For many Catholics, “dialogue” is a dirty word.
In their minds, it’s code for the kinds of ecumenism and interfaith relations that emphasize similarities and dismiss differences.
“Dialogue” means “we’re all climbing the same mountain, which is God — but we’re on different paths” or “dogma divides, and we are trying to move past dogma to find our common ground.”
In other words, “dialogue” means indifferentism — the idea that all religions are essentially the same. “Dialogue” means universalism — if all religions are the same, then everyone will be saved in the end. “Dialogue” means, therefore, that no one needs to be converted to the Catholic faith because they’re okay where they are.
My hand is up. I plead guilty. I’m suspicious of dialogue. I like my religion neat. I don’t want it watered down, and I’m one of those who believes there is a kind of false ecumenism and false interfaith dialogue that is rooted in indifferentism and universalism.
I don’t think it does much good to whitewash the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, and it is false to pretend that Christianity and all the other religions are no more than different, and equally valid, paths up the same mountain. Dialogue? My instinct is “fuhgeddaboudit.”
Indifferentism and universalism are forms of relativism. They are rooted in the idea that religion is no more than a historical and cultural human construction. The idea is that each religion developed out of a particular cultural and historical context, and as the context changes, the religion should change. This is not Catholicism. The Catholic Church teaches that God reveals himself specially to humanity, and the fullness of that revelation is in his Son, Jesus Christ, and that the message and ministry of Jesus Christ is most fully alive in the world today in the Catholic Church. Because of this revelation, Catholicism is a dogmatic religion. We believe that certain statements are really, solidly, eternally true.
My blog, Standing on My Head, has become one of the most widely read Catholic blogs in the nation. I’ve been blogging now for eight years, and one of the joys of blogging is the comment box. Readers can interact with one another and the author by posting their own comments online.
Until recently, my combox has been open to everyone. Part of my job was to moderate the comments — weeding out disturbed people, trolls (people who spend their time prowling around blogs and making obnoxious comments), wild-eyed preachers, fundamentalists picking a fight and comments that are blasphemous, unnecessarily vulgar or just plain incomprehensible. However, a few weeks ago, I closed the combox.
I did so because my readership is increasing, and moderation of the comments was taking more and more of my time. However, I also closed it down because the comment box had ceased to be a pleasant place for discussion and had become a forum for highly opinionated readers to speak their minds without listening to one another. In other words, my combox had become their soapbox.
The problem highlighted a difficulty in our Catholic faith. It seems that, for too many Catholics, dialogue is dead. We’ve fallen into the trap of taking sides, seeing everything in black and white and putting our opponents into boxes with labels. This person is a “progressive.” That one is “conservative.” This one is a “traditionalist.” That one is a “neo-Catholic.” This one is “liberal.” That one is “right-wing.” This one is a “peace-and-justice Catholic.” That one is a “pro-life Catholic.” This one is a “trendy.” That one is a “traddy.”
Labeling another person is the first step towards ignoring the other person. When we give him a label, we block him out as a person and see only the label. Soon, we are not talking to a person, but shouting our opinions at a label. It gets worse.
Labeling a person and blocking him out can also lead to persecution and exclusion. If we’re not careful, we withdraw into our own little fortresses of faith with all our friends who believe like we do, and we peer over the battlements to shoot arrows at the enemy and duck when he shoots back.
This attitude is not Catholic. Catholic means “universal”; and one of the strengths of true Catholicism is that it affirms all that is beautiful, true and good, wherever it appears. The truly Catholic spirit is therefore openminded, inquisitive and looking for truth and goodness wherever it may be found.
This spirit is at the heart of true ecumenism, true interfaith dialogue and genuine conversations between Catholics who disagree. This does not mean that we disregard dogma.
Instead, the certainties of the Catholic faith should provide a strong foundation for true dialogue, and the confidence Catholics have in their faith should provide a solid base on which to discover and affirm the beauty, truth and goodness that exists outside the formal boundaries of the Catholic faith.
All truth is Catholic truth, and to find that truth in unfamiliar expressions of the Catholic faith, in other Christian groups and in other religions does not undermine one's Catholic religion, but strengthens it.
When I see what is good, beautiful and true in other believers, it helps me to re-discover that truth, beauty and goodness within the Catholic faith and to widen my own Catholic experience to embrace that goodness, too.
A good example can be found in evangelical Protestantism. I can observe in our separated brethren a genuine love for the Lord Jesus, a powerful personal experience of discipleship, a love for prayer, a deep knowledge of the Scriptures, a great zeal in evangelization and a powerful witness of sacrificial Christian giving.
In seeing and affirming all these good things, I can see some of the gaps in many areas of Catholic faith and practice and can long to integrate these good things into my own experience and that of other Catholics.
This can only happen if I am first open to the possibility that I will find elements of goodness, truth and beauty within that non-Catholic form of Christianity, and it is only as I go through this process that I might have any hope that the evangelical Christian might return the courtesy and see that he is missing the fullness of the Christian faith that can only be found in the Catholic Church.
This process of openness and attraction is the method of my book More Christianity. The book is a friendly explanation of the Catholic faith to evangelical Christians — affirming what is good about their experience and inviting them to explore how they can have the “more Christianity” that is the Catholic faith.
Dogma is necessary to avoid indifferentism and universalism, but it does no good to lock ourselves into Castle Dogma and close the doors to everyone else.
“Dialogue” need not be a dirty word. If dialogue is rooted in a dynamic and positive understanding of dogma, then what seem to be opposing principles can, in the end, strengthen and complement one another.
Father Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.