Beyond the Dialogue of the Deaf

Cambridge, MA. Today's New York Times article on the St. Louis meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious highlights the mature and peaceful tone of the sisters’ closing statement. It seems to seek a dialogue on the matters under debate, a dialogue of equals that premises the dignity of all involved in the dialogue — the sisters, the members of the CDF, and the bishops appointed to correct the LCWR. The article also, however, recalls Archbishop Levada’s comment in June on the pointlessness of a “dialogue of the deaf,” since, as the NYT report recalls, “some Vatican officials have already indicated exasperation with the nuns’ insistence on perpetual dialogue. They say that church doctrine is not open for dialogue.” 

(Note to deaf readers: please be tolerant of all this discussion of deafness: I know you have many subtle and successful ways of dialoguing, and that physical deafness need not be a roadblock to understanding. It is the hear-abled who have much to learn about listening.)


I’ve not yet read the documents related to this particular NYT report, but the mention again of the fear of a “dialogue of the deaf” and the indication that the matter is “not open for dialogue” prompts me to suggest that this is an occasion when the CDF might learn from the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue and from innumerable Catholics, on how dialogue works. The experience of the last 50 years of Catholics in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue has been enormous, and many a Catholic, even some bishops, have matured in the art of speaking as a Catholic, with Catholic commitments, in a real conversation across religious borders — without compromising Catholic truths and without demeaning the other by giving the distinct impression that the Church has nothing to learn from others, in their presumably inferior religions.

It is an art to find a way to dialogue with Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, on issues of importance, without the apparatus of dialogue quickly declining into an interreligious “dialogue of the deaf.” The Pontifical Council, in its 1991 Dialogue and Proclamation, made the case for the possibility and necessary of respectful and mutually open and humble dialogue across religious boundaries, and the CDF might learn from such documents about the nature of dialogue.

Or the CDF might learn from its own documents. Even Dominus Iesus, in its chilly manner, catches something of the paradox of commitment to dialogue, since doctrinal truth does not preclude uncompromised respect for the individuals involved: “Equality, which is a presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relation to the founders of the other religions.” Both a commitment to Christ and a non-negotiable respect for the “equal personal dignity” of the parties in dialogue are required. How this might work has always been unclear - to respect a person but know in advance that the truth is on my side, not hers - but at least we can say that Dominus Iesus is expressing the hope that dialogue is not to be excluded, in conversation with non-Christians. We can look too to the CDF’s 2007 “Doctrinal Note ?on Some Aspects of Evangelization” which, quoting Vatican II, nicely captures the two-edged necessity of commitment to truth in dialogue: “The Second Vatican Council, after having affirmed the right and the duty of every person to seek the truth in matters of religion adds: ‘The search for truth, however, must be carried out in a manner that is appropriate to the dignity of the human person and his social nature, namely, by free enquiry with the help of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue. It is by these means that people share with each other the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in such a way that they help one another in the search for truth.’ In any case, the truth ‘does not impose itself except by the strength of the truth itself.’ Therefore, to lead a person’s intelligence and freedom in honesty to the encounter with Christ and his Gospel is not an inappropriate encroachment, but rather a legitimate endeavor and a service capable of making human relationships more fruitful.” Dialogue, then, is not merely sitting down and talking; it is not a conversation in which anything can be said without any possibility of disagreement, but neither is it an instruction in which one side speaks the other side listens and submits. The CDF may already know these things from its own documents and by learning from the Pontifical Council, but might review them at this point in this critical encounter with the sisters. Or even more simply and directly, everyone involved may take to heart the virtues for dialogue Catherine Cornille, Professor and Chair of Theology at Boston College, describes in her 2008 book, The (Im)possibility of Interreligious Dialogue: humility, conviction, interconnection, empathy, and generosity. She does not say this, I think, but these five virtues promise a cure for deafness in dialogue, and are required virtues to have in place as any dialogue begins.

BUT, some readers may be thinking, dialogue with other Christians and with non-Christians may be easier today than dialogue inside the Church. We often feel the most tension and suffer the greatest passion when we are in conversation with those who are supposed to be most like us, with whom we share the Gospel in adhering to the same Catholic faith. Appearances can be deceiving: When the hoped-for dialogue is to be among Catholics, one may think there is no need for respect for the mystery of the other, because there is no mystery about other Catholics; one may think there is no need to admit that even after all this time, the hierarchy and the wider Catholic community do not know one another; one may think there will be no anxiety that I may be imposing my terminology and worldview of people who, though sharing the faith, see and articulate the world in words not identical with my own. Power may work more relentlessly inside the Church, and seem to obviate dialogue, but when it does, it also delays indefinitely the fruits of dialogue. But really: after all this time, we seem not to know each other all that well, and perhaps the bishops do not know the sisters, and the sisters do not know the bishops. There is a need for a dialogue, but dialogue inside the Church may be more exotic than an exchange of Catholics and Daoists.

The point then of the dialogue the LCWR surely includes this: as in dialogue with non-Christians, the mystery of how God works differently with different people is very much pertinent in the Church too. We do not know each other so well that we can take each other for granted, as if "we" know in advance whether and how God is working in "them." This new and necessary dialogue need not be a dialogue of the deaf, because the Church is in some contexts already better at dialogue. If pursued with the same humility we bring to interreligious dialogue, a dialogue of bishops and sisters might be a healing balm for what ails us all. The dialogue can begin at least with a firm, implemented respect for “the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue,” or even with an application in the Church of the words of Nostra Aetate (1965): “The Church regards with sincere attentiveness those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless by no means rarely reflect the radiance of that Truth which enlightens all people.”

Or with a bit of August whimsy: all those on the CDF and LCWR leadership team might spend a few years learning to dialogue with non-Christians friends, and with that wisdom try again: a dialogue of those who have learned to listen.

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Melody Evans
6 years 7 months ago
Great blog!  I wish there was a little "thumbs up" button I could click.  :)

I love the line:  "A dialogue inside the Church may be more exotic than an exchange of Catholics and Daoists." 
Jim McCrea
6 years 7 months ago
Unfortunately, for many in the self-described, self-defined, self-imposed patriarchial hierchy that passes for leadership in this church, dialog = the men speak and women are expected to listen.

That is not dialog when the expected results are (1) predetermined to (2) skew to the way that the men want things to be.
David Smith
6 years 7 months ago
Endless dialogue is a political ploy, to turn a disadvantageous situation into one more advantageous to the side that wants to keep talking.  Pretty obvious.  Of course, though, this is a gamble - things may just as well turn even worse for the talkers, instead of better.

In this case, one group of sisters, chosen by the Vatican, has decided to oppose the Vatican on some important issues - important to both sides.  The Vatican, in the nature of this thing, has the upper hand.  It selected the sisters - not the other way around.  Just as a government, when it chooses an ambassador or forms a committee or sanctions an existing group, can dismiss the ambassador or dissolve the committee or remove its sanction from the group, the Vatican can dismiss this group of sisters as its representatives. Does anyone here disagree with that?

Of course, just as an ambassador can choose not to go quietly when fired but to make a public clamor, so the sisters can go noisily.  And that's what they seem to want to do.  The Vatican's patience will wear thin, then wear out, and the sisters will be moved aside.  The leftish side of the Church in America will protest and make lots of noise of its own.  That will be a pity.  But there you are.
Amy Ho-Ohn
6 years 7 months ago
I suspect those who are salivating at the fantasy of the LCWR sisters put in stocks then driven naked from the Church confines are doomed to disappointment.

In a second Obama-Biden administration, the bishops will want the sisters' credibility on health care issues. In a Romney-Ryan administration, they will want their connections, expertise and all the good faith they have earned with advocates for the economically disenfranchised.  Many bishops and not a few Vatican power-wielders have personal relationships, often very friendly, with LCWR sisters, often from long and arduous years of shared service in mission territories. The LCWR sisters may not bring in as many vocations as could be wished, but their presence in the destitute, dangerous corners of the world has made a lot of Catholics and kept a lot in the fold.

I think it is very clever of the LCWR and the bishops to keep talking right now. In three months, the political lobbyists and their moneybags will leave Rome and return to Washington and sanity will have its turn.
Sunil Korah
6 years 7 months ago
David Smith

As a Catholic / Christian I would not like to see the Vatican behave like a government, wielding authority because they have it. Vatican being the public face of Catholicism, don't you think that they should rather exhibit a 'Christian' approach. After all, forgiving 70 times 7 does prolong things.

(I am not accusing the Vatican of this behaviour. We are yet to see how it pans out. But, from the tone of your post, you seem to assume bad faith on the part of the nuns and the Vatican using their position of authority - which you seemed to find ok) 
David Smith
6 years 7 months ago
Sunil, the Church is hierarchical, based on obedience.  No amount of conviction on the part of a few American sisters will change that.  This is like a child refusing to obey her parent, on the grounds that she's obliged to do only what she's convinced is correct.

