human self-understanding. In his philosophical work The Acting Person, the future pope maintained that the principle of dialogue is very aptly suited to the structure of human communities insofar as it strengthens human solidarity and promotes constructive communal life.

As pope, John Paul II has continued to emphasize this theme in his great apostolic exhortations. In Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (1984) he speaks of the importance of “permanent and renewed dialogue within the Catholic Church herself” and of the need to listen to others with respect, to refrain from all hasty judgments, and to subordinate personal opinions to matters of faith. In his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (1995), he speaks at length of dialogue as a means for examining the disagreements that hinder full communion among Christians.

Love for the truth, he says, is essential to dialogue, but it must be accompanied by charity toward one’s partners in dialogue and humility with regard to the truth that comes to light, attitudes especially needed when the dialogue seems to call for a revision of one’s own previous assertions and attitudes. In his encyclical on the Church’s missionary activity, Redemptoris Missio (1990), the pope calls for dialogue with the followers of other religions, but he emphasizes that this does not take the place of missionary proclamation, which always remains necessary. Through dialogue, he says, the Church seeks to discover seeds of the Word and rays of truth in other religions. Dialogue also leads the Church to examine her own identity more deeply and to improve the quality of her own witness.

The strong approval given to dialogue by the recent popes puts the Catholic Church unequivocally on record as favoring this style of encounter. But dialogue, as the Church understands it, makes heavy demands that are not always respected. The term is often used carelessly, deceptively, and abusively to mean something other than what the Church understands by dialogue.

In the mid-1960s there was a great surge of enthusiasm for dialogue. Books were published with titles such as The Miracle of Dialogue (Reuel Howe) and From Anathema to Dialogue (Roger Garaudy). By treating others as partners rather than adversaries, dialogue, it was thought, could overcome inveterate divisions and generate shared insights surpassing the capacities of any single contributor.

In the decade following Vatican II, dialogue became almost a substitute for authority. Ecclesiastical superiors were expected to enter into dialogue with their subjects, so that decisions could be reached by consensus. Religious education was pursued not with a view to indoctrination but for the sake of eliciting insights through dialogue.

In the area of Church doctrine, dialogue became the new watchword. An instance was the debate about contraception. Without waiting for the papal commission to complete its study, theologians proposed their own solutions. By the time that the papal decision was promulgated in the summer of 1968, multitudes of Catholics already had made up their minds. Parties had been formed that resisted the implementation of the Roman decision and sought to neutralize or even reverse it. The widespread dissent resulting from the discussion made it evident that dialogue, pursued without due regard for the solidity of Catholic tradition and the authority of the pastoral Magisterium, could have negative effects.

Recent Proposals

In recent months the issue of dialogue within the Church has been raised again by two much-discussed proposals arising from members of the American hierarchy. On June 29, 1996, the retired archbishop of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, speaking at Campion Hall, Oxford, pointedly asked whether the Holy See had engaged in appropriate dialogue before making decisions regarding a great variety of matters, including contraception, general absolution, the appointment of bishops, the approval of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, clerical celibacy, and the ordination of women.

Hard on the heels of the Quinn address came the publication on August 12 of a statement drawn up by the National Pastoral Life Center in New York and released by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. Bearing the ominous title: Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril, this statement lamented the atmosphere of suspicion and acrimony in the Church today and called for a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, and broad consultation. Candid discussion, it stated, is inhibited by the imposition of a narrow party line. More room needs to be given for legitimate discussion and diversity. A new “common ground” needs to be forged among all who are willing to affirm “basic truths” and pursue the remaining disagreements in a spirit of dialogue. Such dialogue, the authors maintained, could be a welcome alternative to mutual accusations of infidelity and a present remedy for polarization.

Rival Concepts of Dialogue

My own reflection on the situation is that the difficulty with the statements, especially that of Cardinal Bernardin, is not so much with what they actually said as with what they seemed to imply, and would be understood as implying in the current atmosphere. Their statements on dialogue were inevitably interpreted in light of prevailing conceptions of dialogue in use among contemporary theoreticians, rather than in the context of the classical concepts used by Plato and Augustine and the personalist concepts proposed by the popes. I should like to illustrate this with regard to dialogue theory in comparative religion and democratic political theory.

Dialogue among the religions, according to many prominent experts, could be far more successful if all would agree that the divisive doctrines were classified as fallible human efforts to probe the depths of the divine. Paul Knitter, for instance, holds that it is disastrous for dialogue to insist on the finality and superiority of God’s revelation in Christ. Another expert, John Hick, in an article on “The Non-Absoluteness of Christianity,” argues that the modern dialogic setting precludes any a priori assumption that Christianity is superior to other faiths.

