Father Avery Dulles SJ delivered the ninth annual fall Laurence J. McGinley Lecture at Fordham University in New York, Nov. 19. Excerpted:

… On June 29, 1996 the retired Archbishop of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, speaking at Campion Hall, Oxford University, pointedly asked whether the Holy See had engaged in appropriate dialogue before making decisions regarding a great variety of matters, including contraception, general absolution, the appointment of bishops, the approval of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, clerical celibacy, and the ordination of women. Although the archbishop did not say that he disagreed with any of the decisions he mentioned, he expressed his regret that the decisions had been made with insufficient prior discussion. He called for extensive inner reforms within the Catholic Church to give more autonomy to local Churches and thereby, as he thought, facilitate ecumenical relations with other Christian groups.

Hard on the heels of the Quinn address came the publication on Aug. 12 of a statement drawn up by the National Pastoral Life Center in New York and released by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Bearing the ominous title: Called to be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril, this statement lamented the atmosphere of suspicion and acrimony in the Church today and called for a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, and broad consultation. Candid discussion, it stated, is inhibited by the imposition of a narrow party line. More room needs to be given for legitimate discussion and diversity. A new “common ground” needs to be forged among all who are willing to affirm “basic truths” and pursue the remaining disagreements in a spirit of dialogue. Such dialogue, the authors maintained, could be a welcome alternative to mutual accusations of infidelity and a present remedy for polarization….

My own reflection on the situation is that the difficulty with the statements, especially that of Cardinal Bernardin, is not so much with what they actually said as with what they seemed to imply, and would be understood as implying the current atmosphere….

Dialogue among the religions, according to many prominent experts, could be far more successful if all would agree that the divisive doctrines were classified as fallible human efforts to probe the depths of the divine…. In the context of this relativistic pluralism, the word “dialogue” takes on a new meaning. The supposition is that in dialogue you are not trying to urge your own position, but to reach an accommodation in which both parties can live in peace. Cardinal Ratzinger in a recent address … remarks:

“… the notion of dialogue-which has maintained a position of significant importance in the Platonic and Christian tradition-changes its meaning and becomes both the quintessence of the relativist creed and the antithesis of conversion and the mission. In the relativist meaning, to dialogue means to put one's own position, i.e., one's faith, on the same level as the convictions of others without recognizing in principle more truth in it than that which is attributed to the opinion of the others. Only if I suppose in principle that the other can be as right, or more right than I, can an authentic dialogue take place.

Political Theory

“According to this concept, dialogue must be an exchange between positions which have fundamentally the same rank and therefore are mutually relative. Only in this way will maximum cooperation and integration between the different religions be achieved. The relativist dissolution of Christology, and even more of ecclesiology, thus becomes a central commandment of religion….”

A second series of problems arises within the context of recent American political theory. In the new liberalism a sharp line is drawn between the public and the private. All belief systems, in this framework, are relegated to the private sphere, so that no public authority may adjudicate questions of truth. Political philosophers such as John Rawls, Richard Rorty, and Bruce Ackerman, following in the traces of Immanuel Kant, have made a strict separation between the good and the right. People have rights, it is said, but the rights are purely procedural. In this context, dialogue is recommended, but those who enter the dialogue must abandon any effort to urge their own conception of the good or the true. In civil dialogue the question of truth does not arise, since all substantive moral and religious commitments have been removed from the public agenda.

Michael J. Sandel has summarized the principles of this new political philosophy in his recent book, Democracy's Discontent. He characterizes the dominant public philosophy as that of the “procedural republic.” In this framework we are required to bracket our moral and religious obligations when we enter the public realm. Questions of justice and rights must be decided without affirming one conception of the good over others. One cannot publicly discuss whether an unborn child has human, personal life, because this is viewed as a metaphysical or religious question. The woman's “right to choose” is allowed to prevail, as it were, by default. The purpose of the legislature and the judiciary is to make it possible for people to live together in community, to establish a modus vivendi.

