Pope Francis and the Catholic Way of Dialogue

“Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.”

That, according to Pope Francis, is the response he gives when leaders ask him for advice about how to resolve their societies’ internal differences. It is, he recently told a gathering of prominent Brazilians, the only way for societies to avoid the dead-ends of what Francis called “selfish indifference” and “violent protest.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the Church provided powerful examples of how to proceed along this path. A case in point was the manner in which the Catholic Church in Poland in the face of constant—and, at times, extreme—provocation never ceased talking to the Communist regime, despite the fact that the conversation was with people who were generally of ill-will and who supported an evil political system.

For many Catholics today, however, the very word “dialogue” doesn’t enjoy the best of connotations. When some hear this phrase, it immediately conjures up memories of theologians of the 70s, 80s, and 90s who apparently imagined that dialogue implied watering-down and even rejecting key Catholic truth-claims. In some instances, Catholic exponents of dialogue didn’t seem to grasp that any serious dialogue with others pre-supposed that the Catholic participants in the conversation actually knew and believed what the Church taught. Even today some Catholics ask for “more dialogue” to avoid affirming Catholic teaching precisely because they’ve apparently dialogued their way “beyond Jesus.”

Looking beyond, however, the immediate past, the truth is that Catholics have always engaged other religions and philosophies. The Church Fathers, for instance, didn’t hesitate to “plunder the spoils of the Egyptians.” They took concepts from non-Christian sources and used them to clarify important points of Church teaching, including dogmas as complex as the Trinity.

This reminds us that the Church regards dialogue as much more than simply a means of resolving social tensions. It’s also central to the evangelical dimension of what Francis calls “a culture of encounter.” For the ultimate objective of such encounters isn’t only greater understanding of others’ positions. We seek to understand others’ views (however incoherent they might be) so as to deepen knowledge of—and spread—the truth that finds its fullness in Catholic faith.

There are, of course, tremendous risks associated with dialogue. Furthermore, as every businessman knows, not all risks pay off. In more-than-a few cases, Catholic dialogue with the modern world has proved less-than-fruitful.

Some, for instance, regard the attempt of the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner to reconcile Catholicism with modern German philosophy as an example of an ultimately unproductive conversation. In his History of the Catholic Church (2012), the historian James Hitchcock suggests Rahner ended up “increasingly unwilling to affirm classical Catholic doctrine and increasingly hostile to the exercise of magisterial authority.” This is surely not what the Church wants to result from dialogue.

Nevertheless there are examples of successful dialogue by Catholics, the most famous being Saint Paul’s encounter with the Athenian philosophers in the Areopagus. Saint Luke’s account of this event is well-known (Acts 17:16-34). But what’s important for our purposes is the way Paul engaged the Athenians.

Paul didn’t start by citing the Hebrew canon, let alone preaching Christ crucified. Instead he pointed to a reference point—an altar to “an unknown God”—acceptable to all parties to the conversation. Paul then quoted well-known Stoic sayings to further the discussion. In doing so, he established his credentials as someone who took seriously powerful reference-points for the educated Greek mind.

The point of Paul’s exercise was to dispose his audience to listen to what he had to say. As Acts tells us, Paul eventually worked his way around to speaking about the resurrected Christ. At this point of the conversation, many of Paul’s listeners mocked him. Others brushed Paul off with a polite “we’ll-get-back-to-you.” Yet some of Paul’s listeners in Athens continued listening and eventually became Christians. Even more importantly, Paul set the stage for on-going exchanges between Christianity and Antiquity that continue yielding fruit to this very day.

This, however, wasn’t the only feature of the early Christian dialogue with Greece and Rome. It also involved explaining, by word and deed, the Church’s conviction that many pagan beliefs and practices were absurd, evil, or both. Among others, these included actions such as abortion and infanticide, the pagan view of women as essentially unequal to men, and the ancient world’s cosmology of gods and goddesses.

In other words, the Catholic way of dialogue has never implied abandoning key tenets of Catholic faith and morals. The objective is to listen to and talk with others in order to promote the truth that Catholics believe is definitively revealed by Christ and entrusted to His Church. Sometimes this means Catholics must question their listeners’ beliefs—albeit in a respectful way and after finding a common starting-point for discussion.

