Polarization rules the day in our times, it commonly is claimed. Its strong walls, supported by misgivings, misunderstandings and fears, block individuals and groups from getting to know each other better.
Today’s habits of polarization are a far cry from the habits of dialogue that St. Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council encouraged in the 1960s. “The church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives,” said Pope Paul’s first encyclical, issued in August 1964 and titled “Ecclesiam Suam” (“His church”).
Dialogue with the world? Wasn’t that a pretty broad topic? Yes, and it was a pretty unfamiliar topic for Catholics back then, a generally unpracticed approach to others whose faith and convictions differed from their own.
The 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council was about to enter the third of its four annual sessions when the encyclical appeared. Soon the council would devote attention to goals whose achievement would necessitate dialogue with the surrounding world.
“The fact that we are distinct from the world does not mean that we are entirely separated from it,” or “indifferent to it, afraid of it or contemptuous of it,” the encyclical explained. Rather, “the church distinguishes itself from humanity … not in order to oppose it, but to come closer to it” (No. 63).
Some three months after the encyclical’s release, the council’s Decree on Ecumenism was promulgated. It would prove amazingly influential in fostering dialogue between Catholics and other Christians in the decades ahead.
During its 1965 final session, the council also completed a Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Pope Paul’s encyclical seemed to anticipate the council’s coming action in that area. Speaking of others who “worship the one supreme God” that Catholics “also worship,” the pope first mentioned the Jewish people. They “are indeed worthy of our respect and love,” he said.
Mentioning others who worship the one God, particularly Muslims, he affirmed that “we do well to admire these people for all that is good and true in their worship of God” (No. 107).
Then, as Vatican II’s conclusion approached in December 1965, another council document urged sincere, prudent dialogue with the world, its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
Respect and love can be extended to “those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters,” it said. In coming to understand them, the pastoral constitution clarified, it becomes easier “to enter into dialogue with them” (No. 28).
Perhaps the 1960s sound like ancient history. Surely dialogue with our surrounding world is a well-rooted endeavor now. Yet groups of all kinds (religious, political, social, economic) often barely know or care about each other.
I was a young adult in the 1960s when dialogue seized the attention of Catholics. It became a “hot topic,” so to speak. In my comings and goings, I frequently came across posters and flyers announcing parish or university events on “The Dialogue,” which at first typically meant dialogue between divided Christians.
Dialogue, as Pope Paul presented it, required listening in a “friendly” spirit to others in conversations about faith, but without neglecting or slighting one’s own faith.
Such conversations could involve more than identifying difficult-to-resolve dividing points. Dialogue could highlight aspects of faith that divided believers shared. This felt quite new.
Many divided Christians were accustomed to postures of misunderstanding and took pains not to discuss faith together.
However “the church … has no enemies, except those who wish to make themselves such,” the encyclical stated. “It was not for nothing,” it added, “that [the church] received its mission to foster love, unity and peace” (No. 94).
Dialogue for Paul VI (with the world, world religions, other Christians and even within the Catholic family) was a means of furthering the church’s mission here and now. During Pope Paul’s October 2018 canonization, Pope Francis called him “a prophet of a church turned outward.”
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Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.