7. Dialogue. This is a delicate one. Everybody believes in dialogue, including the present author. So many needless hurts, misunderstandings, even fights could be avoided if we would just sit down and talk things over. Nothing is sweeter in marriage than dialogue between a husband a wife. The same can be said of every healthy family and of course every viable parish.

Still dialogue does have its limitations. A story from my years in Peru might illustrate the problem. In our parish we were constructing a wall a few feet high and about thirty feet long to mark off a path to a small prayer chapel. We had all the adobe blocks laid out ready to build it the next day. However that night one of our neighbors took the blocks and threw up a wall which not only increased his property, but prevented our entrance to the chapel by that path. I was furious. I told the pastor, a young Peruvian priest, that I would go talk the neighbor. He said to me, "Felipe, there are some people you just don't talk with. You act." And he did. He organized four or five catechists who tore down the wall and rebuilt it in the correct spot. The neighbor, coward that he was, sent his wife and daughter to protest, "Why did you tear down our wall?!" At that point, some actual dialogue could begin.

The young Peruvian priest was right. Dialogue depends on mutual respect. Sometimes clear boundaries must be established before respectful conversation can take place.

Like that neighbor who used our blocks to build his wall, dissent has grown more and more bold in the Catholic Church. In spite of a certain whining about "repression" the Church has been remarkably indulgent to dissenters. Figure that some 60 U.S. "theologians" signed a statement dissenting from Humanae Vitae within 24 hours of its promulgation in July of 1968. Far from being "repressed" they kept their teaching positions and achieved a certain fame. Matthew Fox's full page newspaper ad notwithstanding, he, along with Boff, Kung and a few others, can hardly be compared to victims of the Inquisition.

It has been a painfully slow process, but the Church is gradually putting the boundary markers where they belongs. This has caused an outcry from those who want to change the Church's position. Most recently, we have seen this regarding the Catholic teaching on male only priesthood and homosexuality. When the pope issued Sacerdotio Ordinalis, which explained that the Church does not have authority to ordain women, the immediate cry was for continued "dialogue." The Vatican responded that "the dialogue is over." What was meant was not that there would be no further conversation or explanation (the new book issued from Rome on the topic is evidence against that view) but that the boundaries must be respected for true dialogue to take place.

Many of those calling for "dialogue" do not really want it. This was the case for example in a symposium on homosexuality entitled "The Church Teaching/ Teaching the Church" (March 7-9, 1997, Pittsburgh). It featured groups which dissent from the Church's teaching but it did not include a group like "Courage" which encourages homosexuals to live chastity. So much for dialogue. They apparently did not want to hear Courage's view that through "self mastery, prayer, the sacraments and grace, a homosexual can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection." This is a difficult teaching, but the Church asks no less of any single person, indeed of any married couple.

I have had jolting experiences trying myself to dialogue with those calling for change in the Church's teaching. Perhaps Fr. Andrew Greeley is an extreme case, but my attempt to dialogue with him resulted in a rather harsh put-down. It was delivered in the same "rigid authoritarian" style he criticizes in the pope and bishops. I have to admit I was hurt by it because Fr. Greeley had been one of my heroes from seminary days and I have gained a lot from his writings over the years. However I came to the sad conclusion that when he points a finger at "right wing kooks" for their absoluteness and rigidity, at least a couple of his fingers are pointing back at himself. Perhaps someday I will publish that correspondence on this site. For now it is enough to note that calls for dialogue are not always matched by willingness to respectfully engage people who have an opposing view.

Respect is the key word here. An essential part of respect is learning where the other person's boundaries are and not violating them. Like the wall delineating the path to the prayer chapel in my Peruvian parish, it is important to establish certain markers and honor them. Not everyone may be able to walk that path, but to build a different wall can block people's access to God Himself. If someone tries to do that, the Church needs to follow the example of the young Peruvian priest. Organize a group of catechists to tear down the false barrier and build a guiding wall which will help people stay on the right path. Only in that way can genuine dialogue take place. Those who walk the path to God's house will not only be able to talk with each other, but also with those whose lives intersect the path at some point. True dialogue demands respect for boundary markers.


A challenge to those who dissent from Church Teaching.

Your e-mail comments are welcome

For more on the struggle between watered down Christianity (dissent) and its full bodied version, see my review of Flawed Expectations.

Related Articles: Birth Control, Women Priests, Confession, and The Way to Salvation.