Thus the Catholic can say to, for instance, to the convinced Marxist: “Yes, you’re right. Modern man does seem alienated from his world. But the reason for that alienation doesn’t lie in their relationship to the means of production. Alienation is ultimately derived from a lack of love.” Such an argument was made by Karol Wojtyła in his philosophical writings. Likewise the Catholic can say to the libertarian: “Yes, you’re right. Many people are too inclined to let freedom be sacrificed to an all-leveling egalitarianism. But you can’t build a coherent vision of liberty based on hedonism, skepticism and utilitarianism.”

A contemporary example of this faithful approach to dialogue, I’d suggest, is our great pontiff emeritus, Benedict XVI. Take, for instance, the manner in which he discussed environmental issues.

Long before becoming pope, Joseph Ratzinger saw something good in worries about threats (real or imagined) to the natural world. Yet having affirmed such concerns (some even labeled him the “Green Pope”), Ratzinger then asked the same people why they seemed rather nonchalant about violations of what he called “human ecology.” Put another way, if you’re anxious about the natural world and want to protect it from random destruction, shouldn’t you be at least equally worried about attempts to encourage entire societies to live contrary to the natural moral law that, as Paul affirmed, is embedded in human reason itself?

That Pope Francis shares this conception of dialogue seems clear from these powerful words spoken during his recent (and rather under-reported) address to a gathering of Jesuits to mark the feast-day of Saint Ignatius of Loyola:

Christ is our life! Likewise the centrality of Christ corresponds to the centrality of the Church: they are two focal points that cannot be separated: I cannot follow Christ except in the Church and with the Church. And in this case too we Jesuits—and the entire Society—are not at the centre, we are, so to speak, a corollary, we are at the service of Christ and of the Church, the Bride of Christ Our Lord, who is our holy Mother the hierarchical Church (cf. EE, 353). Men rooted in and founded on the Church: this is what Jesus wants us to be. There can be no parallel or isolated path. Yes, ways of research, creative ways, this is indeed important: to move out to the periphery, the many peripheries. For this reason creativity is vital, but always in community, in the Church, with this belonging that gives us the courage to go ahead. Serving Christ is loving this actual Church, and serving her generously and in a spirit of obedience.

In the sixteenth century, Jesuit giants such as Matteo Ricci travelled to what was truly the periphery of the world then known to Europeans. Ricci immediately understood that the civilization he encountered in China was a highly sophisticated society. He consequently mastered the Chinese language and devoted considerable energy to exploring Chinese literature and philosophy. Much of this involved conversing with erudite Confucian scholars.

Yet Ricci never lost sight of the ultimate point of such dialogue. Ricci’s famous book, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven¸ certainly underlined parallels between Catholicism and Confucianism. But Ricci’s book wasn’t just an exercise in comparative philosophy. Its purpose was to open Chinese minds to the possibility that the completeness of truth is found in Catholicism.

And this makes sense if, as Francis says, Christ is our life. For why would we not want others to share in the fullness of that life? Yes, there are dangers to any dialogue. If, however, the true end of dialogue is kept in mind and we have faith in the truth of Catholicism, we surely have nothing to fear.

Editor’s note: Pictured above are Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew greeting each other at a historic meeting in the Vatican on March 20, 2013.

Samuel Gregg


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Too often dialogue is confused with debate. Now, the goal of dialogue is is increased understanding of myself and others, whereas the goal of debate is is the successful argument of my position over that of my opponent. There is a place for both, but they need to be carefully distinguished, as their methods are different.

    Too often, without the mutual understanding that comes from dialogue, debate is futile, for each party argues from concealed premises of which the other is unaware. That is why Vatican II stressed dialogue with the world.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    The problem with those who engaged in dialogue in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s was that they did so as independent agents – answerable only to themselves. They were impressed with the own intelligence which evinced their pride.

    Dialogue must always be in communion with Peter. St. Paul understood this when the first council of Jerusalem met. The Church always suffers when those doing the dialoguing separate themselves from Peter. Ask Luther; he found out the hard way.

    • Ralphster

      And when Peter gives us quasi-indifferentism like the Balamand agreement, then what, Deacon Ed? The problem does not reside solely with ecuemnical freelancers.