In the context of this relativistic pluralism, the word “dialogue” takes on a new meaning. The supposition is that in dialogue you are not trying to urge your own position, but to reach an accommodation in which both parties can live in peace. Cardinal Ratzinger in a recent address analyzes the concept of dialogue that is operative in the religious pluralism of thinkers such as Hick and Knitter. In their theology, he remarks,

the notion of dialogue—which has maintained a position of significant importance in the Platonic and Christian tradition—changes its meaning and becomes both the quintessence of the relativist creed and the antithesis of conversion and the mission. In the relativist meaning, to dialogue means to put one’s own position, i.e., one’s faith, on the same level as the convictions of others without recognizing in principle more truth in it than that which is attributed to the opinion of the others. Only if I suppose in principle that the other can be as right, or more right than I, can an authentic dialogue take place.

According to this concept, dialogue must be an exchange between positions which have fundamentally the same rank and therefore are mutually relative. Only in this way will maximum cooperation and integration between the different religions be achieved. The relativist dissolution of Christology, and even more of ecclesiology, thus becomes a central commandment of religion. To return to Hick’s thinking, faith in the divinity of one concrete person, as he tells us, leads to fanaticism and particularism, to the disassociation between faith and love, and it is precisely this which must be overcome.

A second series of problems arises within the context of recent American political theory. In the new liberalism a sharp line is drawn between the public and the private. All belief sys¬tems, in this framework, are relegated to the private sphere, so that no public authority may adjudicate questions of truth.

Michael J. Sandel has summarized the principles of this new political philosophy in his recent book, Democracy’s Discontent. He characterizes the dominant public philosophy as that of the “procedural republic.” In this framework we are required to bracket our moral and religious obligations when we enter the public realm. Questions of justice and rights must be decided without affirming one conception of the good over others. One cannot publicly discuss whether an unborn child has human, personal life because this is viewed as a metaphysical or religious question. The woman’s “right to choose” is allowed to prevail, as it were, by default.

Authors such as Sandel maintain, convincingly, I believe, that the procedural republic does not offer adequate foundations for a healthy self-governing society. It creates a moral void. Political association sinks to the level of a mere coalition in which the members are not inspired by any shared vision of the good. But my intention here is not to settle the political question. I am concerned with the fallout from this political philosophy in the religious realm. Christians are being drawn to regard questions of truth and morality as essentially private ones, to be settled by each individual in the intimacy of one’s own conscience.

As Andrew Greeley and others have shown, large numbers of Americans today are “communal Catholics” who adhere to the Church as the home in which they were nurtured and the place to which they are bound by ties of family and friendship, but who do not accept the teaching authority of popes and councils, especially in matters of morality. They turn to the Church for its ritual and sacramental ministry, but they do not expect it to instruct them on questions of truth and moral goodness. Communal Catholics follow their own judgment in many matters of dogma and moral conduct. Presuming that no one can be bound in conscience to accept official teaching, they regard dissent as a right. In a privatized Church, as in the “procedural republic,” no scope is allowed for public adjudication of questions of truth and morality.

These attitudes, however, undermine the very essence of Catholic Christianity, which authoritatively proclaims a religion founded on divine revelation and intended for all humankind. The Church has a public faith that is not subject to debate.

Because of the inroads of privatization, the call for greater dialogue among Catholics on points such as contraception or ordination of women is seen as a readiness to settle for something less than the full doctrine of the Church and to reach a pragmatic modus vivendi among Catholics who continue to disagree about substantive issues. This would lend support for the view, already widespread, that Catholics are free to hold opinions contrary to the official teaching of the Church, at least if they adhere to “basic truths.”

Even if Archbishop Quinn and Cardinal Bernardin did not wish to legitimize dissent, their statements easily could be interpreted as favoring the view that the teaching of the Church is not binding in conscience. The support given to these statements by individuals and groups who are known to diverge from current teaching confirmed this suspicion. The impression was given that some “common ground” other than the official doctrine of the Church was being proposed in an effort to reach out to alienated Catholics.

Ambiguities of Dialogue

It is time to draw some conclusions. First of all, it should be said that dialogue, properly understood, is an excellent thing, whether carried on within the Church or between the different Christian churches or different religions. But it needs to be kept in mind that authentic dialogue is premised on truth and is directed to an increment of truth. Where the conditions are not met, true dialogue cannot occur. For example, if one of the parties is not interested in a serious search for consensus in the truth but only in gaining public recognition or in extorting concessions, dialogue would be a deception.

