What Makes for Genuine Dialogue

In his final public address on October 24, 1996, Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin spoke these moving words. "A dying person does not have time for the peripheral or the accidental. He or she is drawn to the essential, the important - yes, the eternal. And what is important, my friends, is that we find that unity with the Lord and within the community of faith for which Jesus prayed so fervently on the night before he died."

It was Cardinal Bernardin who, concerned by the increasing polarization of the Catholic church in the U.S. , launched the Common Ground Initiative. The priest who staffed the conferences, lectures, meetings, and publications of that initiative was Fr. Philip Murnion, founder and director of the National Pastoral Life Center. Before his death to cancer this past August, Phil Murnion wrote a letter to the nation's bishops: "If I were to sum up my final plea to you, it would be: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue!"

"I know from experience," wrote Murnion, "that many have sought diligently to consult and communicate with your priests and people alike. But in this time of crisis, of both possibility and peril, we face the urgent need imaginatively to expand present structures and to create new ones that will enable us to draw more effectively upon the rich wisdom of those baptized in water and the Holy Spirit. Permit me, then, with the last breaths the Spirit gives me to implore you: Do not be afraid to embrace this spirituality of communion, this 'little way' of dialogue with one another, with your priests, with all God's faithful. Doing so, you will touch not only the hearts of your brothers and sisters; you will draw closer to the very heart of Jesus, the Lord and brother of us all."

Phil Murnion is not the only one proposing dialogue these days. The National Pastoral Life Center held it's 20th Annual Parish Convention in mid-November in New York City. One of the workshops was entitled "Dialogue: Lessons from the Common Ground Initiative (CGI)." The workshop leader, Sr. Catherine Patten, currently coordinator of the CGI, related some perspectives emerging from contemporary social scientists on the subject of dialogue. David Bohm, the author of On Dialogue, says that when you let people dialogue without a set agenda, they often go deeper into what really matters to them than if you structure the discussion.

Another writer, Margaret Wheatly, reports in Leadership and the New Science, that what looks like total chaos in quantum physics eventually reveals patterns, but they're not the patterns one expected. However, if one allows for a little randomness and chaos, new perspectives and possibilities emerge.

In The Magic of Dialogue, David Yankelovich champions dialogue as a way to work in organizations. While hierarchy and dialogue are in tension with one another-you have to enter into dialogue on a level playing field-dialogue is helpful to making good decisions. It does not need to be either/or: you can separate the moment of decision-making from the experience of dialogue, e.g. a CEO can participate in dialogue on an equal footing with employees, and a week later make an informed decision.

What church today cannot find some food for thought in these observations? The far left generally likes dialogue because "I'm so right that if you just listen long enough, you'll come to see things my way." And the far right's attitude is, "I have the truth, so why do I need to talk with you? If you want it, just come to where I am." How true it is that we tend to go to meetings and conferences with people that we agree with.

But the invitation to seek out the common ground cannot be limited to those who agree with one another, but must encompass all-whether centrists, liberals, radicals, conservatives, or neoconservatives-who are willing to reaffirm basic truths and to pursue their disagreements in a renewed spirit of dialogue.

The underlying issues, as always, are money, sex, and power. To understand why the sexual abuse crisis was so explosive, one only need observe that it involved all three. It was not by accident that from the third century on in the life of the church, Christian communal living was built upon the three gospel antidotes of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The spirituality of religious still life seeks to consecrate those appetites to cultivating self-transcending love.

As we seek to engage the difficult issues together, the founding document of the Common Ground Initiative-"Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril" cites principles of dialogue that are worth pinning to the wall:

1- We should recognize that no single group or viewpoint in the church has a complete monopoly on the truth.

2- We should not envision ourselves or any one part of the church a saving remnant.

3- We should test all proposals for their pastoral realism and potential impact on living individuals as well as for their theological truth.

4- We should presume that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith.

5- We should put the best possible construction on differing positions, addressing their strongest points rather than seizing upon the most vulnerable aspects in order to discredit them.

6- We should be cautious in ascribing motives.

7- We should bring the church to engage the realities of contemporary culture by acknowledging both our culture's valid achievements and real dangers.
(For fuller version, see http://www.nplc.org/commonground/dialogue.htm

In all that I heard, I was struck by the applicability of these perspectives and principles, not just to the dynamics within any given church, but to the relationships between them as well. "Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue!"

Thomas Ryan, CSP, coordinates the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in New York City.