Friday, January 18, 2013

What Does the Pope Mean By Dialogue?

What the Church has learned from the encounter between revelation and human experience does indeed extend beyond the realm of pure reason, but it is not a separate world that has nothing to say to unbelievers. By entering into the thinking and understanding of mankind, this knowledge broadens the horizon of reason and thus it speaks also to those who are unable to share the faith of the Church. In her dialogue with the state and with society, the Church does not, of course, have ready answers for individual questions. Along with other forces in society, she will wrestle for the answers that best correspond to the truth of the human condition. The values that she recognizes as fundamental and non-negotiable for the human condition she must propose with all clarity. She must do all she can to convince, and this can then stimulate political action.

Address to Roman Curia, December 21, 2012

Reflection – ‘What does the Pope mean by dialogue?’ my favourite commenter asked yesterday. I’ve been travelling here and there and have had lots of appointments this week, so haven’t been able to respond to comments too well. But I think this section of the address answers that particular question pretty well.

The Church is sometimes accused of arrogance, of thinking it has all the answers. Actually, though, since the development of modern Catholic social thinking, the Church, and especially Rome, has been very prudent for the most part in not attempting detailed policy positions on all the issues of the day.

It is the role of democratically elected governments to draft and enact legislation, following the constitutionally mandated procedures of their nations. The Church’s part in the dialogue is to uphold fundamental human values which human legislation must not traduce, and to decry the passage of laws that violate these human values.

In America right now gun control is the hot issue of the day. In Canada, it is aboriginal treaty rights and resource development on native lands. The Church is not about to get all specific in telling either nation how firearm ownership or land use is to be regulated. Basic principles of respect for life, respect for property, for solidarity and for subsidiarity, lively concern for the poor and for natural justice—all of these come to bear directly on these matters. But the Church lacks the competence and the authority to dictate specific solutions.

Dialogue means, for the Pope, what it means for anyone, in other words. I tell you what I believe to be true; you tell me what you believe to be true. Then we all decide in our sovereign free will what to think and what to do. The Church believes itself to have authority from God to teach on matters of faith and morals, and so this claim is part of an authentic honest dialogue. We are not about to change our beliefs because a dialogue partner disagrees with us, as in our view this would be an betrayal of God’s gift to the Church.

But we also believe that the faith and morals God has entrusted to the Church have a reasonable quality to them, and so we don’t just come in with dogmatic guns blazing to blow away the heretics. We have a case to make about fundamental human values and rights that does in fact appeal to human reason, and so we make it. The days are long past, and not returning (thank God, really) when the Church had any political power to enforce its views.

The Church, as the somewhat hackneyed saying goes, cannot impose anything, but only propose. Now some would argue, perhaps, that the dialogue model I describe is pretty one-sided – the Church teaching and proposing, but not willing to modify its own views one bit. But I don’t think that’s quite true.

Yes, we cannot change the permanent deposit of faith and the moral implications of that faith which we honestly believe God has given us. It’s not ours; it’s God’s, and that’s the end of the matter. But I think the Church does listen, slowly and carefully, to the voices of humanity. There is an Ent-like quality to this listening, a deliberate lack of haste in response. This is because the Vatican considers itself to have a divine mandate and binding authority on its faithful, and hence a serious responsibility to measure its words carefully.

But listen it does—a fair reading of what the Church has said in the last half-century about women’s rights, environmental issues, war and peace, economic justice shows that the dialogue has been a true dialogue. The eternal principles and mores abide, but the Church does listen to what is being said elsewhere, and responds with care.
Well, enough (ahem, more than enough) for one day. Á demain!

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