Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Dialogue as a Christian Imperative: Reflections on Pope Francis' Address to the US Bishops

"I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly" (Pope Francis, 23 Sept 2015)

Although I'm supposed to be working on book research today, I managed to catch Pope Francis' talk to the United States bishops at the Cathedral of St Matthew.  If you didn't get a chance to hear it, you can read the entire thing here.  There's a great deal in the text about which one could comment, but there was one section that particularly caught my eye.

Not long ago, someone challenged me on Twitter for drawing attention to the importance of dialogue, and specifically for focusing on Pope Francis' insistence on dialogue in Laudato Si'.  This person understood 'dialogue' to be a meaningless buzz word with no real purpose; I believe he dismissed it simply as 'cant.'

As he does so often, Pope Francis emphasized the centrality of dialogue in words that merit closer examination:
I know that you face many challenges, that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.
And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter.  We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty.  We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.
Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).
The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society.  I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.  The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it.  Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.  Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or 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 does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.
While Pope Francis' words were directed to our bishops, we would be remiss were we not also to apply them to ourselves and to endeavour to live out this exhortation to dialogue in our own lives.  The pope roots the importance of dialogue in God's willingness to enter fully into our experience to encounter us in our brokenness.  This occurred most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, and God continues to encounter us, to condescend to us, in the waters of baptism and in the Eucharist.  The Christian God is one who doesn't set himself in opposition to us, but rather one who unites himself to us in a manner that reveals God truly to be Love.

Pope Francis argues that it is God's example that we are to follow in our interactions with one another, and particularly with those with whom we disagree.  Why?  Because we cannot truly love the other unless we truly encounter the other, unless we truly come to understand the other.  This is not, as Pope Francis insists, a simple strategy for eventually winning the day against our opponents.  This is, rather, to be our way of being as followers of the one who abased himself for us and continues to give himself to us in the sacraments.  It is a path of humility paved for us by the Incarnate Word.

Pope Francis is saying nothing new here.  Pope St John XXIII also exhorted Catholics to enter into broader dialogue.  In his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton wrote the following about John XXIII's 'Socratic principle' that illuminates perhaps why our present pope places so much emphasis on the necessity of dialogue:
One of the admirable things about Pope John is his simple fidelity to the Socratic principle which is essential to our Western cultural tradition.  This is a very profound element in Pope John's thought, and he has shown in fact that true Christian renewal implies an understanding of and a commitment to Christian Socratism.  This means respect for persons, to the point where the person of the adversary demands a hearing even when the authority of one's own ecclesial institution might appear to be temporarily questioned.  Actually, this Socratic confidence in dialogue implies a deeper faith in the Church than you find in a merely rigid, defensive, and negative attitude which refuses all dialogue.  The negative view really suggests that the Church has something to lose by engaging in dialogue with her adversaries.  This in turn is a rejection of the Christian Socratism which sees that truth develops in conversation.  And, after all, that is the spirit of the Gospel also.  We see it everywhere in the New Testament.  Those who were open to Christ and the Apostles, received the truth.  Those who refused dialogue, or who engaged in it only with political intentions, with pragmatic reservations and tactical subtlety, ended by crucifying Christ and slaying the Apostles.
The Socratic principle, as Pope John definitely sees, means not only the willingness to discuss, but the readiness to meet one's adversary as an equal and as a brother.  The moment one does this, he ceases to be an adversary.
Some seem to fear that in such encounters, meeting the adversary on his own ground, we leave the protection of the Church and Catholic truth.  They forget that if we meet the non-Christian as a brother we meet him on ground that is Christian.  If we fear to meet him on what is really our own ground, is this not perhaps because we ourselves are not sufficiently Christian? (p. 218)
To dialogue is to approach the other with love.  This does not mean that we abandon our positions simply to meet on some sort of meaningless common ground.  Merton himself rejected what he referred to as any affirmation of the other that amounts to "syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing" (CGB 141).  

It does however mean that we affirm the other as a person, and (in the words of Pope Francis quoted above) "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." 

The problem of course is that we as Roman Catholics cannot seem even to dialogue meaningfully with each other.  Suspicion of the other appears to run deep in our veins, at least if the Catholic twittersphere and blogosphere is anything to go on.  'Traditionalists' and 'conservatives' reject and condemn 'progressives' as ill-informed, un-Christian, and opposed to the church herself.  'Progressives,' on the other hand, dismiss their 'traditionalist' and 'conservative' opponents as unthinking, hateful, and out-of-touch.  We've ceased to love one another, and we've certainly stopped listening to one another.  What we see are positions, not persons, and what seems to matter most to many of us is that our position wins.

In his address to the US bishops this afternoon, Pope Francis reminded us of another way, one that has as its model the Incarnate Word, who revealed to us what it could mean to go out of ourselves in love to encounter one another as persons.  I, for one, was convicted.

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