As the first encyclical to promote interreligious dialogue, “Ecclesiam Suam” (“His church”), published in August 1964, marks an important milestone in church history. Written in the midst of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), St. Paul VI takes pains not to anticipate the ongoing work of the council or to “steal its thunder,” (No. 66) but aims instead to prepare and support the work for the documents on dialogue that were to emerge.
Notwithstanding that modest stance, “Ecclesiam Suam” still speaks deeply to the challenges of dialogue today. With the passing of time, the work seems to have become a very tall order.
Increasing polarization impedes dialogue not only in politics, but in many other areas of culture, including between and within religious communities. Some worry that attitudes of dialogue create confusion rather than clarity, and can even weaken the capacity to address injustice.
For all of these reasons, it is interesting to note when Pope Paul officially opened the door to this work: in 1964, at the height of the Cold War. He was not naive. Dialogue is not, he explains, “an immoderate desire to make peace and sink differences at all costs” (No. 88).
Taking stock of historical conditions, the pope acknowledged “a world that offers to the church not one but a hundred of forms of possible contacts, some of which are open and easy, others difficult and problematic, and many, unfortunately, wholly unfavorable to friendly dialogue” (No. 13). Dialogue has always been a complex endeavor, requiring a variety of approaches for varying circumstances and conversation partners.
Given these challenges, equally striking are the powerful resources for spiritual renewal that Pope Paul highlights just prior to his discussion of dialogue. A renewed discovery of the church as the mystical body of Christ promises a vision not only of how Christ himself lives in the church, but also of “Christ who manifests himself in manifold guise in the various members of his society” (No. 35).
“Zeal for the spirit of poverty” not only increases awareness of “the many failures and mistakes we have made in the past,” but also underlines the “principle on which we must now base our way of life” (No. 54).
Finally, the “cultivation of charity” is “the key to everything. It sets all to rights. There is nothing that charity cannot achieve and renew” (No. 56).
Taken together, it would be hard to imagine a better preparation, or set of convictions, for the work of dialogue also today. The protagonist in any encounter with the world is Christ himself, alive and active in the church, as pastors and people move with “the spirit of poverty (that) should regulate everything they do and say” (No. 54).
What then are the marks of dialogue in this spirit? It might be helpful to consider them as qualities of charity. Just as God takes the initiative in loving humanity, Pope Paul suggests that we too should be ready to take the first step toward others, reaching out to everyone, without distinction.
Motivated by love, respectful dialogue is never self-seeking or coercive. Instead, it adapts itself to the circumstances and needs of those it engages.
The pope’s description of an approach modeled on the “meekness” of Christ beautifully depicts all of these qualities. “It would indeed be a disgrace if our dialogue were marked by arrogance, the use of bared words or offensive bitterness. What gives it its authority is the fact that it affirms the truth, shares with others the gifts of charity, is itself an example of virtue, avoids peremptory language, makes no demands. It is peaceful, has no use for extreme methods, is patient under contradiction, and inclines towards generosity” (No. 81).
Finally, the pope also highlights the importance of taking “great care” to listen — not only to what people say, “but more especially what they have it in their hearts to say” (No. 87).
To whom is the church’s dialogue addressed? Starting with the widest “concentric circle,” a spirit of dialogue excludes no one: “All things human are our concern” (No. 97).
In the dialogue with those who worship God, we can find a vast terrain of shared “spiritual and moral values,” and work together on shared projects.
With Christians of various denominations, all that we have in common provides “a good and fruitful basis for our dialogue.”
Finally, the pope’s hope for the dialogue with Catholics is “to show itself ready to listen to the variety of views that are expressed in the world today. We want it to be the sort of dialogue that will make Catholics virtuous, wise, unfettered, fair-minded and strong” (No. 113).
Of course, each of these immense terrains for dialogue has grown and developed over the years, walking in the light of the further reflections of Vatican II, and journeying with our changing world. But the hope and the conviction remain the same: that the work of dialogue continues to “increase the holiness and vitality of the mystical body of Christ on earth” (No. 116).
As we reflect on how to strengthen these commitments in light of current challenges, “Ecclesiam Suam” remains a treasure-trove of insight and guidance.
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Uelmen is a lecturer in religion and professional life at Georgetown Law School. She holds a bachelor’s, juris doctor and juridical science research doctorate from Georgetown, and a master’s in theology from Fordham University.