Friday, August 21, 2009

What, Then, Does "Dialogue" Mean?

I suppose many of us have heard of the recent clarification issued by the doctrine committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops with regard to the document "Reflections on Covenant and Mission." This document, while not an official document of the USCCB, was written by Jewish and Catholic leaders involved in interfaith dialogue, the Catholic leaders being advisors to the USCCB's Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. This new clarification from the USCCB states that this document "contains some statements that are insufficiently precise and potentially misleading," principally those statements dealing with evangelization and the Jewish people. In short, this document presented a "diminished notion of evangelization" in lacking any affirmation of the central role of evangelization in the Church's mission. Allow me to quote at length two passages:

Reflections on Covenant and Mission maintains that a definition of evangelization as the
"invitation to a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ and to entry through baptism into the
community of believers which is the Church" is a "very narrow construal" of her mission.8 In its effort to present a broader and fuller conception of evangelization, however, the document
develops a vision of it in which the core elements of proclamation and invitation to life in Christ seem virtually to disappear. For example, Reflections on Covenant and Mission proposes interreligious dialogue as a form of evangelization that is "a mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism." Though Christian participation in interreligious dialogue would not normally include an explicit invitation to baptism and entrance into the Church, the Christian dialogue partner is always giving witness to the following of Christ, to which all are implicitly invited.
. . . . . . .
Reflections on Covenant and Mission, however, renders even the possibility of individual
conversion doubtful by a further statement that implies it is generally not good for Jews to
convert, nor for Catholics to do anything that might lead Jews to conversion because it threatens to eliminate "the distinctive Jewish witness": "Their [the Jewish people's] witness to the kingdom, which did not originate with the Church's experience of Christ crucified and raised, must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity." Some caution should be introduced here, since this line of reasoning could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the Church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews.

This clarification has aroused outcries from major Jewish organizations, who stated that this clarification is "antithetical to the very essence of Jewish-Christian dialogue as we have understood it," because if the goal of dialogue is to convert Jews, then dialogue becomes "untenable." The ADL says that this clarification represents "an objectionable understanding of Jewish-Catholic relations," principally because it reaffirms the obligation of Jews to convert and of the Church to baptize Jews. According to the ADL, even merely using dialogue as a means to invite Jews to Christian baptism is "unacceptable," because it "would foster mistrust between Jews and Catholics and undermine years of work building a positive relationship based on mutual trust and respect of our differences in faith."

I ask: What, then, does "dialogue" mean? Is it merely presenting our religious views to each other? In other words, is it merely clarificatory? Under what impression have the ADL and the Jewish groups involved in interfaith dialogue been all these years? It is quite clear that at least the ADL has assumed that such dialogue has as its purpose the fighting of anti-Semitism and recognition of the validity of the Jewish religion (in other words, the aim of such dialogue is that of the ADL itself).

It seems obvious to me that this entire episode -- the original Jewish-Catholic document "Reflections," the recent clarification by the USCCB, and the reaction of the major Jewish groups -- reveals something fundamentally important: we have not conveyed to our "partners in dialogue" what true ecumenism is. True ecumenism cannot take place outside the Church's mission to evangelize, and therefore it is part and parcel of evangelization. I would venture to say that true ecumenism is always evangelization, properly, appropriately, charitably done.

The more fundamental problem here can easily go unnoticed, but allow me to draw it out. The divergence here between the true Catholic understanding of dialogue and ecumenism and the understanding of the ADL and the other protesting Jewish groups is radical and perhaps insurmountable: it is a problem of the order of goods. The Catholic understanding presupposes that the greatest good is life with God forever, and that therefore no earthly good (including [false] "tolerance" and "respect") ought to curtail the Church's evangelizing of all peoples. Dialogue with non-Catholics, then, always looks to this greatest good, as a precept of charity. For the ADL and the other protesting Jewish groups, it seems that the fundamental goal of dialogue is not helping each other along the way to eternal salvation, but rather an understanding of and respect for each other's views, to which evangelizing is, according to them, directly contrary. Tolerance, understanding, and respect are the end of dialogue, not one's eternal salvation. Now whatever their reasons for this different understanding (and we, as Catholics, must understand that this difference is to be expected), this very divergence tends to vitiate interfaith dialogue itself, for the ultimate end of dialogue for us -- evangelization, witness to Christ -- runs counter to the end of dialogue as they construe it. Even if the dialogue is explicitly circumscribed within very narrow limits -- say, the Church in India is in dialogue with leaders of the Hindi religion for the sake of promoting those goods that both religions hold in common -- even within these limits, dialogue always is evangelical: as Catholics we must always witness to Christ. And the very fact that we must always so witness will irk those for whom religion is not a matter of eternal salvation and damnation and those for whom religion is merely subjective.

A final thought: this episode bears witness to the "Emperor's new clothes" character of ecumenism as it is often trumpeted and practiced, at least in this country. Where have we gotten, if our "partners in dialogue" don't even recognize WHY we are in dialogue with them?


  1. Hey Travis,

    Very good reflection. You're right; the ADL and many (most?) Jewish groups see dialogue as a presentation of beliefs, wherein beliefs are like ice cream: I like chocolate, you like vanilla, if we find get a sherbet and maybe a mint chocolate chip, we can put them all together and celebrate diversity!

    And, honestly, (while disagreeing with this view) I'm not trying to mock this view. The Jewish people went through the Holocause only 2 generations ago, and it's still (for some) in living memory. This changes their conception of God. Many Jews still do religious rituals, but can no longer bring themselves to believe in a personal God after the Shoah. In a sense, their worship services are similar to unitarians, whereby religion is a social comfort, not a search for transcendent truths and eternal life.

    I'm not sure what the common ground for dialogue would be between Catholics (who believe in the need to evangelize) and Jewish groups like the ADL who see each person's religion as true for themselves.

  2. The ADL and similar groups view religion through our modern liberal Enlightenment lens, whereby religion is like cigarettes, okay as long as we take it outside and promise to put out every last ember of carcinogenic belief before rejoining polite society.

    That is, religion is fine so long as we don't put our faith in Christ (and the need to evangelize) ahead of the (secular) need to be open-minded, tolerant, etc.

    Stanley Fish described this mindset well in an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times 3 years ago, right after the Danish cartoon fiasco. Here's a quote:

    "The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously. This is managed by the familiar distinction — implied in the First Amendment's religion clause — between the public and private spheres. It is in the private sphere — the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship — that one's religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior.

    But in the public sphere, the argument goes, one's religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection. You can still have them and express them — that's what separates us from theocracies and tyrannies — but they should be worn lightly. Not only must there be no effort to make them into the laws of the land, but they should not be urged on others in ways that make them uncomfortable. What religious beliefs are owed — and this is a word that appears again and again in the recent debate — is "respect"; nothing less, nothing more."