Authors such as Sandel maintain, convincingly I believe, that the procedural republic does not offer adequate foundations for a healthy self-governing society. It creates a moral void. Political association sinks to the level of a mere coalition in which the members are not inspired by any shared vision of the good…. I am concerned with the fallout from this political philosophy in the religious realm. Christians are being drawn to regard questions of truth and morality as essentially private ones, to be settled by each individual in the intimacy of one's own conscience. As Andrew Greeley and others have shown, large numbers of Americans today are “communal Catholics” who adhere to the Church as the home in which they were nurtured and the place to which they are bound by ties of family and friendship, but who do not accept the teaching authority of popes and councils, especially in matters of morality. They turn to the Church for its ritual and sacramental ministry, but they do not expect it to instruct them on questions of truth and moral goodness. Communal Catholics follow their own judgment in many matters of dogma and moral conduct. Presuming that no one can be bound in conscience to accept official teaching, they regard dissent as a right. In a privatized Church, as in the “procedural republic,” no scope is allowed for public adjudication of questions of truth and morality. These attitudes, however, undermine the very essence of Catholic Christianity, which authoritatively proclaims a religion founded on divine revelation and intended for all humankind. The Church has a public faith that is not subject to debate.

Pragmatic Modus Vivemdi

Because of the inroads of privatization, the call for greater dialogue among Catholics on points such as contraception or ordination of women is seen as a readiness to settle for something less than the full doctrine of the Church and to reach a pragmatic modus vivendi among Catholics who continue to disagree about substantive issues. This would lend support for the view, already widespread, that Catholics are free to hold opinions contrary to the official teaching of the Church, at least if they adhere to “basic truths.” Even if Archbishop Quinn and Cardinal Bernardin did not wish to legitimize dissent, their statements could easily be interpreted as favoring the view that the teaching of the Church is not binding in conscience….

As for dialogue within the Church, it is always in order if the purpose is to understand Church teaching better, to present it more persuasively, and to implement it in a pastorally effective way. But the conditions laid down by Paul VI must be kept in mind. He made it clear that obedience to ecclesiastical authority, rather than independence and criticism, must prevail (cf. Ecclesiam suam 118-119). The conditions for intraecclesial dialogue are not easy to realize today, in a society such as our own. Open discussion may be counterproductive if its purpose is to prolong debate on issues that are ripe for decision or to legitimize positions that the teaching authorities have decisively rejected. Far from achieving consensus, such dialogue would serve to build up mutually opposed contingencies and then further polarize the Church. Under present conditions, any proposal for dialogue within the Church must be very carefully formulated if it is not to expand the zone of disagreement within the Church. An imprudent yielding to pleas for tolerance and diversity could easily weaken the Church as a community of faith and witness.

Polarization is not normally the result of clear and confident teaching of the Church's heritage of faith. It is more likely to arise when the true teaching is obscured by the indulgence of contrary opinions. The hierarchical magisterium must be vigilant to prevent and correct error in matters of doctrine. Pastoral authorities who are fully conscious of their responsibilities will not use dialogue as a subterfuge for avoiding the onerous tasks of their office. They will rise to the challenge of Paul's admonition to Timothy to “convince, rebuke, and exhort,” and to be “unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tm 3, 2).

Authentic dialogue, even at its best, has limits. It cannot appropriately replace every other form of communication. Evangelization, as Paul VI and John Paul II have insisted, is a permanent priority of the Church. Dialogue, to be sure, has a legitimate place in all missionary witness, creedal confession, dogmatic teaching, and catechetical instruction, but these proclamatory modes of discourse are not reducible to dialogue pure and simple. Aparamount internal need for the Church today is the faithful transmission of the Catholic patrimony as embodied in works such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Christian proclamation, even when conducted within a context of dialogue, presupposes that there is a divine revelation, embodying the truth that leads to eternal life. All revelation, in the Christian understanding, comes from the divine Word, which is one and eternal. When Christians engage in dialogue, they do so with the hope of making that one Word better known. In a sense, therefore, Christianity is mono-logic. Authentic dialogue would be futile unless it helped us to hear the one divine Word. “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mk 9, 8).