Some Thoughts on Church Dialogue

Edward B. Clancy

George Weigel, in his book Witness to Hope, speaks of the Second Vatican Council under the heading. The Gamble of Vatican II. He writes:

“He (Pope John XXIII) envisioned an open conversation in which the world’s bishops would relive the experience of Christ’s apostles at Pentecost. The Second Vatican Council, in the Pope’s mind, would renew Christian faith as a vibrant way of life; it would engage modernity in dialogue; it would issue no condemnations; it would try to give voice again to the pure message of the Gospel. It would, in the now-famous phrase, open the Church’s windows to the modern world”. (p.154).

The Pope certainly had the highest hopes for his Council, and given the forces at work in the world at the time, it is not unreasonable to refer to it as a gamble. But, be that as it may, the calling of the Council was in fact an act of great faith on the part of Pope John.

There were many in the Curia who were vehemently opposed to the idea. Engagement with the modern secularist world was probably the cause of greatest concern among the Council’ s opponents, and forty years on, it is a matter of debate as to whether the Church or the world holds the initiative. Many, I think, would put the world well ahead.

Whether it was recognised at the time or not, it was inevitable that to enter into dialogue with the world was to invite dialogue within the Church itself. Dialogue has been proceeding on both fronts throughout these forty years.

As a general assessment, one would have to say that the quality of much of the dialogue in both cases has been disappointing. I do not restrict my remarks to structured or organised dialogue. Such is the climate today that virtually anything that is said or written publicly about the Church is a contribution to a Church-wide dialogue.

Dialogue involves both speaking and listening – and with an open mind in both of these activities. At the very least it also requires of each party respect for the other.

Where the Church is concerned it requires more – it requires love – love of God, love for the Church, and love for one another.

Dialogue is perhaps easiest between equals, but dialogue does not always take place between equals. For example, dialogue between a father and son is authentic and potentially fruitful only if the son acknowledges – as the bottom line, so to speak – the father’s authority and greater experience. That does not mean that the father is necessarily, and a priori, right in any given issue, but the recognition of his status will have an important bearing on the tone and the prospects of the dialogue. It goes without saying that all dialogue should be conducted according to the conventions of elementary courtesy.

The Holy Father has led the way in the Church’s dialogue with the secular world, and in doing so has set the example for all who would participate in dialogue. One by one he has taken up every issue over which the Church and the world are in dispute, providing a calm and closely reasoned explanation of the Church’ s position, and inviting a response in kind from those who would speak for the world.

He has readily acknowledged the errors of the Church in the past, and apologised on behalf of those who in the Church’ s name have wronged others. The world, unfortunately, has been unwilling to take up the Pope’s challenge. A rock-hard secularist ideology has not been open to dialogue.

Pope John Paul has adopted the same approach towards dialogue within the Church. It is claimed, however, that at a certain point, he put the brakes on post-conciliar developments among the People of God, and inhibited the thinking of that time in favour of a more conservative and centralised stance. This was, and still is, interpreted as a retreat to a pre-conciliar outlook.

What is generally not mentioned in this context is that excesses of all kinds, both in theory and in practice, had been taking place throughout the Church. The excesses were claimed to be “in the spirit of the Council”, and some, feeling that we had moved on beyond Vatican II, were now calling for Vatican III!

I believe that the Pope did certainly put the brakes on, and with good reason, but nobody with any knowledge of his thinking could accuse him of being pre-conciliar.

The Pope, however, is not the only one to speak authoritatively from inside the walls of the Vatican. Indeed, the various Pontifical Congregations, Councils, etc., have provided the official voices on most occasions, and have from time to time entered into dialogue without prejudice to their authority.

Not without reason, these have frequently been criticised for their failure to meet the canons of true dialogue, and a great deal of frustration has resulted.

We need to recognise, however, the difficulties that these bodies face. Firstly, they cannot of themselves pronounce the last word – that always rests with the Holy Father.

Secondly, they have been issuing decrees and pronouncing judgments without fear of contradiction from the rank and file within the Church for 2000 years, and against that historical background true dialogue is a very difficult art to master.

