Thursday, 19 November 2009

Thoughts on dialogue

This post is prompted by the invitation to discussion (difficult to use the word "dialogue" twice in the same sentence) about dialogue contained in NewmanCause's comment to my earlier post about Newman and the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. What has prompted me is this paragraph from the post by NewmanCause that I discussed in my post just referred to (my italics added to highlight the aspect which most prompts my thoughts):
It has been axiomatic for Catholic ecumenists that the Church must learn from those with whom she is in ‘dialogue’. What is right in this way of thinking need not be abandoned, once it is recognised, as the Holy Father has recognised, that ‘dialogue’ cannot be an end in itself. Even when ‘dialogue’ is ordered, as it must be, towards conversion to the Catholic Faith, the Church may still stand to learn from those whom she receives into full communion.
Dialogue as encounter with a culture

I would first like to suggest that dialogue has the nature of an encounter with a culture. One might talk of representatives of the Church, or of an individual in the Church, engaging in an encounter with a culture. The culture has its representatives, who might be termed the "partners" with whom dialogue is undertaken.  What I think is a good example of dialogue as encounter with a culture is my post Jessica Hausner's Lourdes. In this I bring to bear my own experience of Lourdes and of Catholic faith to comment on a film which touches on that experience. I also think that Jessica Hausner, without necessarily accepting a supernatural, or even a religious, reality to the phenomenon that is Lourdes, has nevertheless genuinely and honestly engaged with the event that is a pilgrimage to Lourdes. In this sense, she is a genuine partner with whom one can enter into dialogue through commenting on her work.

Inter-religious dialogue, or ecumenical dialogue, can be seen as special cases of this where the partner in the dialogue is a representative of another religion or Christian denomination. To again refer to the sphere of film, the existence of "ecumenical juries" at some film festivals would illustrate this.

In this kind of dialogue, one's own experience gains something from the experience of the dialogue partner. We might see something supportive of our own experience that we had not seen before. In some cases, we might change or adjust our point of view, but not always.

Dialogue as a moment in evangelisation

In its teaching about the nature of evangelisation (Evangelii Nuntiandi, General Directory for Catechesis), the Church speaks about a presence of the Church, or of the individual Christian, in the activity of the world. Sometimes termed "presence in charity", this might not be a presence that is explicitly proclaimed as a Christian presence, but it is a presence prompted and imbued with a Christian spirit. An example of this might be participation in port, hospital or industrial chaplaincy, where many of the encounters one has with seafarers, patients or co-workers might be without explicitly religious content. For most Catholics, it refers to their everyday encounters with neighbours, friends and colleagues.

I think this is also is an aspect of understanding dialogue as encounter with a culture, but brought perhaps to the level of individual human relationships. However - and this is the point at which I would enter into discussion though, I think, not necessarily disagreement with NewmanCause - this will rarely take place with an explicit intention of seeking conversion to the Catholic faith. Indeed, where it to be undertaken with such an explicit intention, there are circumstances in which it would become proselytism of the very worst kind.

What the Catholic Church's teaching allows us to do, though, is to still see this as a moment in the dynamic of evangelisation which imbues the whole of the Church's life. In this sense, it has a reference towards conversion to the Catholic faith, as part of a wider activity of the whole Church. Evangelical Christians have a tendency I think to see evangelism as only occurring when they explicitly proclaim the faith (this is another moment in evangelisation for us Catholics, but not the only one), which does not always lead to positive experiences on the part of their hearers.

Conditions to enable dialogue

"Moving goal posts" are an image that we often use when we are trying to deal with someone, or with an issue, where the ground rules keep changing; it is impossible to know in which direction to kick the ball if the goal posts don't stay still. Dialogue can only occur if the partners to that dialogue have a common concern for the truth of what is known or believed, and a common concern for the moral rightness of what is done. Indifference to truth or indifference to the idea of moral right and wrong make dialogue impossible. Seeing the school or university as a community of learning depends upon this idea of a common searching for what is true and morally good, a searching undertaken together by the faculty and the students. The enterprise of education is, or should be, an enterprise of dialogue.

This consideration prompts me to identify an excruciating irony in our contemporary political situation, and that occurs when the representatives of a political and social culture that is thoroughly secularist (and therefore relativist in both its attitude to the idea of truth and the idea of moral right and wrong) urges on us the need for inter-religious dialogue! It strikes me that what is needed more than anything else is a dialogue between religious belief and non-religious political and social cultures; but the relativism of the latter renders that dialogue all but impossible.

Bridges and Tangents gave an account of exploring fundamentals without being fundamentalist when introducing the current series of Faith Matters lectures. I think he expresses what one might term the basis on which a Catholic is able to enter into dialogue with others:
The title of the series is quite provocative: ‘Fundamentals of Faith’. At first glance, it makes me think of the word ‘fundamentalism’, with all its negative associations – a belief system that is unthinking, unreflective, arrogant, closed to the truths of history and science, of philosophy and psychology. But perhaps that is intentional. The purpose of each lecture is to show that Christians can explore the fundamentals of their faith without being fundamentalist. The root meaning of the word ‘fundamental’, of course, is something that acts as a foundation. Thinking deeply about the fundamentals of faith should actually make you less ‘fundamentalist’ and more reflective, more open, and yes – more faithful.


