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Eberhard Schockenhoff {*}

Speaking means Listening


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 22/2011, P. 233 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In the struggle for religious reforms, as e.g. in the dialogue initiative of the bishops, it should not be forgotten that "dialogue" is one of key concepts of the Second Vatican Council.


In some circles it is meanwhile considered good form to comment ironically on the word "dialogue" in church parlance. The intent is to vilify it as fascinating word that comes from the theology of the time of the Movement of 68, and has therefore no lasting significance for the self-conception of the church and her mission in the world. Some people make the commitment to dialogue - the church with society, but also within the church with each other - responsible for the fact that her message is no longer clearly discernible. Dialogue is associated with loss of identity and a diffuse way of speaking, whereas the motto of "evangelization" or "new evangelization" signifies the attempt to regain a clear language of the church's preaching. However, "dialogue" is de facto a key concept of the Second Vatican Council, in order to describe the changed self-understanding of the Catholic Church and her mission as a sign of unity among peoples.

A review of the conciliar documents shows that the term "dialogue" is by no means only a favorite word of progressive church dreamers. It contains rather a fundamental statement about the church, which is unfolded in manyfold respects. Even if one does not take the whole word field as a basis - it includes the related Latin terms communicatio (communication) or colloquium (interview, conversation) -, there remain still a good two dozen places where the dialogue in the church, among the Christian churches, or with society is explicitly mentioned.


The Council Wanted it This Way

Most often - nine times - the term can be found in the Decree on Ecumenism "Unitatis Redintegratio". It calls for a "fraternal dialogue" between the churches, which serves the goal to get a better understanding of the other and - in his mirror - of oneself (Articles 4 and 9). This dialogue should be conducted in truth and in love and respect for others and cover the entire field of doctrine and pastoral problems (Articles 14 and 18). The doctrine of the sacraments should also be a subject of dialogue. Despite all necessary care to preserve its purity, individual formulations of faith "should never become an obstacle to dialogue" (Article 11 and 22).

According to the will of the Council Fathers, the Holy Scripture and the question of the societal consequences of the Gospel must be of particular importance in the exchange of the different Christian denominations. Since Christians find different solutions to questions concerning the future of the Christian faith, an "ecumenical dialogue about the application of the Gospel to the area of moral conduct" is required (Article 21 and 23) - after a long phase of the inter-denominational struggle for disputed questions of faith, the ecumenical movement is increasingly committed to this task since the Ecumenical Assembly in Basel (1989) and Seoul (1990). At the level of local churches, questions of moral theology as well as of Christian social ethics (including the family, the life sciences, the asylum law, and peace) became thus often the subject of ecumenical statements. The great ecumenical church days in Berlin (2003) and Munich (2010) showed impressively the changed self-conception of the Catholic Church in the dialogue with the churches of the Reformation and the Orthodox sister Churches.


Dialogue: Christian Educational Objective

The decree on the mission activity of the church "Ad Gentes" (Articles 16, 20, 34 and 41) places the dialogue in the wide horizon of the encounters with the world religions and non-Christian cultures. It expresses the hope for a "sincere and patient dialogue", in which the disciples of Jesus learn from the people among whom they live - "bearing them the peace and the light of the Gospel" (Article 11 f).

The Decree on Priestly Training "Optatam totius" and the Declaration on Christian Education "Gravissimum educationis" regard it as a Christian educational goal of high importance to train the capability to conduct a refined dialogue. Future priests should be enabled to listen to people and to open "their hearts and minds in the spirit of charity to the various circumstances and needs of men." (Article 19). It is the primary task of Catholic schools and educational institutions to be a forum for "dialogue between the Church and human society" (Article 8 and 11).

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World "Gaudium et Spes" gives the most fundamental view on this topic." The important document deals with both the church's dialogue with society and the communication within the Church. Between church and world a "mutual dialogue" is required, due to the simple fact that the Church lives in this world and goes her way according to the will of Christ in solidarity with all humanity (Article 40). For through his incarnation Christ entered into history and made himself its innermost mystery. The proclamation of the gospel can therefore not be a one-way street. The Church's proclamation rather requires the dialogue with the recipients of her message. Without becoming uniform with the world, she must get involved in the everyday reality of those people to whom she wants to preach the gospel.

The Church's dialogue with the world, as it is demanded by the Council, must be serious with the fact that the church is not only faced with the world, she has to fulfill its mission within the world. According to its full theological meaning, this dialogue is realized as incarnation of the church in the world; it is modelled on the incarnation of the Divine Word.

In his inaugural encyclical "Ecclesiam suam" (10 August 1964) Pope Paul VI explained how the church speaks into the thought forms and lifestyles of each time, in which she has to preach the gospel. "Since the world cannot be saved from the outside, we must first of all identify ourselves with those to whom we would bring the Christian message - like the Word of God who Himself became a man. Next we must forego all privilege and the use of unintelligible language, and adopt the way of life of ordinary people in all that is human and honorable. Indeed, we must adopt the way of life of the most humble people, if we wish to be listened to and understood." (No. 87)

The cosmopolitan Catholicism, by which the renewed self-understanding of the Church is shaped, appears outwardly in the call to all nations and cultures to engage in an open dialogue about the pressing challenges of our time. Humankind, which advances on the road to a united world civilization characterized by an "increased exchange between cultures", can only solve its pressing problems of the future when it enters into a "true and fruitful dialogue" on the conditions of a just world economic order - above all between the rich and poor countries (Article 56 and 85). With this requirement, the last Council takes up again its statement on the dignity of the moral conscience. According to it, "In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships." (Article 16).


In Case of Doubt - Freedom

The second last chapter of the Pastoral Constitution (Article 92) is entirely under the heading 'dialogue with all people'. It draws the consequences for living together and dealing with each other, which result from it for the church. Since the church is in the world the "sign" (signum) of a culture of dialogue, she must realize it within her: "Such a mission requires in the first place that we foster within the Church herself mutual esteem, reverence and harmony, through the full recognition of lawful diversity. Thus all those who compose the one People of God, both pastors and the general faithful."

Then follow two sentences that offer all parties - in view of the past arguments about the right way for the Church - occasion to search their conscience.



"For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything dividing them. Hence, let there be unity in what is necessary; freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case (in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas)."

Later, the Vatican's Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian of 24 May 1990 (No. 16) removes one of the three tension-filled basic rules and is content with the unity of truth and the unity of love, which must be respected wherever opposites remain. There is no longer any maxime that in case of doubt especially in the people of God freedom and responsibility of the faithful should have priority.

The centuries-old principle 'in dubiis libertas', which was solemnly adopted by Pope John XXIII when he assumed the Petrine Ministry and again quoted by the Second Vatican Council, silently goes by the board. This is just one indication among many for the fact that the post-conciliar church's development, which is increasingly characterized by mutual distrust, remains behind the intentions of the last Council.

It is all the more urgent to resume in mutual respect the dialogue, as it was required by the Council. It is not at all an expression of a particular loyalty to the Magisterium, when since the announcement of the dialogue initiative of the German bishops the term "dialogue" in the Church is rejected by interested parties by means of a ridicule that is loaded with prejudices. It rather reveals an amazing ignorance of its recent documents, and the intent to accept its statements only insofar as they meet one's own ecclesio-political ideas.


    {*} Eberhard Schockenhoff is professor of moral theology at the University of Freiburg and Vice-Chair of the German Ethics Council.


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