Thirdly, they have to speak from the perspective of a universal Church with a billion members and countless different cultures

And fourthly, their dialogue partners frequently fail to recognise and appropriately respect their unique status and authority.

There has been fault on both sides. Rome has sometimes betrayed an apparent insensitivity to concerns within the wider Church. And of course entrenched mentalities foreign to the spirit of dialogue are to be found everywhere.

The freedom of all the people of God, even of the lowliest station in life, to voice their perceptions about the Church is one of the welcome features of the post-conciliar Church. However, there are pitfalls and much learning still to be done in order to facilitate fruitful dialogue.

There are many whose outspoken criticism of the Church is not motivated by love for the Church, but by resentment over some Church teaching that touches them personally, as, for example, the Church’ s teaching on the indissolubility of a valid marriage, or on contraception. Others are driven by particular ideologies such as the ordination of women, a married clergy, or inter-Communion.

Some such issues may well be legitimate subjects for dialogue, but they need to be set in a broader context that makes the good of the Church the focus of the discussion.

Then there are those who get carried away by one or other of the modern theologians – a Kung, a Gutierrez, or a Ruether – and propose visions of the Church that ignore the boundaries set by authentic ecclesiology and the Church’ s Tradition. If we venture into deep theological waters, we need to know how to swim. And – to change the metaphor – we should always keep our emotions on the short leash of reason.

I have been labouring the down-side of dialogue in and by the Church. I would not wish to deny, however, that a great deal of good dialogue has taken place at a variety of levels, and that much has been achieved.

The Church has certainly set up structures for dialogue. Notable among these is the Synod of Bishops, about which, however, there is much dissatisfaction. This is partly due to the immense complexity of a dialogue that involves so many people, from so many different parts of the world, to be conducted in a very limited time-frame. Most, however, would complain that there is excessive “management” of Synod discussions and resolutions.

It is also appropriate here to point out that dialogue is more than an exchange of ideas – it also involves a mutual analysis of those ideas.

There are other structures, too, at the local level, such as parish councils. Some such councils function very well, others not so well, and the reasons, in most cases, are readily identifiable.

Dialogue is a new experience for the Church, and it is going to take a long time to establish the right structures and to use them effectively.

Appropriate structures, however, are not the complete answer, and are no substitute for the inadequacies of the dialogue mentality.

I have already mentioned the need for a genuine love of the Church, and a caring that reaches beyond ones own personal problems and difficulties. An adequate knowledge of the Church’s teaching and claims about itself is also necessary. Knowledge can be expected to grow with the dialogue (if properly conducted), but an effort should be made to acquire sufficient knowledge at the very outset if one expects the dialogue to be fruitful and constructive. Dialogue conducted on the basis of avoidable misunderstanding or ignorance is, at best, a waste of time.

Some exercises in dialogue treat the Church as if it were a (commercial) company, and the dialogue participants its shareholders – a far cry from the concept of the Mystical Body. We are all called to be perfect, to be Christ-like, and it is remarkable just how many paragraphs of the New Testament writings are devoted explicitly to driving that message home.

Christ founded his Church to assist us in the work of personal salvation and in promoting the salvation of the world. This thought should be uppermost in our minds whenever we engage in dialogue, whether within the Church, or with our separated brothers and sisters of other faiths or traditions. All our dialogue should be clearly characterised by those three great theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and should be accompanied by fervent prayer.

At the time of the Council it was freely said that it takes one hundred years for an ecumenical council to bear its ultimate fruit. I do not think that any of us really believed it at the time. Looking about us forty years later, it seems much more credible.

Much has been achieved – and we should not underestimate it – but we still have a long way to go before we realise Pope John’s hopes for the Gospel to become a vibrant way of life for all the world, and for all to hear the pure message of the Gospel in the teaching of the Council.

Towards that end, however, we must continue to work and pray, entrusting ourselves to the unfailing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

(Cardinal Edward Clancy is the former Archbishop of Sydney)