Is ‘dialogue’ just an empty buzzword for Christians?

Pope Francis greets Buddhist representatives during an interreligious and ecumenical meeting for peace in the garden of the archbishop's residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

In October 2015, as the second session of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family was about to begin, a new parody Twitter account emerged: Dr. Dialogue, S.J.

The Doctor immediately began tweeting about “dialogue” in ways that demonstrated the anonymous creator’s deep suspicion of it. “Remember, you can’t spell ‘dialogue’ without ‘U’ and ‘I’ but the ‘I’ always has to come first!” he tweeted on Oct. 2.

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On Oct. 8, after the Synod began, he tweeted, “Join us Saturday at the St. Robert Bellarmine Center for Dialogue and Ecumenism. We’re having a fun-filled celebration of Calvin’s Geneva!” And on October 15, referring to Pope Francis’ repeated excoriation of “doctors of the law,” Dr. Dialogue tweeted, “Don’t be a doctor of the law! Be a doctor of dialogue!”

Of course, the champion of the dialogue parodied by this Twitter account is Pope Francis. Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has consistently drawn attention to the central importance of dialogue for the church. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” the pope exhorted us to walk along “the path of dialogue,” enumerating various ways in which the church and individual Christians can embark on this path. In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis argued that genuine dialogue must be at the heart of humanity’s efforts to address ecological devastation. Appeals to dialogue also appear over and over again in Pope Francis’ speeches, morning homilies and audiences.

As Dr. Dialogue, S.J., shows us, not all Catholics are comfortable with the pope’s focus on dialogue.

For example, in an essay for the National Catholic Register titled “Dubious About Dialogue,” Monsignor Charles Pope argues that most people who want to dialogue seek “to avoid a conclusion by steering a conversation or line of reasoning toward uncertainty; a conversation that is not really interested in truly disclosing or sharing the truth.” R.R. Reno at the magazine First Things included “dialogue” in a list of what he considered to be “buzzwords used at corporate retreats and in human resource departments” that are now embarrassingly being used uncritically in official church documents.

Are these fair characterizations of what Pope Francis and others mean by dialogue?

One of the clearest examples of what the pope understands dialogue to mean came in his address to the U.S. bishops during his visit here in 2015. Telling the bishops that “I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly,” the pope pressed them to be unafraid to articulate their viewpoints boldly and clearly, but to do so from a position of genuine encounter. Such encounter means that we affirm others first and foremost as persons, “to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.” Harsh and divisive language do little else but alienate, the pope said. “Only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

Some see the pope’s emphasis on dialogue as a ruse by him and his defenders to attain certain ends that have already been predetermined irregardless of opposition. Others worry that dialogue necessarily translates into a watering down of truth in order to find agreement. Pope Francis’ comments to the bishops indicate that he means by “dialogue” something different from what some fear him to mean.

Some worry that dialogue necessarily translates into a watering down of truth in order to find agreement.

It is no accident that Pope Francis, in his later address to the U.S. Congress, pointed to Thomas Merton as a model for us to follow in terms of dialogue. Of course, those suspicious of Pope Francis are likely also to be suspicious of Thomas Merton, but Merton’s own understanding of dialogue is one that is often misconstrued. He is sometimes characterized as a religious relativist who sold out his Catholicism to find common ground with other religions. However, such a view ignores Merton’s own account of what dialogue is and is not.

Merton rejected all forms of dialogue that lead to “syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing,” as he wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. He admitted that there is much that we cannot accept and affirm in the positions of others, and we shouldn’t try to pretend that we can simply overcome differences through good will.

At the same time, to begin from a position of negation, to begin by emphasizing all the ways in which our adversary is wrong and we are right, is to be guilty of what Merton called the “heresy of individualism.” It is precisely this position of negation that Pope Francis rejected in his comments to the U.S. bishops. Merton argues that negation violates the law of charity in that we refuse to see the other as “a brother and an equal,” and instead see them solely as an adversary to be vanquished. Moreover, dialogue begun from a place of negation manifests a pride. It says that I have enough of the truth and that you, the other, have nothing whatsoever to contribute to my understanding. And yet, the other demands to be heard both because the other is a person who must be engaged in love and because we ourselves need to hear the voice of the other given our own individual limitations.

Therefore, Merton argued that we must begin dialogue from a position of affirmation. There may be “much that one cannot ‘affirm’ and ‘accept,’ but first one must say ‘yes’ where one really can.” To begin from the position of affirmation is to begin on the Christian ground of love, ground established when God, in becoming human, demonstrated not only the depth of divine love but also the profundity of humanity’s beauty and dignity. In all of this, we hear echoes of what the pope had to say about dialogue in his address to the U.S. bishops, and in his comments about dialogue in general.

Lest critics think that Merton imposed contemporary conceptions of dialogue on a tradition that extends two millennia, it is worth noting that Merton’s understanding of dialogue was shaped in no small part by his reading of a noted 20th-century Thomist, Josef Pieper. Of particular interest to Merton was Pieper’s 1962 Guide to Thomas Aquinas, long sections of which Merton quoted in his private journals.

Genuine dialogue has a pedigree in the church that extends throughout the centuries, and Pieper posited that Thomas Aquinas represents the very best of this tradition. Aquinas “shows not a trace of a dictatorial or magisterial attitude” when handling the opinions of his opponents. Rather, when discussing opposing arguments, including heretical ones, Aquinas presents them in such a sympathetic manner that readers are inclined to think them irrefutable. In so doing, he demonstrated not that each opinion is right, but “that each side has the right to formulate his argument and that each is obligated to listen to the other.”

According to Pieper, such an approach to his interlocutors pervades Aquinas’s work. In his writings, he demonstrates that dialogue does not only mean that people talk to each other, but that they listen to them. And at the heart of this approach is an acknowledgement of the other’s dignity, a love for them and a gratitude for the ways they help one to understand truth, even if they are in error. As Pieper writes:

The great doctors of Christendom completely agree on this point; they stand in a common front against the stupidity of narrow-minded polemic. For the latter usually lacks not only respect for the person of the opponent but also full openheartedness to the truth of things. The attitude formulated by Thomas [Aquinas]—which has nothing in common with sentimentality—is in keeping with the best, the most legitimate tradition.

Charity and good faith are lacking in the dialogue of our polarized church. But this does not mean something is wrong with dialogue itself. The problem is that many of us have distorted conceptions of dialogue and its purpose, regardless of which ideological camp we belong to.

Charity and good faith are lacking in the dialogue of our polarized church. But this does not mean something is wrong with dialogue itself.

The ground of dialogue is the ground of love rooted in the dignity of the other as a human being. Pope Francis made clear in his address to the U.S. bishops that he envisions all dialogue in the church to take place precisely on this ground.

Dialogue is not for the pope a means to foster confusion, nor is it a meaningless buzzword with roots that extend only to the modernism of the 1960s. When Pope Francis appeals to dialogue, when he points to someone like Merton as a “man of dialogue,” he consciously appeals to an approach to the other that has deep roots in the church’s tradition. If we refuse to meet the other on this ground of love, we need to ask ourselves Merton’s pointed question: “Is this not perhaps because we ourselves are not sufficiently Christian?”

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J Cosgrove
8 months 2 weeks ago

Is ‘dialogue’ just an empty buzzword for Christians?

For America, the magazine I would agree no matter how the word is defined. This site is mainly political so that is guaranteed to impede dialogue.

There will be no dialogue here. There was an an article in a conservative web publication a couple days ago explaining why. Because of the Internet and social media nearly everyone isolates themselves in a milieu of media that preaches to their own choir and they are often unaware of the stories or arguments circulating outside their bubble. They don't feel comfortable reading incompatible opinions or being exposed to contrary evidence.

Then there is the disturbing trend of shaming and harming those you disagree with, always socially, sometimes financially and too frequently physically. College campuses including Catholic colleges are full of stories of how people are marginalized and attacked because of unliked views or attitudes. Yet we watch this happen with little pushback because people often, self-righteously, agree politically with the attackers.

Charles Erlinger
8 months 2 weeks ago

This is a very worth-while article in my opinion. I especially appreciate the reference to Pieper. His works are among the most re-read writings that I own.

Randal Agostini
8 months 2 weeks ago

How many times we hear about the methods Catholics use to shut up or turn away Mormon missionaries from their door. How can we possibly begin a dialog when we are in the wrong frame of mind.
" To begin from the position of affirmation is to begin on the Christian ground of love,"
I can think of no young Catholic who has given up two years of their life to preach Christianity, albeit in a different form. With such zeal it is no wonder that their religion is strong, even in this most unChristian secular world.
" To begin from the position of affirmation is to begin on the Christian ground of love,"
There is no threat to either self or to our Faith, when we lead our dialog with love, but that requires us to believe in the wounds of Christ, the firm foundation of our Love, from which we begin our own resurrection.

Jay Kay
8 months 2 weeks ago

There are a few Catholics who are interested in communication, aka dialogue, for the sake of understanding, peace and unity. Pope Francis is among those Catholics.

However, for most Catholics in the US and many elsewhere, dialogue is a dirty post-Vatican-II word. They don't talk interpersonally, meaningfully or candidly to each other face-to-face, let alone talk meaningfully to anyone else. Part of that is subcultural, part of it is to avoid getting yelled at; part of it is to avoid divulging one's true spiritual condition which among American Catholics usually amounts to not much. Most of them don't want to solve problems, they don't want unity, they don't want peace. If they did, they'd act like it and they don't, not really. What most of them really want is to triumphantly rub somebody else's face in the dirt for not agreeing with them. That's what you see online all over because Catholics will talk there, under alias. You can't get punched in the nose online.

Moreover, the great majority of them want their own ideas to prevail and they want to be comfortable. Most of them don't want to think about anything new or be challenged in any real way. Most of them think they have this religion thing all sewed up tight (not like those damned Protestants!) and they're guaranteed heaven just for the accident of having been born Catholic.

Clifford Ishii
8 months 2 weeks ago

“Dialogue” usually means do it our way.

Jay Kay
8 months 2 weeks ago

Agree. But that's not dialogue.

We have a real problem. We have insisted on so much stuff, some of it pretty extreme from a biblical theology standpoint, and a lot of it fabricated out of whole cloth, that we have painted ourselves into a nasty little corner. In order to really dialogue, we're going to have to admit that to ourselves and then maybe to others. That's not something that we're going to find easy to do.

Vast numbers of Catholics have been steeped in this stuff for generations and they think they have great insurance policies when it comes to religion. ("We can't be wrong. God loves us best. We're going to heaven and you're not and it sucks to be you." Etc.) Do you want to be the one to tell them they've been wrong all along about even a few parts of that edifice? Honestly, we've already seen (Synod on the Family) that it causes all manner of uproar just to discuss some things openly amongst ourselves, let alone with anyone else.

Nora Bolcon
8 months 2 weeks ago

And even then not one woman will have a vote in what should be done. Nor will our pope dialogue on this gigantic sinful reality.

Christopher Lochner
8 months 2 weeks ago

It will be interesting to note the wait time until dialogue with, say, the NRA or Donald Trump concerning his wall or those who have varied views on immigration reform does occur. For instance, in the past I've tried to dialogue with Jesuit priests concerning my opposition to the beliefs of Dorothy Day who was an anarchist by her own admission. I was told that my opinion was irrelevant due to my lacking of a rigorous academic background on the subject. It appears dialogue, while it sounds nice, is only for friends and those who are in agreement especially those in positions of power. When one is correct, it is not as much about dialogue as it is instruction. Let's be realistic here!.... Try to say this, "The dignity of and my love for members of the NRA" If you do so then congratulations as you've passed! If not then reread the article and try again.

Kevin Murphy
8 months 2 weeks ago

Pope Francis wouldn't even "dialogue" with those seeking to clarify Amoris Laetitia. What a farce. When he does "dialogue" it is an attempt to fudge church doctrine. It is hypocrisy and false modesty.

Nora Bolcon
8 months 2 weeks ago

"Merton argues that negation violates the law of charity in that we refuse to see the other as “a brother and an equal,” and instead see them solely as an adversary to be vanquished."

However, in the case of any woman called to ordained and equal priesthood in our church, our Pope's answer is to tell her to shut up and get out of my city. This is not your church sister but my church. We do not what Jesus commands, and treat all the same and with equal rights and sacramental opportunities, but do things my way.

Dialogue is a buzzword in our church which leads to no where for women because our leaders are not respectful of women's rights in Christ for equal and honest dialogue on issues of equality for women.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
8 months 2 weeks ago

Thus wrote Mahatma Gandhi: "An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self-sustained.”

Mike Theman
8 months 2 weeks ago

I think of dialogue as a mere exchange of words in which the parties speak, listen, and reply civilly. Without it - that is, without civil communication - there is speculation and conjecture. With dialogue comes clarity and understanding of the other.

Dialogue with objectives is a whole different animal, but we usually use different words to convey the objective, e.g. "debate," lecture," "gossip," etc... But sometimes we use the word "dialogue" when we actually mean a more specific term, like "argue."

When it comes to religion, there is a lot of speculation and conjecture for which mere dialogue could lead to clarity and understanding. Much of the debate that takes place about religion is often fraught with misunderstanding and ignorance. You have to have understanding before you can have a worthy debate.

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