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.