Cambridge, MA. Today's New York Times article  on the St. Louis meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious highlights the mature and peaceful tone of the sisters’ closing statement. It seems to seek a dialogue on the matters under debate, a dialogue of equals that premises the dignity of all involved in the dialogue — the sisters, the members of the CDF, and the bishops appointed to correct the LCWR. The article also, however, recalls Archbishop Levada’s comment in June on the pointlessness of a “dialogue of the deaf,” since, as the NYT report recalls, “some Vatican officials have already indicated exasperation with the nuns’ insistence on perpetual dialogue. They say that church doctrine is not open for dialogue.”
(Note to deaf readers: please be tolerant of all this discussion of deafness: I know you have many subtle and successful ways of dialoguing, and that physical deafness need not be a roadblock to understanding. It is the hear-abled who have much to learn about listening.)
I’ve not yet read the documents related to this particular NYT report, but the mention again of the fear of a “dialogue of the deaf” and the indication that the matter is “not open for dialogue” prompts me to suggest that this is an occasion when the CDF might learn from the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue and from innumerable Catholics, on how dialogue works. The experience of the last 50 years of Catholics in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue has been enormous, and many a Catholic, even some bishops, have matured in the art of speaking as a Catholic, with Catholic commitments, in a real conversation across religious borders — without compromising Catholic truths and without demeaning the other by giving the distinct impression that the Church has nothing to learn from others, in their presumably inferior religions.
It is an art to find a way to dialogue with Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, on issues of importance, without the apparatus of dialogue quickly declining into an interreligious “dialogue of the deaf.” The Pontifical Council, in its 1991 Dialogue and Proclamation, made the case for the possibility and necessary of respectful and mutually open and humble dialogue across religious boundaries, and the CDF might learn from such documents about the nature of dialogue.
Or the CDF might learn from its own documents. Even Dominus Iesus, in its chilly manner, catches something of the paradox of commitment to dialogue, since doctrinal truth does not preclude uncompromised respect for the individuals involved: “Equality, which is a presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relation to the founders of the other religions.” Both a commitment to Christ and a non-negotiable respect for the “equal personal dignity” of the parties in dialogue are required. How this might work has always been unclear - to respect a person but know in advance that the truth is on my side, not hers - but at least we can say that Dominus Iesus is expressing the hope that dialogue is not to be excluded, in conversation with non-Christians. We can look too to the CDF’s 2007 “Doctrinal Note ?on Some Aspects of Evangelization” which, quoting Vatican II, nicely captures the two-edged necessity of commitment to truth in dialogue: “The Second Vatican Council, after having affirmed the right and the duty of every person to seek the truth in matters of religion adds: ‘The search for truth, however, must be carried out in a manner that is appropriate to the dignity of the human person and his social nature, namely, by free enquiry with the help of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue. It is by these means that people share with each other the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in such a way that they help one another in the search for truth.’ In any case, the truth ‘does not impose itself except by the strength of the truth itself.’ Therefore, to lead a person’s intelligence and freedom in honesty to the encounter with Christ and his Gospel is not an inappropriate encroachment, but rather a legitimate endeavor and a service capable of making human relationships more fruitful.” Dialogue, then, is not merely sitting down and talking; it is not a conversation in which anything can be said without any possibility of disagreement, but neither is it an instruction in which one side speaks the other side listens and submits. The CDF may already know these things from its own documents and by learning from the Pontifical Council, but might review them at this point in this critical encounter with the sisters. Or even more simply and directly, everyone involved may take to heart the virtues for dialogue Catherine Cornille, Professor and Chair of Theology at Boston College, describes in her 2008 book, The (Im)possibility of Interreligious Dialogue: humility, conviction, interconnection, empathy, and generosity. She does not say this, I think, but these five virtues promise a cure for deafness in dialogue, and are required virtues to have in place as any dialogue begins.
BUT, some readers may be thinking, dialogue with other Christians and with non-Christians may be easier today than dialogue inside the Church. We often feel the most tension and suffer the greatest passion when we are in conversation with those who are supposed to be most like us, with whom we share the Gospel in adhering to the same Catholic faith. Appearances can be deceiving: When the hoped-for dialogue is to be among Catholics, one may think there is no need for respect for the mystery of the other, because there is no mystery about other Catholics; one may think there is no need to admit that even after all this time, the hierarchy and the wider Catholic community do not know one another; one may think there will be no anxiety that I may be imposing my terminology and worldview of people who, though sharing the faith, see and articulate the world in words not identical with my own. Power may work more relentlessly inside the Church, and seem to obviate dialogue, but when it does, it also delays indefinitely the fruits of dialogue. But really: after all this time, we seem not to know each other all that well, and perhaps the bishops do not know the sisters, and the sisters do not know the bishops. There is a need for a dialogue, but dialogue inside the Church may be more exotic than an exchange of Catholics and Daoists.
The point then of the dialogue the LCWR surely includes this: as in dialogue with non-Christians, the mystery of how God works differently with different people is very much pertinent in the Church too. We do not know each other so well that we can take each other for granted, as if "we" know in advance whether and how God is working in "them." This new and necessary dialogue need not be a dialogue of the deaf, because the Church is in some contexts already better at dialogue. If pursued with the same humility we bring to interreligious dialogue, a dialogue of bishops and sisters might be a healing balm for what ails us all. The dialogue can begin at least with a firm, implemented respect for “the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue,” or even with an application in the Church of the words of Nostra Aetate (1965): “The Church regards with sincere attentiveness those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless by no means rarely reflect the radiance of that Truth which enlightens all people.”
Or with a bit of August whimsy: all those on the CDF and LCWR leadership team might spend a few years learning to dialogue with non-Christians friends, and with that wisdom try again: a dialogue of those who have learned to listen.