Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.
– Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (223)
From Evangelii Gaudium to Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis has been calling ceaselessly for dialogue in a wide variety of contexts. In a world of ideological gridlock, Pope Francis exhorts us to pursue genuine dialogue with those from different cultures, faith backgrounds, and belief systems. He believes that engaging in dialogue is the way to establish genuine fraternity, build bridges, and bring about peace in our rapidly developing global society. However, it seems that many of us do not have ears to hear. The word “dialogue” rings hollow to us; its meaning evaporates. This is not surprising, given that one of the characteristic features of our time, particularly in North America, is that dialogue has been squeezed out of public life, replaced with the seemingly endless and furious exchange of opinions. We have traded dialectic for pure rhetoric.
Last week, Paul Fahey wrote a response to Bishop Robert Barron’s June 28 op-ed in the New York Post. In Bishop Barron’s piece, where he discussed the refusal of pro-choice US politicians to consider any and all legal restrictions on abortion, he asked, “What precisely is there to dialogue about?” In his response, informed by the teaching of Pope Francis, Paul offered a different approach to dialogue, one that is founded on hope, friendship, and finding common ground. As Paul’s piece suggests, the dialogue that Pope Francis calls for amounts to much more than negotiating truces and compromises on contested issues. Pope Francis’s vision is of a Church and society that fosters a culture of dialogue and encounter. For Francis, dialogue brings about fraternity, mutual respect, solidarity, and opportunities for evangelization.
Based in our understanding of the thought of Pope Francis, we would like to offer a prospective roadmap for any type of dialogue.
Key to understanding Pope Francis’s idea of dialogue is that it does not involve a mere exchange of opinions or voicing of concerns. It is rather a process—a journey that is meant to proceed slowly and serenely. It may not produce immediate results, but can bear fruit over time, making new things possible. At the same time, it is not something that can or should occur only among friends and during placid times. Instead, it is when progress seems impossible that dialogue is most needed. It is not mere “talk” to distract from the grave issues at hand, but the most direct and daring approach we can take when trapped in a painful rhetorical stalemate.
Pope Francis puts forth the following elements of dialogue in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti (emphasis ours):
Approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground: all these things are summed up in the one word “dialogue.” If we want to encounter and help one another, we have to dialogue. …Unlike disagreement and conflict, persistent and courageous dialogue does not make headlines, but quietly helps the world to live much better than we imagine. (198)
What does Pope Francis mean by each of these elements? How do we carry them out?
For Pope Francis, our model for approaching the other is the Good Samaritan. He writes, “the Samaritan became a neighbor to the wounded Judean. By approaching and making himself present, he crossed all cultural and historical barriers.” The willingness to approach others “challenges us to put aside all differences and, in the face of suffering, to draw near to others with no questions asked” (FT 81). To be one who approaches in a spirit of dialogue and encounter is not without risk, but it is our calling as Christians.
We can’t dialogue from afar. Someone has to make the first approach, not by laying down a dare or challenge, but by visiting the other in a spirit of openness and humility and inviting them to engage in respectful discussion. Although dialogue can certainly take place in public, it may be best for it to start in private, in a context in which the stakes are low so that it doesn’t devolve into mere negotiation.
Everyone involved in dialogue must have the space and freedom required to state or otherwise demonstrate their convictions. They should not face undue time pressures, and every effort should be made to eliminate interference by constraining forces. Such forces include threats of consequences for continued disagreement or assumptions that the dialogue must be limited to a single issue or way of approaching an issue. Further, the goal of speaking should not be to persuade the other on a matter of abstract principle but rather to give voice to one’s values and worldview in the most coherent manner possible.
During his visit to Brazil in July 2013 for World Youth Day, he called upon the leaders of Brazilian society to promote this type of open dialogue between generations, economic and social classes, ethnicities, cultures, and religions. He said, “The only way for individuals, families and societies to grow, the only way for the life of peoples to progress, is via the culture of encounter, a culture in which all have something good to give and all can receive something good in return.”
Listening and looking at
Listening is at the heart of dialogue. When we engage in dialogue we must have the courage to at least temporarily put aside habitual patterns of hearing and seeing in order to be receptive. Too often we listen and look with only a fraction of our attention as we silently formulate rebuttals or objections. Dialogue requires us to go far beyond that—to adopt a radical openness, even though only for a delimited time, where we attempt to see things as others see them.
In Christus Vivit, his exhortation on youth and young people, Francis wrote, “A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum” (41). The receptivity required to truly listen to others is what gives the Church opportunities to grow and to learn. If we do not listen with attentiveness and empathy, we are unable to respond creatively and we hinder the possibility of the Holy Spirit helping us to discover new possibilities and solutions.
Coming to know and understand
Once we have taken the time and effort to listen, we can then begin to process what we have received and come to an understanding rooted in our own values but still shaped by a genuine openness to the other. It is at this point that we may realize our perspective was unnecessarily limited, or that we had been inhabiting a cramped realm of ideas rather than a concrete world of people with differing perspectives and experiences.
To be clear, we should not “soften” our own beliefs or seek an artificial syncretism with the views of those who hold opposing beliefs. But when we encounter another from the posture that we are both seeking the good as we understand it, and that there are shared experiences and values among all people, we begin to overcome misunderstandings and difficulties, and the possibilities for productive dialogue begin to open up. In 2015, Pope Francis met with participants from a meeting sponsored by the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome. He explained why seeking understanding is important, saying, “Indeed, if one begins from the premise of the common affiliation in human nature, one can go beyond prejudices and fallacies and begin to understand the other according to a new perspective.”
Finding common ground
It is only after a process of speaking, listening, and coming to understand that we can hope to discover secure common ground. Having created a space for openness and listening, we may realize we have more in common with the other than we once imagined. Any shared value can serve as common ground, and as a starting place for the beginning of another process—that of walking and working together, despite deeply-held differences. Common ground should not be a mere foothold—like an agreement for a temporary truce—but the foundation of a relationship that can, over time, lead to changes that were previously unthinkable.
Pope Francis believes that when we enter into the journey of dialogue and seek common ground, we will overcome suspicion and fear. It’s not always easy. Pope Francis believes that “courage and generosity are needed in order freely to establish shared goals” (FT 174). As difficult as it might be to establish with someone who has radically different beliefs and values, common ground is what allows us to establish relationships and foster reciprocity.
We will leave it to the reader to determine how these elements of dialogue might be applied to forge relationships across the political aisle, across borders, and across religious divides. As long as one is thinking in terms of time rather than space—processes of growth and change rather than the claiming of territory in a zero-sum game—there is no issue so fraught that there is no possibility of dialogue, or nothing to dialogue about.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay