Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Call to be Dialogical Catholics

In the April 13 issue of America, Timothy Radcliffe, OP (pictured at right) shares a challenging yet ultimately hopeful reflection on the “shape of the Church to come” – a Church that is “renewing, liberating, and flourishing.” And, as this first of two Wild Reed posts highlights, it’s also a Church that recognizes the value of dialogue. Indeed, as Radcliffe notes, “teaching [is] inherently dialogical,” based on the example of Jesus, the “man of conversation.” Furthermore, according to the Roman Catholic bishops of Asia, “dialogue is not an alternative to preaching; it is preaching.”

Interestingly, it is from the writings of the Asian bishops that those of us involved in the Twin Cities-based Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (myself included) drew much insight and inspiration in our discernment and articulation of an understanding of Church. For instance, like the bishops, we see the Church as a “communion of communities” based upon acceptance and the fundamental equality among all its members. It’s a Church that is participatory and collaborative in nature, and one that accordingly embodies a dialogical spirit. Accordingly, one of the primary goals of the Coalition’s 2010 Synod is to initiate dialogue and healing around a range of issues currently polarizing our Church. (Do you have doubts that dialogue is connected to healing? Well, just read again the gospel story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenecian woman. Not only did the dialogue that took place between them lead to the woman’s healing, but it also facilitated a change in perspective and thus a change of mind for Jesus! Dialogue that both heals and facilitates evolution of thinking is definitely part of our tradition. Jesus himself modeled it.)

To be sure, it’s a challenging piece that Radcliffe has penned – challenging to both traditionalists and progressives. Why? Well, Radcliffe considers both terms to be “wounding,” and inhibiting of flourishing. I’m not entirely convinced of this. Personally, I feel that self-identification with such terms – if clearly understood and defined – helps us situate ourselves within the broad and living tradition of our Church. I feel I have indeed flourished by recognizing and accepting myself as a “progressive” Catholic, i.e., as a member of the Church who is drawn to this same Church’s capacity to evolve and change in ways that increasingly reveal God’s love in the world. I’m not expecting all Catholics to be at this place, but some of us definitely are and need to be - just as others need to be drawn to emphasize those aspects of the tradition that are discerned by the whole community as needing to be safe-guarded.

I do, however, definitely concur with Radcliffe that as followers of Jesus we should all strive to be diological, i.e., willing and desiring to engage in conversation. Only by such engagement can we figure out what of our tradition is capable of changing and what needs to be conserved as is.

With the need for such discernment clearly evident in our Church and world today – especially in the area of sexuality and gender – it’s certainly an exciting and interesting time of the Church’s ongoing development that we’re living through, don’t you think?

At any rate, following are excerpts from Radcliffe’s insightful article, “The Shape of the Church to Come.” Enjoy!


One of the dichotomies that structured the mindset of the Enlightenment was the opposition between tradition and progress. To be “enlightened” was to cast off the shackles of the past, especially the philosophy of Aristotle and the dogmas of the Catholic Church. So the church was seen as an institution that was of its very nature opposed to modernity. The church often made the mistake of accepting this image instead of challenging the categories that trapped it in the past. In the Syllabus of Errors of 1864, Pope Pius IX condemned as an error that the pope “can and should reconcile himself with progress, liberalism and recent civilization.” So the church was often seen as necessarily opposed to democracy, to freedom, to new ideas and to science.

The Second Vatican Council tried to liberate us from this mental imprisonment, but it is hard to give up entrenched ways of thought, and so many Catholics still define themselves as either “traditionalist” or “progressive.” Such polarization is deeply wounding and inhibits the flourishing of the church. It is as if an antipathy were to develop between the trunk of the tree, the tree’s past, as it were, which holds it high, and the vital surfaces of the leaves, the bark and the roots, which keep it alive.

That old Enlightenment world is fading. The myth of “progress,” its secular faith, is looking pretty implausible as we face ecological disaster and the rise of religious terrorism. For the Enlightenment, if progress becomes doubtful, then one is left with despair or traditionalism. But for Catholicism, this moment could lead us to a renewed, vital sense of tradition in a dynamic interaction with modernity. One consequence is that teaching would again be seen as inherently dialogical.

. . . Teaching about Jesus Christ is necessarily dialogical, because he was a man of conversation. The whole of St. John’s Gospel, from the discussion of John the Baptist with the priests and Levites until Jesus’ final exchange with Peter on the beach, is one probing, exploratory conversation after another. Jesus shares his life and message with the disciples by opening a space of dialogue, a spacious world in which they can abide. The Trinity itself is the eternal, loving, equal, undominative conversation of God. Herbert McCabe, O.P., described our entry into the life of the Trinity as being like a child who hears intelligent adults having a wonderful conversation in a pub. In his book God, Christ and Us, he wrote: “Think for a moment of a group of three or four intelligent adults relaxing together in one of those conversations that have really taken off. They are being witty and responding quickly to each other—what in Ireland they call ‘the Crack.’ Serious ideas may be at issue, but no one is being serious. Nobody is being pompous or solemn (nobody is preaching). There are flights of fancy. There are jokes and puns and irony and mimicry and disrespect and self-parody.... Now this child is like us when we hear about the Trinity.”

