Dialogue, Defined and Exemplified

Pope Benedict XVI has left America a treasure of wisdom that will take some time to unlock. Just a few of a wide variety of pearls include the relationship of freedom and truth, the primacy of human dignity and human rights, the “responsibility to protect,” the place of religion in the public square, and the nature of Catholic education. In his addresses to the United Nations, to the representatives of other religions, and to ecumenical leaders, the Holy Father has offered another gem to the Church and to the ecumenical movement: a definition of “dialogue” and an example of how to engage in it properly.
Dialogue is an often misunderstood and even abused term. It can signify a polite way of saying that two sides “agree to disagree,” an invitation to a continuous conversation without intending to resolve a dispute, or a discussion attempting to settle a point of contention. Unfortunately some Catholics, however well-intentioned, tend to use the term imprecisely; this lack of precision, in turn, occasionally generates confusion among the faithful.
Benedict has brought any potential confusion over the meaning of dialogue to a close with a pointed definition applicable both for the interreligious and ecumenical spheres. His most succinct definition was set forth in his address to the United Nations:
Dialogue should be recognized as the means by which the various components of society can articulate their point of view and build consensus around the truth concerning particular values or goals.
Dialogue, for the pope, is a conversation that articulates the relationship between a component of society and the truth. It is the means to the end of truth, and in this context truth is not merely limited to the religious realm but more broadly to the values or goals that shape society.
In his address to representatives of other religions at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center last Thursday, the Holy Father developed this conception of dialogue in more detail while discussing the nature of relations between different religions. First, he offered a twofold motive for dialogue: “I therefore invite all religious people to view dialogue not only as a means of enhancing mutual understanding, but also as a way of serving society at large.” Dialogue properly understood should spark peace and solidarity between different groups, with the further benefit of positively influencing the wider community. Benedict’s visit to a New York synagogue on the eve of Passover brilliantly illustrated this idea of consensus generating peace: genuinely happy and respectful religious leaders greeted one another and exchanged gifts while people of all faiths looked on, touched.
But as important as this mutual respect fostered by genuine conversation is, Benedict, in the same address, identified a second, deeper reason for dialogue: “The broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth.” Here Benedict does not conceive of truth as the finer points of theological debate, but as the answer to the most fundamental human questions of life’s meaning and purpose. This is certainly not a simple conversation to have, but the Holy Father cautions us not to retreat: “Only by addressing these deeper questions can we build a solid basis for peace and security of the human family.”
For Benedict, harmony and cooperation cannot come at the expense of truth; for the Christian, as he told the youth at St. Joseph’s Seminary, “Ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ.” From this perspective, the Holy Father presents his plan for interreligious dialogue for his flock:
Confronted with the deeper questions concerning the origin and destiny of mankind, Christianity proposes Jesus of Nazareth. He, we believe, is the eternal Logos who became flesh in order to reconcile man to God and reveal the underlying reason of all things. It is he whom we bring to the forum of interreligious dialogue. The ardent desire to follow in his footsteps spurs Christians to open their minds and hearts to dialogue.
Unfortunately, when the truth is proclaimed, there is a tendency of some members of interreligious groups to minimize its significance lest tranquility be lost. Such an example occurred this Lent, when the newly revised Good Friday prayer in the 1962 Missal retained the petition for the conversion of the Jewish people. The uproar that ensued proved the tenuousness of an interreligious harmony not grounded in authentic truth.
Benedict, exemplifying his understanding of dialogue in his address to the Jewish community in America, in no way glossed over the differences between the two faiths. Rather, he identified the shared truth that Easter and Passover, “while distinct and different, unite us in our common hope centered on God and his mercy.” He then employed this small yet significant shared truth as the foundation for fostering good will between Christians and Jews that evening, with the hope of carrying this positive momentum into the weeks and months ahead.
Truth must remain at the heart of ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Christians as well. In his Friday address at St. Joseph’s Church in New York, Benedict focused on theology and history rather than fraternal cooperation. Emphasizing the necessity of all Christian communities to maintain “communion with the Church in every age,” the Holy Father offered the unity of the Blessed Trinity and the early Church as a model to suggest that, for the first Christians, “the internal cohesion of believers was based on the sound integrity of their doctrinal confession.” By the fourth century, this doctrinal integrity was expressed in creeds — such as the Nicene Creed said at Mass each Sunday. These creeds ensured authentic belief because they “articulated the essence of the Christian faith and constituted the foundation for the unity of the baptized.”
Now, in the third millennia of Christian history, these ancient creeds remain equally as important for us as they did for the early Church. For Benedict, they guard against a religious relativism that denies “objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith” and seeks to “relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling.” Just as he asserted to interreligious leaders the day before, the Holy Father cautions that truth cannot be relativized in order to pursue a factitious unity of good will:
Even within the ecumenical movement, Christians may be reluctant to assert the role of doctrine for the fear that it would only exacerbate rather than heal the wounds of division.
Yet a clear, convincing testimony to the salvation wrought for us in Christ Jesus has to be based upon the notion of a normative apostolic teaching: a teaching which indeed underlies the inspired word of God and sustains the sacramental life of Christians today.
This “normative apostolic teaching” is the ancient creeds and conciliar statements of the early Church, guarded and passed on in “communion with the Church in every age.”
At the heart of the Holy Father’s interreligious and ecumenical message to America is a simple yet poignant reminder: Dialogue is conversation at the service of truth. This truth is not vague and idealistic, but real and alive in the person of Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict has carefully delineated the field: Catholics involved with interreligious discussions should offer Jesus Christ as our “origin and destiny” with the intention of fostering harmony between religions and peace in the wider community. Catholics engaged in ecumenical work must rebuild Christian unity upon the rock of “normative apostolic teaching.”
The wise shepherd has come to America to show his flock the way to Jesus Christ. By defining and then exemplifying the true meaning of dialogue, Benedict has reoriented our efforts in the right direction in order to “convince the world that Jesus Christ is the one sent by the Father for the salvation of all.”
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

David G. Bonagura Jr.

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David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media).

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