If you read church documents, especially those written after the Second Vatican Council, you will see a heavy emphasis on dialogue. Ecumenical Dialogue. Dialogue with the world. Dialogue with sinners. These are not bad things, but by framing the Church’s interactions with those outside the Church as “dialogue” we make a fatal tactical error.
Dialogue implies a free exchange of ideas. However in terms of religion, the Church is the repository of the Truth in its fullness. She doesn’t have anything to learn from other religions. What is good in them is already contained in the Catholic Church.
Dialogue implies conversation between equals. A teacher’s job is not to engage in dialogue with her students, she is to instruct them. A parent does not engage in dialogue with her children, she guides and rears them. Of course a good teacher or parent listens to their charges, and adapts accordingly but never as an exchange between equals.
Christ took the time to make personal connections and many were deeply touched by his message. For instance, in the episode with the woman at the well, Christ makes a bold act of empathy by breaking a cultural taboo and speaking to a Samaritan woman. But simultaneously he informs her that salvation is from the Jews and that her current lifestyle is wrong. From the outset Christ is embracing the sinner and explicitly condemning the sin.
Likewise in Athens, St. Paul takes time to understand the Athenians, their religiosity and desire for knowledge, and uses that as an entry point to preach the gospel. But the gospel he preaches is uncompromising and makes no concessions to pagan sensibilities. He condemns paganism and teaches the need for repentance, then finally invites considerable mockery by preaching the resurrection of the dead.
These successful uses of dialogue as a tool of evangelization illustrate that dialogue is useful only when it is used to set the stage for bold evangelization.
Many who boldly denounce the moral deficiencies of our time are chastised over manner and tone because they allegedly disrupt dialogue. The problem with this mentality is that denunciation of the sins of the people is a very Catholic activity and an essential priestly one. John the Baptist, the prophets of old and Christ Himself did not mince words, and all these men provoked violent reaction. Are we attempting to be more subtle in our approach to sinners than Christ?
And what are the fruits of dialogue that make disrupting it so dangerous for the Church? The fruits of dialogue aren’t just rotten, they don’t exist. Six decades of dialogue have not produced unification amongst churches or non-Christians. Instead, the sacramental life of the Church is in free fall, the state of catechesis is appalling, and the hierarchy is preoccupied with chasing approval from a world that will never grant it.
We know dialogue is doomed in any case. In our society there is a vast swath of people who consider contrary opinions in and of themselves to be a form of violence. No matter how couched, oblique and nuanced one may be, any sort of condemnation or critique of their behavior will be taken as aggression. Anything less than unhesitating acceptance is violence.
It is a principle of management that failure should not be reinforced. To continue to cling to the myth that the Church can engage in dialogue with the world after generations of disaster is a mark of uninspired leadership. Dialogue had its chance, or rather chances. It’s time for a new strategy.