Paul VI in Ecclesiam Suam remarked that atheistic communism was perverting discussion by using it not to seek and express truth but to serve predetermined utilitarian ends; and this strategy, he said, “puts an end to dialogue” (§107). Cardinal Ratzinger, recalling the student uprisings of 1968, declared that he then learned the lesson that there are times when dialogue would become a lie and would amount to collaboration with terrorism. To turn to a more classic example, Jesus evidently judged that on certain occasions excoriation rather than dialogue should be directed at the Pharisees. And when brought to trial before Herod, Jesus responded not with dialogue but with silence. In our day, groups that call for dialogue in order to confront the Church with inexorable demands must be met with a firm refusal.

In a number of the ecumenical dialogues carried on in recent years the question of truth has in fact been focal. Important and unexpected convergences in some cases have been achieved. But, like anything human, ecumenical dialogue has its limits. If the aim is to bring the churches into closer harmony, the members of the dialogue teams will have to accept a certain discipline. They must adhere to the traditions of their respective communities and have a realistic sense of how far these communities can go without betraying their authentic heritage. If the dialogue produces ambiguous statements or agreements that will be repudiated by the communities, it could do positive harm to the ecumenical cause.

Dialogue is not a panacea. It does not automatically lead to full consensus. In all honesty, dialogue teams will sometimes have to declare that they cannot overcome certain hard-core differences on which the partner churches cannot both be right. Theologians do not have the authority to change the doctrines of their churches, and it is unfair to expect them to arrive at full agreement unless the churches are prepared to change their respective doctrines.

Interreligious dialogue also can be very productive if conducted without abandonment of principles and without false irenicism, according to the principles set forth in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio. But the dialogue among the great religions recently has been plagued by a relativistic pluralism. If methodological rules are laid down that require the parties to renounce or conceal the points on which they disagree, dialogue can become inhibitive and impoverishing. The fault lies not with dialogue itself but with theorists who seek to evade its rigorous demands.

Referring to interreligious relations, the Holy See published in 1991 an important document on “Dialogue and Proclamation.” Dialogue, it declared,

does not mean that the partners should lay aside their respective religious convictions. The opposite is true. The sincerity of interreligious dialogue requires that each enter into it with the integrity of his or her own faith…. Interreligious dialogue and proclamation, though not on the same level, are both authentic elements of the Church’s evangelizing mission…. They are intimately related…. True interreligious dialogue on the part of the Christian supposes the desire to make Jesus Christ better known, recognized and loved.

As for dialogue within the Church, it is always in order if the purpose is to understand Church teaching better, to present it more persuasively, and to implement it in a pastorally effective way. But the conditions laid down by Paul VI must be kept in mind. He made it clear that obedience to ecclesiastical authority, rather than independence and criticism, must prevail (Ecclesiam Suam §§ 118-19).

The conditions for intraecclesial dialogue are not easy to realize today. Open discussion may be counterproductive if its purpose is to prolong debate on issues that are ripe for decision or to legitimize positions that the teaching authorities have decisively rejected. Far from achieving consensus, such dialogue would serve to build up mutually opposed constituencies and thus further polarize the Church.

Under present conditions, any proposal for dialogue within the Church must be very carefully formulated if it is not to expand the zone of disagreement within the Church. An imprudent yielding to pleas for tolerance and diversity could easily weaken the Church as a community of faith and witness.

Polarization is not normally the result of clear and confident teaching of the Church’s heritage of faith. It is more likely to arise when the true teaching is obscured by the indulgence of contrary opinions. The hierarchical Magisterium must be vigilant to prevent and correct error in matters of doctrine. Pastoral authorities who are fully conscious of their responsibilities will not use dialogue as a subterfuge for avoiding the onerous tasks of their office. They will rise to the challenge of Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “convince, rebuke, and exhort,” and to be “unfailing in patience and in teaching.”

Authentic dialogue, even at its best, has limits. It cannot appropriately replace every other form of communication. Evangelization, as Paul VI and John Paul II have insisted, is a permanent priority of the Church. Dialogue, to be sure, has a legitimate place in all missionary witness, creedal confession, dogmatic teaching, and catechetical instruction, but these proclamatory modes of discourse are not reducible to dialogue pure and simple. A paramount internal need for the Church today is the faithful transmission of the Catholic patrimony as embodied in works such as The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Christian proclamation, even when conducted within a context of dialogue, presupposes that there is a divine revelation, embodying the truth that leads to eternal life. All revelation, in the Christian understanding, comes from the divine Word, which is one and eternal. When Christians engage in dialogue, they do so with the hope of making that one Word better known. In a sense, therefore, Christianity is monologic. Authentic dialogue would be futile unless it helped us to hear the one divine Word. “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”


  • Avery Dulles, S.J.

    Avery Robert Dulles S.J. (1918 – 2008) was a Jesuit priest, theologian, cardinal of the Catholic Church and served as the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University from 1988 to 2008. He was an internationally known author and lecturer.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...