      • Deacon Ed Peitler

        without peter we become just another protestant sect…Christ gave us peter for a reason…”that they may be one, Father, as You and I are one, that they may be one in Us.

        • Ralphster

          Yes, we were given Peter for a reason, Deacon Ed, but my question was what do we do when Peter engages in evident misconduct and speaks out in contravention to the fullness of Tradition?

          • Deacon Ed Peitler

            trust the Holy Spirit

            • Ralphster

              Very true, Deacon Ed, we must trust the Holy Spirit. But trusting must take the form of a certain stance and action as well. I don’t think trust means we must necessarily sit idly by and accept departures from Tradition.

              • What exactly are you referring to?

            • TimRohr

              The Holy Spirit uses human beings.

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  • Ralphster

    Any official Church dialogue with any non-Catholics must not conceal and tap dance around the fact that Catholicism is the one true faith, and those we are dialoguing with are in serious error and are called to renounce their errors and enter Catholicism. It is unclear, at best, that Second Vatican teaching affirms these cardinal truths of our faith, and the ecumenism preached from the highest levels of the Church in recent decades, including from recent popes, does not appear to sufficient respectly and affirm the unique truthfulness of Catholicism and the terrible errors that ALL others are engaged in, to some degree.
    As long as we have ecumenism and inter-faith activity that does not incorporate a clear, stark claim to the unique truth that Catholicism alone maintains, and the imperative nature of conversion for all others, we embark on a journey that is not in keeping with the fullness of Tradition.

  • Ford Oxaal

    We let our children play with the neighborhood kids who are mostly from non-practicing catholic families, but we take stock: are you changing them more than they are changing you? Because we put friendship first, the other kids are now intrigued by church, or why mommy and daddy don’t take them to church on Sunday, or, e.g., what the rosary is.

  • lifeknight

    I still find it difficult to understand what Pope Francis wants us to know. I liken it to parenting; a clear “I said NO,” suffices when “dialogue” fails.
    I guess I would like the world to be more clear cut–men and women marry, babies are considered a gift, and we learn math and science in schools.
    Sadly, I have removed my rose-colored glasses, however. Perhaps our Pope still has his on.

  • Alecto

    What a fascinating article. I submit the term “dialogue” ought to be forever banned from any papal speeches, writings, etc…, not because the pope’s intended meaning is negative, as Mr. Gregg has illuminated, but because the word as used today is tantamount to a negotiation of the articles of faith.

    • Ford Oxaal

      Right — as a Catholic, it is a bit disingenuous to come to that kind of “dialogue” with your mind already made up. I guess the point is that in any conversation, sometimes you are the teacher, and sometimes you are the student. I think the Pope may be trying to recover what the Church means by “dialogue” by doubling down on the term. What drives me nuts is church-speak: “called to be church”, or “we are ‘dialoging’ with …”

      • Agreed that “dialogue” as a verb is an abomination. “Discuss,” “debate,” fine, or how about just “talk?” I guess when you use the plain Anglo-Saxon word, it becomes more obvious that talking isn’t going to solve all problems.

  • Patrick

    If dialogue is so important why are there taboo subjects, i.e. ordination of women? As the pope himself said, “Yes, there are dangers to any dialogue. If, however, the true end of dialogue is kept in mind and we have faith in the truth of Catholicism, we surely have nothing to fear.” So why are we afraid to discuss it?

    • Steven Jonathan

      No Catholic is afraid to discuss it Patrick, women’s ordination is not taboo, it is settled, and the dialogue is for your benefit so that someday you will be able to understand- the danger is for you that you may put your opinions above the truth, and in doing so you unwittingly turn the dialogue into your own monologue because your objective is to change another’s mind on the issue rather than to seek truth. There is no dialogue if the object sought is not Truth.
      The one thing you have right is that there is nothing to fear for Catholics who are unswervingly faithful to the Magisterium, but I think there is plenty to fear for those who would try to create their own reality- If there is something you would like to know about “women’s ordination” fire away, there are many here who will help you.

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      The cafeteria is closed. But try the protestants since they seem open to just about anything: homosexual ‘marriages’, women ‘priests’, divorce, contraception, abortion, and whatever else can be placed on the menu.

