The promotion of dialogue within and beyond the Catholic Church was one of the highest priorities of the Second Vatican Council. In recent years, a few commentators have been bemoaning the absence of dialogue in the church, insisting that it is the only antidote to what they see as a growing polarization within the church.
It should go without saying that dialogue is a good thing. Its opposite is monologue. No one likes to be subjected to a one-way conversation or to be a student in a course that does not permit questions, much less one where the raising of questions is considered a punishable offense.
That said, some recent calls for more dialogue in the church have a troubling side. Oddly enough, these calls have come mainly from the more conservative side of the Catholic community.
These advocates of dialogue make two assumptions: first, that there are two roughly coequal groups in conflict with one another in the Catholic Church — liberals and ultra-conservatives — while the broad center (in which they implicitly place themselves) is blessedly free of polarizing tendencies; and second that both sides are equally at fault because they are more interested in stereotyping the other than in entering into constructive conversation.
Both assumptions are subject to challenge. There are not two coequal groups at loggerheads in the Catholic Church today, the one liberal and the other ultra-conservative. Liberal Catholics (by whatever name) constitute the great majority of today’s most active Catholics. Many were formed by Vatican II and others have grown up in a church shaped by it.
Like the council itself, they hold that the church is the People of God and that they — women and men alike — have an integral role to play in its mission and ministries. They are generally happy with the liturgy as renewed and reformed by the council, except perhaps for some of the homilies and music. But they would not want to return to the Latin Mass or to a style of worship focused on the priest rather than the whole congregation.
Significantly, ultra-conservative Catholics, who have never been comfortable with the changes brought about by Vatican II, are a small, if often vocal, minority in the church. This group has no numerical equivalency with the broad cross-section of Catholics who have been generally supportive of the council and its reforms.
While it is unfortunately the case that ultra-conservative Catholics sometimes create a hostile atmosphere in parishes and dioceses, directing their fire at pastors who do not observe the rubrics of the Mass in every detail or who support religious-education programs that reflect modern theological, biblical and pedagogical scholarship, the same is generally not true of the broad cross-section of Catholics formed by Vatican II.
They may become exasperated and even angered by the various forms of harassment they receive from fellow Catholics on the far right, but they have no wish to drive them out of the church — nor to fight with them, for that matter.
The second assumption of today’s pro-dialogue commentators is that dialogue between these two groups would be possible if both would just lay down their arms and agree to talk with one another in a mutually respectful way.
But if polarization occurs, as they say, in the absence of dialogue, dialogue, in turn, presupposes some measure of equality. Dialogue cannot happen if one side controls the agenda, the invitation list and the microphones, and also has the power to reward or punish participants. Dialogue requires a level playing field.
The unequal distribution of power in the church today makes dialogue difficult, if not impossible. It came about because of the pattern of episcopal appointments and promotions that was operative during the previous pontificate.
The laity, who once had a say even in the election of popes, have long since been consigned to the lowest level of the ecclesiastical pyramid — passive recipients of spiritual benefits and moral direction from on high.
This pyramidal system was reformed in principle by the Second Vatican Council, particularly with its doctrine of collegiality, but collegiality gave way in the previous pontificate to a restoration of centralized papal authority.
Today’s internal conflicts are the result, in large part, of a deliberate pattern of episcopal appointments that has not only shifted the balance of power disproportionately in favor of one small faction in the church, but has at the same time deliberately withheld pastoral authority from those in the church’s broad center — pastorally adept moderates, of left and right alike, who could promote real dialogue in the church.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.