Conversation and conversion: commitment to dialogue
by Sr. Donna Geernaert, SC
In some ways, dialogue, which is essentially talking, seems a very simple thing to do. Yet, we all know there are various ways of talking. There are words that hurt and words that heal. The Epistle of James (3:1-12) clearly names the challenge. The tongue, he says, is “like a fire” and no one can tame it. “With it we bless the Lord... and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God.” So the kind of talking we do makes a difference. What is distinctive about dialogue, and which makes it potentially prophetic, is that in dialogue, unlike in a debate, words are used not to dominate, control, or defeat another person but to build bridges of understanding. Words can divide or connect; in dialogue, the intent is to establish connections.
What is dialogue?
Writing before the beginning of the third session of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI (in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam
, August 6, 1964) reflects on the compelling motives for the Church’s dialogue with the world in which it lives. Catholics, he says, are called to dialogue principally because of their faith. The basis for this involvement lies, first of all, in the mystery of God, Three-in-One, where Christian revelation allows us to glimpse a life of communion and interchange. Secondly, this same Trinitarian God creates human persons free and able to enter into relationships with God and one another. In fact, the very person of the Incarnate Word, fully human and fully divine, gives concrete expression to this call to dialogue. Thus, those who follow Christ are called by their human and Christian vocation to live dialogue in their daily lives (#58-94).
Some thirty years later, Pope John Paul II includes a lengthy reflection on dialogue in his 1995 encyclical, On Commitment to Ecumenism
(Ut Unum Sint
). He begins by noting that the capacity for dialogue is basic to the very nature of persons and their dignity. An indispensable step toward the self-realization of human individuals and communities, dialogue is not just cognitive but involves the subjectivity of each participant. More than just an exchange of ideas, dialogue is an “exchange of gifts”. While “dialogue is a natural instrument for comparing differing points of view” and examining differences, “the manner and method of expounding the Catholic faith should not hinder dialogue” but respect the way of thinking and actual historical experiences of the other party. “All forms of reductionism or facile ‘agreement’ must be absolutely avoided. Serious questions must be resolved, for if not, they will reappear at another time, either in the same terms or in a different guise”(#28-39).
In May 2004, the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches published a study paper on The Nature and Purpose of Ecumenical Dialogue
, “to encourage the churches to continue their ecumenical dialogue with commitment and perseverance.” In today’s world, fuelled by fundamentalism, new experiences of vulnerability and the impact of globalization, “[dialogue] has become a sine qua non
for nations, churches and cultures ... [it] is an imperative arising from the Gospel, which thus presents a counterchallenge to those who would adopt exclusivist positions” (#1). Formally established and sponsored by ecclesiastical authorities, ecumenical dialogue is ecclesial. Although churches have different understandings of how individuals represent their traditions, all participants “stand within the discipline of their tradition and are accountable to it” (#56). While committed to representing their own ecclesial traditions, dialogue members are also partners in the search for Christian unity. Dialogue “requires seeing the other differently”, changing “patterns of thinking, speaking and acting toward the other” (#39). At times, it also requires examining how a particular ecclesial identity “has been constructed in opposition to the other ... distinguishing between confessional identity as a sign of fidelity to faith, and confessionalism as an ideology constructed in enmity to the other” (#40). Spiritual as well as theological preparation is essential.
A case study: Anglican–Roman Catholic dialogue
The three phases of the international Anglican–Roman Catholic dialogue (ARCIC) show how a specific dialogue group has responded to its perception of a changing ecumenical situation. The first two phases of the dialogue made use of the methodology of consensus ecumenism. ARCIC I, which began in 1970 and issued its Final Report
in 1982, described its method as grounding its work on the original sources of the Gospels and the ancient common traditions to re-examine controverted questions as partners. This led participants to the discovery of a common faith which could be expressed in doctrinal agreements avoiding the emotive language of past polemics. Ultimately, they developed a communion ecclesiology and identified areas of agreement in relation to issues arising from Reformation divisions. ARCIC II, working from 1983 to 2005, recognized that different cultures and new areas of division had arisen in the centuries since the Reformation. With a view to addressing these issues, members deepened the Commission’s method by introducing the concept of re-reception and orienting it to working from the future backwards. The title of its report, Looking Towards a Church Fully Reconciled
, published by ARCIC III in 2016, reflects this eschatological approach, “taking the dialogue ‘ahead of’ as well as ‘behind’ opposed or entrenched positions into an envisioned future unity” (p. 262). Re-reading the Scriptures and the ancient common traditions from the future to the present, members of the dialogue hope to re-receive divisive issues “in the light of the future to which God calls the Church and all creation” (p. 264).
After the conclusion of ARCIC II in 2005, the dialogue was not immediately resumed. The establishment of ARCIC III and reiteration of the original goal of the dialogue in 2011 indicate both long-term confidence in the search for Anglican–Roman Catholic unity and commitment to addressing the more recent obstacles that have emerged. These obstacles specifically raise questions about how contentious matters of decision-making and discernment of right ethical teaching are handled across local, regional, and worldwide levels of church life. Thus, ARCIC III was given a two-part mandate to explore: “The Church as Communion, local and universal, and how in communion the local and universal Church come to discern right ethical teaching.”
Published in 2017, its report, Walking Together on the Way: Learning to Be the Church–Local, Regional, Universal,
addresses the first part of its mandate. Building on the work of its two predecessors, recognizing the development in separation of the two traditions, as well as the current obstacles to full communion and the internal difficulties faced by each tradition, ARCIC III adopted the methodology of receptive ecumenism. This “involves being prepared both to discern what appears to be overlooked or underdeveloped in one’s own tradition and to ask whether such things are better developed in the other tradition. It then requires the openness to ask how such perceived strengths in the other tradition might be able, through receptive learning, to help with the development and enrichment of ecclesial life in one’s own tradition” (#18). It implies looking humbly at what is not working effectively within one’s own tradition and asking whether this might be helped by receptive learning from the understanding, practices, and judgements of the other. It’s not a matter of proving who is right or better than the other but rather, in Christian charity, of being willing to receive from the gifts and example of the other communion.
Towards the future
While doctrinal agreement is important, dialogue aims, as well, at the healing of memories through repentance and mutual forgiveness. In other words, it is a call to conversion. Those who wish to enter into dialogue and establish collaboration with others need to be open to the action of the Holy Spirit within themselves, seeking positively to discern and do the will of God. Receptive ecumenism with its invitation to openness and self-critique is an ecumenical call to conversion. Are our churches ready to respond to this call? What would help them to do so?
For further reading on dialogue, you may be interested in a series of brochures published by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Sr. Dr. Donna Geernaert, SC, served for 18 years in promoting ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. She has been a staff member, consultant, and member of numerous multilateral and bilateral theological dialogues in Canada as well as internationally.