“Dialogue is our method… The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.” —Pope Francis, Address to the U.S. Bishops, September 23, 2015
In the halls of Catholic chanceries around the world, the term “dialogue” has become an Eastern mantra, repeated over and over as if the word itself has the spiritual power to break down divisions, heal wounds, and bring about the Age of Aquarius (although I’d prefer a return to the Age of Aquinas). Do a Google search on the Vatican website for the word “dialogue;” you’ll get over 33,000 results while words like “evangelization” and “conversion” return less than half as many. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops alone is currently involved in more than 20 official “dialogues” with various religious groups. Dialogue is lit.
On the other hand, the Bible tells the story of a world sharply divided between those who follow God and those who do not. Salvation history is the tale of setting apart one group of people from the rest of the world, and the dangers that arise when that set-apart people mixes with other peoples. This is a theme that runs from Genesis, when Abraham and his descendants are set apart to be God’s people, to Revelation, when the final, permanent, division will occur.
It’s also the message of Our Lord. Without Googling, can you name how often Jesus commanded his followers to dialogue with others? Spoiler alert: zero times. In fact, Jesus often divided the world into separate camps, be it the wheat and the chaff or the sheep and the goats. He even stated, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
What then explains the dichotomy between the message of Sacred Scripture and the message of today’s Catholic shepherds when it comes to the importance of dialogue? It can be boiled down to one thing: Original Sin. The Bible recognizes it whereas many Church leaders tacitly deny its existence.
In the Old Testament, the theme of division, not dialogue, is clear and explicit from the beginning: Noah is set apart from the world; Abraham is called out of pagan lands; and Moses leads the chosen people out of Egypt. Even before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, the Bible recounts in detail exactly how this people is to be set apart to be holy; the term “holy,” in fact, means “set apart for a sacred purpose.” The laws the Lord gives Moses on Mt. Sinai distinguish His people from other pagan peoples. He commands the Israelites to empty the Promised Land of pagans, which they do with only moderate success, leading to tragedy down the road. Later, when the king and the people are faithful to their call to be set apart, the kingdom flourishes, but whenever they mix with the pagans, the kingdom withers and eventually dies.
What about the New Covenant? We live now in a time in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female,” right? Yet even the New Testament calls for clear division between peoples. As I’ve already noted, Christ himself said He came to bring division. Christ did not come to “dialogue” with those opposed to Him; in fact, He typically had one of three responses for them: He ignored them, He condemned them, or He let them kill Him. He told His disciples to shake the dust off their feet and move on when a town didn’t listen to their message. His most vicious opponents, the Pharisees, were met with a withering condemnation by Our Lord. And Christ did not try to engage His opponents when He was arrested; in fact, He frustrated them by His refusal to discuss whether or not He was the Messiah. Christ healed, forgave, preached, and admonished—but He didn’t “dialogue.”
Our Lord’s greatest missionary, St. Paul, could be called the Apostle of Division. Although many lovers of dialogue today love to quote the passage about “neither Jew nor Greek” from his Letter to the Galatians, they forget that Paul proclaimed a new division brought about by the coming of Christ, i.e., those who are “in Christ” and those who are not. And the apostle makes it clear who are not in Christ: “neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Though St. Paul fought against divisions inside the Body of Christ, he recognized that disciples of Christ cannot be united to disciples of the world, even urging Christians not to intermarry with unbelievers.
Paul’s views were not unique among the first Christians. The Apostle John warns Christians in his First Letter: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” St. John understood that a follower of Christ cannot make an alliance with the world without breaking his alliance with God.
Clearly, if there’s an overarching warning in the Bible, it’s that God’s people must remain distinct from the world.
This attitude is contrary to what we hear frequently from many Church leaders. Today we are told that dialogue will unite nations, end factions, and help us lose that extra 15 pounds we’ve carried around since college. The push for dialogue began in the 1960’s, when the world was desperate for peace after two destructive world wars. It was Pope Paul VI who first added the word “dialogue” to the Church’s vocabulary as a method of approaching the modern world. The intention was to move away from conflict, believing that reasonable dialogue would bring about agreement and peace.
There’s just one problem with this approach: Original Sin. Ultimately, conflict in this world is due not to the intellect but the will. Our wills, however, like our intellects, are fallen, which means we often don’t want to do what is reasonable and right. We’re attracted to evil, even when our intellect knows it is evil; we convince ourselves it is actually good.
The reason the Scriptures are filled with so many warnings against mixing with unbelievers is that God knows we will inevitably be attracted to joining them in their idolatry, paganism, and sin. Due to Original Sin, we are not naturally attracted to Christian virtues like sacrifice, chastity, and obedience. Further, people don’t interact with evil without eventually succumbing to it.
When we examine the history of Catholic inter-religious dialogue, we see how quickly man can embrace something that was unthinkable previously, as a result of consistent exposure to it. Consider the progression: Seventy years ago, Catholics were forbidden to engage in any type of religious activities with non-Catholics. Thirty years ago, the pope was hosting a joint prayer service with people of non-Christian religions, although he stressed that each religion was praying separately. Today, the Vatican is hosting religious ceremonies directed toward pagan idols.
In less than two generations, “dialogue” with other religions has evolved from condemnation to tolerance to tacit acceptance to explicit promotion.
So does this mean that Catholics are called to live like the Amish? No, that’s not the way of a Church that has transformed civilizations throughout her history. But neither is the continued cozying up to other religions the path forward. Catholics must make clear the separation—the division—between the True Faith and all other religions, instead of bending over backwards to blur the differences. Continuing on the primrose path of dialogue will only lead us to a similar fate as ancient Israel, i.e., captivity and exile in the strange land of pagan idols, immoral practices, syncretic liturgies, and false beliefs. Only by being holy—set apart—can Catholics follow the path the Bible has laid out for disciples of Christ.
Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images