Emulate those who promote true dialogue

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns


In his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (“His Church”), in 1964, Pope Paul VI declared that the church should be marked by the spirit and practice of dialogue. He situated the Catholic Church at the center of a series of concentric circles: the first and widest comprises the whole human community; the second embraces all religious people; the third, all non-Catholic Christians; and the fourth, all Catholics.

Paul VI was taking his lead from the Second Vatican Council, which had already completed two sessions (1962-63) and was about to begin its third (of four). The promotion of dialogue, both within and beyond the Body of Christ, proved to be one of the council’s highest priorities.

There were strong, explicit endorsements of dialogue in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Decree on Ecumenism, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, the Decree on the Bishop’s Pastoral Office in the Church and in other conciliar documents.

This column has commented frequently on the need for ongoing dialogue in the church, and between the church and those outside of it. However, I also have raised a word of caution about some of the recent calls for dialogue as an antidote to polarization.

Dialogue can work only if the playing field on which it occurs is level. If one side comes to the dialogue with the power to control its agenda and even the list of invitees, there can be no constructive exchange. The powerful side will almost inevitably rule certain issues out of bounds and will insure that anyone who is likely to raise them will not be invited in the first place.

The kind of pastor that a parish has will determine whether dialogue is even possible, let alone fruitful, among the parish staff and the parish’s most active and committed members. The same is true in a diocese. If the bishop tends to be authoritarian in his style of decision-making, there is little or no hope of having a productive dialogue about controverted matters.

I pointed out in a column two weeks ago that the pattern of episcopal appointments during the previous pontificate has given the church a preponderance of bishops who are neither comfortable nor adept in promoting genuine dialogue, that is, where both parties come to the table on a relatively equal footing and where there is an openness to discuss any and all matters that may pose a challenge to the unity and pastoral effectiveness of the local church.

One of many happy exceptions is offered by Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, pastoral leader of one of the nation’s smallest and least prominent dioceses, Las Cruces, New Mexico. He is an exception not only for his good-faith efforts to promote real dialogue in his diocese, but also because he was appointed a bishop early in John Paul II’s pontificate: auxiliary of San Antonio in 1981 and then bishop of the newly created Diocese of Las Cruces in 1982.

Bishop Ramirez delivered a speech last month in Chicago as part of the 10th-anniversary celebration of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. The organization was founded by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then-archbishop of Chicago, precisely to address the growing polarization in the church.

It should be noted that by 1996 the pattern of episcopal appointments was unmistakably clear and the effects had already been felt within the U.S. Catholic Church. We need also to remember that, when Cardinal Bernardin first broached the idea of the Common Ground project, he was publicly criticized by three of his fellow cardinals.

One in particular, now serving in Rome, rejected what he took to be the project’s underlying -- and, in his mind, blatantly false -- assumption that there is room for discussion and even criticism of some of the church’s official teachings (e.g., on birth control) and disciplines (e.g., on clerical celibacy).

The tone of Bishop Ramirez’s Chicago speech, which is published in the Aug. 31 issue of "Origins" under the title, “Dialogue in Diocesan Pastoral Life,” is far different from that of Cardinal Bernardin’s erstwhile critics within the hierarchy. Although Bishop Ramirez pays conventional respect to the late Pope John Paul II and others, it is his own personality and experience that shine through.

He acknowledges that he himself is not a model of dialogue and that he has “failed miserably” many times. “Just talk to some of my priests and parishioners,” he said.

But his actions speak louder than his self-effacing words. The second half of his talk is laced with concrete and compelling examples. His brother bishops would do well to emulate him.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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