Of course, historically, there have been many rebellions against authority in the Church.  Some have ended badly - almost always, I imagine, for the rebels - and some have probably been settled more or less to everyone's satisfaction.  The rebellion in question here cannot end to anything like the complete satisfaction of these women - they're badly outnumbered and outgunned.  And, Amy, these are hardly the only sisters in the Church.

The Church is both compassionate and subtle.  No one's going to turn these people into conspicuous martyrs.  Most of them are probably getting up in years. The Vatican may have to do little but wait.
Patricia Bergeron
6 years 7 months ago
Dear David Smith, The Sisters have received a call from God, not from the Vatican. Furthermore, it's mean-spirited of the right-wing elements of the Church to simply "wait it out" until these women die off. What institution, even a divinely inspired one, does not benefit from listening respectfully to another perspective? In fact, dissent within the Catholic Church has caused it to grow... withness the faith and "radical" perspective of St. Francis of Assisi. I'm fond of the proverb, "God writes straight with crooked lines." Never discount the work of the Holy Spirit.
Amy Ho-Ohn
6 years 7 months ago
David Smith's view of the ecclesiastical chain of command is exceedingly fatuous. Individual sisters' vows are to their own orders' superiors, not to the prefect of the CDF. The head of each community owes obedience (usually) to the local ordinary. Nobody takes a vow of obedience to the LCWR. If the Vatican decommissions the LCWR (which it almost certainly is not going to do) it has no effect on the chain of authority.

Nobody is talking about expelling any of the member congregations from the Church. Nobody is proposing to make them put on burkhas. Nobody is proposing to make them kow-tow to priests. Nobody is going to tell them how to vote, or make them perform political theater in front of abortion clinics. Those are kooky Tighty-Righty fantasies, nothing more.

At the very worst, their annual conferences will be a lot more boring. That's all.

"The Vatican may have to do little but wait."  Well, that's a nice, tactful euphemism for surrender. "Certainly I have no intention of giving up the city!" shouts the general, "I'm simply going to withdraw my troops and wait!"
Thomas Farrell
6 years 7 months ago
The term "dialogue" is one of Fr. Clooney's favorite words to use. In light of this, I suppose that it was inevitable that Fr. Clooney would respond to Cardinal Levada's patronizing quip about "dialogue of the deaf."

However, we could fairly say that each side in this controversy is deaf, figuratively speaking, to the other side.

On one side of the controversy, we have Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Levada, and the CDF. They are not edified, to put it mildly, by certain things regarding the LCWR.

On the other side of the controversy, the leaders of the LCWR and the women religious that they represent are not edified, to put it mildly, by the CDF's critique of the LCWR, which Pope Benedict XVI authorized.
Sunil Korah
6 years 7 months ago
David Smith and the Vatican are on the same page! Look at the analogies he uses

"the Church is hierarchical, based on obedience."
"like a child refusing to obey her parent"

This is basically the problem.

[I have been quite sympathetic to the LCWR so far. But this business of having the 'futurist' as a lead speaker is making me think again. That was a confrontational act, in my opinion, not something conducive to opening a dialogue.]
David Smith
6 years 7 months ago
Amy (#8), there's little cynical in noting that these sisters are dying off. They belong to my generation, and we're all winding down together. I have a great deal of sympathy for their way of seeing things.  It's on the obedience thorn that we part company.  If I were a brother, say, and felt as much in conflict with Rome as they do, I'd simply stop being a brother - I'd leave and try to serve God outside those unnatural constraints.  They seem to want to duke it out with the Pope.  Different strokes.
Gerelyn Hollingsworth
6 years 7 months ago
''Individual sisters' vows are to their own orders' superiors, not to the prefect of the CDF. The head of each community owes obedience (usually) to the local ordinary.''


A religious makes vows to God in the presence of her superior and (often)  the bishop (or his representative).

All religious are subject to ecclesiastical superiors (usually bishops), not just the heads of the communities.  E.g., bishops can  overturn elections of religious superiors.  They can  disband communities.  They can  expel individual religious from their congregations.  They can split congregations into separate houses.  Etc., etc.

Nathaniel Campbell
6 years 7 months ago
@ Patricia (#7):  But when his holy mendicant life began to attract followers, St. Francis travelled to Rome in 1210 to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to form a new order (as seen in Giotto's fresco in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi).  He did not act of his own accord but always sought the guidance and approval of the Church.
Jim McCrea
6 years 7 months ago
No, Nathaniel: Francis sought approval of the pope, NOT the church.  Do not equate the two- either then nor, more importantly, now!


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