So our preaching and teaching as Christians are necessarily conversational. Otherwise we would be like pacifists trying to convince our opponents by beating them up. Indeed, the word “homily” comes from a Greek word meaning “to converse.” Preaching is at the service of conversation that is the church.

Some Christians remain suspicious of dialogue. This was a hot topic at the Asian Synod of Bishops. It was seen by some as potentially relativistic, as if all religions were equal. But nearly all the Asian episcopal conferences disagreed. Indian bishops insisted that dialogue is “the new Asian way of being church.” Dialogue is not an alternative to preaching; it is preaching.

To read Timothy Radcliffe’s “The Shape of the Church to Come” in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
From Rome to Minneapolis, What’s Needed is Dialogue
Canceling Out Dialogue

Recommended Off-site Link:
Civil Discourse. In Church? - Chuck Pilon (Progressive Catholic Voice, January 5, 2009).

One year ago at the Wild Reed:
The Talk of the Archdiocese

Two years ago at the Wild Reed:
Getting the Word Out
The Harvest Within the Heart


Liam said...

Unfortunately, that article is behind the subscriber's firewall, so I will have to await the appearance of the issue in my parish's library. I attended a lecture by Fr Bryan Hehir, former pastor of my parish, on Catholicism global, national and local, and he alluded in a rather different way to Fr Radcliffe's column for America magazine's centenary.

One thing that Fr Hehir mentioned was that a post-modern understanding of truth where reason cannot be trusted to apprehend truths objectively is an understanding that is a mortal enemy of a public morality of social justice, and that one of the most important things the Catholic church does in the world community is act as the chief defender of the idea of the idea that moral truths may be understood by reason in objective terms.

Phillip Clark said...

Liam you can sign up for free! I didn't realize it either myself and thought there had to be some gimmick to force you to pay with a credit card but seriously its all free to enjoy in honor of America's centenial anniversary!

And thanks Michael for highlighting this article! I had seen it on America's site for some time and hadn't ventured into creating an account so I could enjoy it with the benefit of not having to subscribe right now. After reading the article Br. Radcliffe expressed so much of what I'm familiar from hearing from Hans Kung. That the Church assimilated or incorporated systems that were present in the prevealing governments of the time in order to stay relavent and of course to maintain control.

But now that some of these systems are out of date it is indeed time for the Church to consider, perhaps, new methods of adapting to society whiles till respecting the Tradition of the Church. I had forgotten myself the parable where Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as a Tree. I'm so happy I saw this reference because it proves that Our Lord Himself has even shown that at some points the Church must adapt, change, or grow in ever new and challenging ways in order to remain faithful to Him.

Anonymous said...

Restorationism and Modernism are ecumenical conciliar heresies, as is antinomianism. Postmodernism is the synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Derrida, the Jewish secular Trinity, is already post-"poststructuralism." And the citation of every unorthodox cleric and theologian -- who is his or her own authority, while hardly new since the Protestant Reformation -- while papal pronouncements are more draconian and macabre, combine to bring the collapse of Christianity. The numbers in the U.S. that identify as "non-religious" now number the same as "Baptists," and Catholic membership, which goes "up" simply by baptism of population, is now trending down. Less than 3% of Great Britains attend the State's Church.

I appreciate the force that Wild Reed has become for criticism of the Church as understood at Vatican II, which the Church itself (at least the hierarchy) has done everything possible to avoid conformity to its own council. With vapid unorthodoxy of antinomianism set against the vapid orthodoxy of the ultramontane Church, the battle of the Enlightenment and Modernity continue to whittle down with increasing ferocity the Rock of Faith and the Pillar of Truth, the fantastique mythology with an obsessive evangelism against abortion and homosexuality. Not since the Inquisition has the Church engaged in so many purges, which will now include Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Whatever serves to break down and ultimately demolish the great impediment to liberty, justice, and equality under the uniform Rule of Law -- such as Judeo-Christo_Islam -- receives my accolades and support. When the heretics fight the apostates fight the occult -- the warring parties bring upon themselves the implosion from within and the anathema from without. The only question will be what to do with mammoth cathedrals and golden utensils and pearl vestments? Who will want them? All those monstrances without hosts to occupy them.

Keep the demolition up. The sooner we can eviscerate this archaic illiberal and inhumane institution, that subjugates women to men, denies nature and biology, makes warriors instead of peacemakers, slaughters innocents through policies of genocide, the sooner we all will be free of superstition, occultism, and primitive mythology. We'll then be free to take responsibility for ourselves, rather then offer fealty to serfdom.