The need for dialogue - Catholic Courier

The need for dialogue

Nothing is more important to a healthy relationship and to a vibrant community than the capacity to dialogue. People have to be able to speak the truth to others without unnecessarily hurting them and they must, in turn, listen to others, even when the message they receive is unpleasant.

Dialogue is especially important when personal relationships and communities are in a crisis of one kind or another. That is surely the case today with the Roman Catholic Church, which is still dealing with what is probably the worst crisis it has faced since the 16th-century Reformation.

The sexual-abuse scandal, which exploded with unprecedented fury just three years ago this week, pointed a dagger at the church’s priesthood and, in the process, put at risk the spiritual health and vitality of the church’s most precious asset, its sacramental life.

At times like these effective leadership is of greatest urgency. The church needs men and women who have a theologically informed vision, the ability to articulate it clearly and meaningfully to others, but always in a dialogical manner, and the capacity to motivate others to embrace that vision and to work together to realize it.

Leadership is exercised at many levels in the church. To be sure, the Bishop of Rome is, by reason of his office, the most important leader in the Body of Christ. A healthy, vigorous and visionary pope who truly listens to his people is one of the greatest gifts that God can bestow upon the church.

Diocesan bishops and pastors are also crucially important church leaders. But leadership is not only exercised by the clergy. The church is the whole People of God. It is composed of all the baptized, laity as well as clergy and religious.

Today, more than ever before in its history, the church needs the voice, the hands and the vision of lay people ‚Äì women and men alike — to provide guidance and direction to its life, ministries and mission.
Lay people, however, are no different from priests and religious in their need to exercise leadership of whatever kind in a dialogical rather than in an authoritarian manner. Fortunately, the church is blessed with people who can assist it in the exercise of this type of leadership. They do so because of their competence not only in theology and the social sciences, but also their own rich pastoral experience.

One of those special resources is Father Donald Cozzens, a priest of the diocese of Cleveland, who served there for six years as vicar for clergy and religious, and then for another six years as president of its major seminary. He is currently a writer in residence at John Carroll University in Cleveland, where he also teaches in the Religious Studies Department.

Father Cozzens has published three important books on the church and its priesthood. The first two chapters of his latest book, Faith That Dares to Speak (2004), frame the terms of the church’s current challenge, namely “the courage to speak” and “the humility to listen”. These are the essential elements of dialogue.

Cozzens makes the obvious, but too often neglected, point that dialogue is impossible if the proverbial playing field is uneven. And that happens to be a large part of the current problem facing the Catholic Church.

An older, pre-Vatican II ecclesiology, which Father Cozzens links with the pontificate of Pius X (1903-14), views the church as a necessarily unequal society made up of pastors and flock. It is a model closer to feudalism in style than to the New Testament.

The pope, like a king, is at the top of a clerical pyramid, followed by cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and monsignors, with the so-called “simple priests” at the bottom. The laity, like serfs, are at the bottom of the bottom. The way authority is exercised in this model is from the top down.

Vatican II envisioned a different kind of church — a community of disciples, radically equal in Christian dignity by their baptism, with some having greater pastoral responsibilities than others. Authority is exercised dialogically.
As Cozzens’ new book insists, effective dialogue requires participants who have both “the courage to speak” and “the humility to listen.”
Few do it better than Father Cozzens himself.

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

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