      Why insist on opening up discussion about topics that the Holy Father aka Church Teaching has already stated is not subject to change? More time should be spent on submission (a dirty word) to the Church – Her Teachings and Her Authority.

    • Ralphster

      Before we start coming down too hard on Patrick, why don’t we tackle issues like the Social Reign of Christ, so-called sister churches, and the death penalty, not to mention the meta-theological norms of Franzelin and Van Noort? How are we going to thoughtfully respond to Patrick once the truth about these issues comes to the fore?

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Women’s ordination isn’t a taboo subject. The problem with it is the people proposing it.

      The day I hear from an unabashedly pro-life “woman priest” is the day I’ll begin to take what they say seriously.

  • PH

    The late, great Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom the late, great Cardinal Henri de Lubac called the most cultured man of our time, analyzed Karl Rahner quite fairly and succinctly. Cardinal Balthasar did defend Rahner for his speculative power and courage but also criticized him severely. German Idealism? NO! A dangerous point of departure. “Which Karl Rahner?” the Cardinal asked. Apparently there are many. The Rahner who opened a “Pandora’s Box” for too many irresponsible theologians? Another firm NO. Nevertheless, I believe the Cardinal did say that much of Rahner’s thought was too subtle to be analyzed on the fly and that time, hopefully through responsible analysis, will tell.

    • Ralphster

      “The descent into the world which is demanded of us by the philosophy of Hans Urs von Balthasar has been largely accomplished in the post-Vatican II Church. We have razed the bastions, opened the windows, thrown open the doors, torn down the walls, eliminated the “systematics” (think of the Baltimore catechism for children), prostituted ourselves to secular knowledge, and created the almost universal impression that the Catholic Church is “coming around” to the principles of the French Revolution.

      If we consider the effect of this philosophy in just one area, the area of “systematics,” we might well attribute the loss of millions of souls of little children to this philosophy. They were simply never taught that the possession of the fullness of absolute truth is necessary for Christian survival.

      It is for this reason that I must emphasize that we are not here involved in a gentlemanly debate about legitimate philosophical and theological differences. We are at war with evil.

      The philosophical and theological systems (if they can be called that) of von Balthasar and de Lubac are evil. This, of course, does not mean that there is not some good in their writings, as there is in the writings of virtually all those who promote heresy. But it is incontestable that the overall effect of their works is immensely evil, having been instrumental in the loss of millions of souls.

      What has attracted so many to von Balthasar is that he appears to be promoting a new incarnation of Christ’s love in this world, in juxtaposition to a supposed rigid traditionalism which stifles love with rigid truth.

      What he pathetically fails to see is that love is not opposed to absolute truth, but is its most intimate companion and fruit, and that the heart of Christ’s love for man is to be found in His descent into union with our nature in order to bring us the liberating surety of this truth.

      Christ would have us put on the whole armour of God in order that we might love and convert our estranged brethren.

      Hans Urs von Balthasar would have us stripped naked in order to commune with a world which, according to the Gospel, is the domain of the Prince of this world.”
      — James Larson

      • Ford Oxaal

        Any philosophical system is rendered philosophically useless by any hint of skepticism. So you can toss most of the philosophy of the last few centuries right out the window. I don’t know much about Balthasar and de Lubac, but if they have ingested the poison of skeptic philosophy, their theology will be contorted at a minimum.

      • PH

        My gracious, James. Were I your confessor, your penance would be at least thirty days in the monastery with the humble, holy, mega-intelligent Benedict XVI as your spiritual director to set you aright with Holy Mother Church and Hans Urs von Balthasar. We might add the now priest, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, daily Mass, and a diet of bread and water to the mix.


        • Ralphster

          PH, what did James say that was wrong? How could the views of von Balthasar and Ratzinger, opposed to the perennial truths of the ages, all of a sudden be problem-free?

  • Howard Kainz

    Exorcists are warned never to enter into dialogue with the devil. They will be bested. The devil is against truth. Similarly, dialogue with opponents to the faith is only constructive if both parties are open to the truth, seriously looking for the truth.

  • John O’Neill

    As a survivor of the tumultuous sixties who managed by the grace of God to remain in the Catholic church I can only say that whenever I hear a priest or bishop begin a sermon with the word dialogue in it I immediately tune out.

