Is ‘dialogue’ just an empty buzzword for Christians?
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.
Remember, you can't spell "dialogue" without "U" and "I" but the "I" always has to come first!— Dr. Dialogue, S.J. (@DrDialogueSJ) October 3, 2015
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?”