211. In a pluralistic society, dialogue is the best way to realize what ought always to be affirmed and respected apart from any ephemeral consensus. Such dialogue needs to be enriched and illumined by clear thinking, rational arguments, a variety of perspectives and the contribution of different fields of knowledge and points of view. Nor can it exclude the conviction that it is possible to arrive at certain fundamental truths always to be upheld. Acknowledging the existence of certain enduring values, however demanding it may be to discern them, makes for a robust and solid social ethics. Once those fundamental values are acknowledged and adopted through dialogue and consensus, we realize that they rise above consensus; they transcend our concrete situations and remain non-negotiable. Our understanding of their meaning and scope can increase – and in that respect, consensus is a dynamic reality – but in themselves, they are held to be enduring by virtue of their inherent meaning.
In this passage in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis prescribes “dialogue” as the remedy for the social evils that afflict us in the age of social media and mass polarization. The same, however, could be said of many commentators in the public square. It seems that these days one can scarcely listen to any Very Serious Person in government, media, or academia without being lectured about concepts like dialogue, encounter, unity, listening, and so forth. And yet very few of us ever do listen; most people in society are like the characters in Shirley Jackson’s satirical novel The Sundial, perpetually monologuing at one another, only paying the slightest attention to everybody else’s monologues when it cannot be avoided or when it provides an excuse for attacking someone.
These days it seems as if one can’t turn anywhere or discuss any serious subject for a significant length of time without running into all sorts of accusations and refusals to listen or understand. Within Catholicism one is always hearing people called heretics or baby-killers or MAGA bigots or ultramontanists or dissenters, or even worse (and less germane) insults like demons or sociopaths. (This last is a particularly low blow for any Catholic to deal because it uses a debilitating psychological impairment as a genericized insult; I would argue that it contributes, around the edges, to the culture of death.) In synods and bishops’ conferences, prelates often act more like parliamentarians. Pope Francis avoided making a decision in favor of ordaining married men (the so-called viri probati) after the Amazon Synod specifically because the proposals made for and against the idea during the synod had been mere rhetoric and argument, put forward to entrench unofficial party lines rather than to discern, to convince, or even to legislate. As Francis said in Let Us Dream, “Amazonia and its peoples were again ignored and silenced, because some media and pressure groups had decided that the synod had been called to resolve one particular issue” (90).
I have been guilty of this myself; when I run into people in ideological or cultural groups that I disapprove of, my instinct is to register my disapproval, maybe get in a couple of good zingers or “epic clapbacks,” and then mosey on my way. I do not seek to exculpate myself; if anything, I think that I am even more implicated than most, because I am perfectly happy to engage with ideas and people I oppose, as long as that engagement comes in the context of art or literature. In other words, I am no better than most other people at dialogue, even though I am more willing than most people to be monologued at. What to make of this, I do not know.
For example, I’m currently reading Angela Carter’s 1979 short story collection The Bloody Chamber. The Bloody Chamber is a feminist classic and one of the earliest works of serious English literature to attempt the literary reappraisal of fairy tales that many readers are familiar with today through authors like Susanna Clarke and Neil Gaiman. It is also a profane, ludicrously violent and sexual work by an author who thought of the Marquis de Sade as a proto-feminist figure, and when religion appears in it, it is usually described with contempt. One story describes a “malign barn of a church,” and in another the protagonist is abused by a group of nuns.
A Catholic unaccustomed to dialogue, who was merely focused on imposing his or her own vision on the world at all costs and constantly lecturing other people without ever listening to them, would probably refuse in a huff to read a book like The Bloody Chamber. If sufficiently inclined to invective and melodrama, they might even fulminate against it publicly without reading it. I’m reminded of the Franciscan University of Steubenville English class fracas from 2019, in which traditionalist media outlets like Church Militant forced the demotion of the chair of the university’s English department for assigning a profane book about the Gospels by agnostic author Emmanuel Carrère in a seminar, then harassed the president of the university into resigning. While I’m too young to remember the even more intense controversies about John Paul II-era profane or sacrilegious art like The Last Temptation of Christ or various Madonna music videos, I have heard enough anecdotes about them that they come to mind as well. (One might say that the real “bloody chamber” is the comment section of your typical Catholic website.)
But I’ve always found it interesting and bracing to listen to what Angela Carter has to say, ever since first encountering her work when I was in high school. If I did not, how would I understand the full gamut of people with whom I share the world? There are all sorts of people on this planet who are heavily invested in hostility to the Church or in advancing perspectives on sex and death that orthodox Catholics reject. Are we never to talk to or about these people, or let them talk to us or about us? Pope Francis does not allow us that easy way out.
(Of course, Carter herself was also talking to writers—Perrault, de Sade—who could not talk back. One assumes she was just as interested in what they had to say as I am in what she has to say.)
I wish that I was more able to use that sort of insight as a jumping-off point to dialogue—even commune—with the people whose discordant beliefs and views and interests I actually encounter. I know the edgy atheists and tiresome trads I run into online or in parish life have just as much to contribute to the world as anybody. And besides, if I don’t encounter them and never speak—really speak—with them, how can I hope for the fundamental values in which I believe they are lacking to be “acknowledged and adopted through dialogue and consensus”? To refuse dialogue is to hamstring one’s own position; is it to be unable to convince, as well as being unable to be convinced. I can no longer convince the deceased writer of a 1970s fantasy anthology of anything, true; but many of those with whom I refuse dialogue and who refuse dialogue with me are still among the living. The truth is that to refuse dialogue is to be unable to love anybody, because one cannot love without encounter, without knowledge and respect of the other with whom one is faced.
If one is capable of love, one is capable of dialogue. Dialogue is in itself a loving act, and is rooted in charity. Love saves us, not through dialogue, but for it.