Joe said...

ZENIT are today carrying a news report of Pope Benedict XVI address to the 23rd general assembly of the International Federation of Catholic Universities: "Pope calls for closing of faith-culture gap". The report is here, and contains a link to the full text of the address:

Pope Benedict's remarks have a couple of interesting threads: a language of purification in the context of a dialogue between revelation and culture in the university, and an account of the relation of that dialogue to the overall mission of the Church.

NewmanCause said...

Many thanks for this very interesting post.

You seem to want to treat 'dialogue' as a fundamental concept, and to bring various kinds of encounter which are commonly called 'dialogue' under its control. We wonder whether 'dialogue' is best conceived in this way, as a well-structured generic term. It seems to us that it is an informal concept, with no hard and fast criteria for its application. We suggest this, because your desire to represent the Church's ecumenical dialogue as a species of her generic encounter with culture appears to us over-systematic.

About the encounter with culture you say many things with which we do not disagree. In particular, your emphasis upon the fact that 'presence in charity' must not degnerate into proselytism seems to us very important. But does the inappropriateness, in the context of the Church's encounter with culture, of 'an explicit intention of seeking conversion to the Catholic faith', apply also to the ecumenical context – that is, to the formal discussion of doctrinal and moral differences with other Christians?

It applies to the encounter with culture because, as you say, 'many [such] encounters...might be without explicitly religious content'. But in the ecumenical context this is not so. We certainly agree that, in the context of such discussions, Catholics could have 'an explicit intention of seeking conversion to the Catholic faith' which, in the particular forms in which it was adopted, might be counter-productive. But surely the intention itself is both unavoidable and essential?

We think that it is, in a way, essential also to the encounter with culture: in the sense that, in whatever forms such encounter takes, the underlying dynamic must be to bring one's partner in the encounter closer to Christ. Your point is that this need not be 'explicit', but may be expressed in the quality of one's attention to him or her, in the concrete context of the encounter; and that is absolutely right. (It may also, of course, be expressed in the prayers one might say for him or her afterwards.)

The sense in which, in the ecumenical context, this intention (in our opinion) necessarily becomes explicit arises from the fact that the object of ecumenical dialogue is Christian Truth. The ecumencial kind of partnership is ordered, not only to the conscientious statement of position, or to the clear and charitable understanding of difference, but to Christian unity. This is not merely an intellectual or emotional goal, but is inescapably evangelical. At its heart is the intention of bringing others (and, yes, oneself also) to see Christian Truth more adequately. And for Catholics (despite all the formulations which have been ventured to escape this implication) that intention must be towards conversion to the Catholic Faith.

Were this not so, then Catholic presence in ecumenical dialogue could not be a 'presence in charity', in the fully demanding and conscientious sense of those words that ecumenical dialogue inherently demands. If, as a Catholic, one is unsure about this – and, if one is, it is not necessarily a personal failing - then (in our view) whatever other forms of apostolic activity one undertakes, one's vocation is not to be a partner in ecumenical dialogue. Too often, perhaps, Catholics have been drawn to ecumenical dialogue for the very reasons which, in reality, mean they should stay away from it.

Joe said...


Thank you for your comment, which, once again, I am very happy to post.

Thinking about ecumenical dialogue: I wonder whether working together with Christian's of other denominations on social action in the world (which would perhaps not be recognised as "dialogue" as such) is the analogue of "presence in charity" understood in the context of evangelisation?

NewmanCause said...

Yes we think this is right. Catholic co-operation in social action is very valuable, and certainly does not require an explicit intention to convert Christian (or non-Christian) partners.

As you have suggested, it's a question of the proper focus of one's attention. In ecumenical dialogue, the common focus is (or ought to be) the Truth about Revelation. In social action, our attention is focussed upon the person whom one is trying to assist. Human need constitutes a real and complete object of attention; it requires no further theological elaboration in order to justify one's efforts. (This is not of course to suggest that human need and our response to it have no theological implications; but those implications do not provide the necessary and sufficient motivating reason for responding to suffering.)

Of course the moral and social teaching of the Church may place limits upon the kinds of co-operation and response which are possible or prudent. But that said, Christian witness to the 'social Gospel' is a necessary and powerful thing.

We suspect it makes a more lasting contribution to human well-being, is a more eloquent manifestation of what Christians have in common, and constitutes a more effective path to Christian unity, than the bulk of ecumencial dialogue - at least as it has been commonly practised up to now.

Thank you, Joe, for raising important questions and for providing such a thoughtful and hospitable opportunity for discussing them.