  • poetcomic1

    When St. Francis went to preach to the Muslims he did not ‘dialogue’. The ‘dirty word’ after VII was ‘triumphalism’. But the Church IS triumphant and that is its splendor, Its triumph is what it has to ‘tell’ the rest of the world. Take that away and you have the ‘church of nice’ (i.e. the church of “lukewarm-I spit-you-out”).

  • Charles Lewis

    Great piece, Samuel. And good points about how dialogue can be seen as a watering down. Witness the fate of the Anglican Church and the United Church of Canada. I’ve been reading a great book by Denys Turner on Aquinas, a man I’m still learning about and am a rank amateur on. But his engagement with the work of Aristotle was considered to be controversial at the time. But that’s why St. Thomas was St. Thomas. So dialogue has its pitfalls but its benefits. I love this quote by C.S. Lewis: “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

  • Bob

    A reporter once asked Blessed Mother Theresa why so many Hindu’s in her houses converted to Catholicism:

    Reporter: “Was it the food you gave them, Mother?”

    BMT: “No.”

    Reporter: “Was it the shelter, the medicine?”

    BMT: “No.”

    Reporter: “Then what did you give them Mother that brought so many conversions?”

    BMT: “I gave them Christ.”

    Mother Theresa actually was a mostly a quiet person, not engaging too much in dialogue. But her body language and prayerful actions screamed an imitation of Jesus, which drew people to her as a “small pencil” in God’s hand.

  • windjammer

    “Dialogue”? Oh please. Another one of those soft, warm, fuzzy wuzzy, politically correct, Church Nice, feminine terms that reflects an attitude which has managed to empty the parish pews since V2. The RCC is either the one true faith or it is not. No ambiguity. You either believe it or you don’t. If you are not sure or don’t believe, then you can “dialogue”. If you believe it then you must confront, admonish, contradict, and correct. It’s a spiritual work of mercy which is hardly, if ever, mentioned today let alone practiced. To do so properly, one must be informed and know the faith and always be compassionate and charitable…but never compromise, ignore and avoid to speak truth to evil.

  • Brennan

    The use of the term “dialogue” seems anachronistic, since scripture never mentions dialogue and from what I understand the Church never used the term prior to Vatican II.

    The problem is there is no “end game” inherent in dialogue; it is analogous to two women sharing their feelings,–there really is no end point other than just to talk (which is probably why we have endless dialogue with the Anglicans even though it goes nowhere).

    And of course you want to use wisdom when attempting to convert others, as Paul did, that’s just common sense; no need to insert the word “dialogue”. Dialogue is simply effeminate and inherently describes nothing more than two people talking. Scripture uses words like preach, reprove, exhort, and instruct, but not “dialogue.”

  • TimRohr

    The author seems to have to stretch to find examples of successful Catholic dialogue. First he has to go back all the way to St. Paul and then he jumps to Benedict as the “green pope”??? Interesting that he completely avoids Benedict’s famous 2006 “dialogue” about Islam at Regensburg.

    The fact that he references the Fathers plundering “the spoils of Egypt” does not seem to bolster his case. And the dialogue with communist Poland? One wonders. Wasn’t it the final popular uprising against the government – not dialogue – which brought down the regime and the “wall”? Dialogue perhaps served only to buy time.

    Usually Gregg is very clear. But he appears to fall into the same slicing and dicing that other Catholic writers similarly fall into as they scamper about trying to put a “hermeneutic of continuity” face on the current Pope.

    This man is different. Let’s admit it. Whether he is dangerously different is still a question.

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  • William Schierer

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t St. Paul’s experience at the Temple to the Unknown God in Athens a turning point in his ministry. Was not his dialog with the Athenians deemed a failure?

    No obviously I don’t reject Christians taking what’s best from our non-Catholic neighbors (e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas borrowed from the metaphysics of Aristotle). But I’m not sure preaching anything less then Jesus Christ and Him crucified is constructive (while remaining a risible stumbling block).

  • bonaventure

    Very appropriate picture. I wish Catholics would learn from their Orthodox brothers and sisters in Russia on the recent moral debates.

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  • Uuncle Max

    If by the word ‘dialogue’ is meant simply talking, as opposed to there being no communication at all, I’m all for it, and I do believe that that might be in some small way what the author meant.

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