Vatican II After Fifty Years: Dialogue and Catholic Identity
Fr. Joseph O'Malley, SJ
Dialogue and Catholic identity was at the heart of Georgetown University’s October 11-12 conference celebrating Vatican II After Fifty Years.
“Only in the mid-20th century did dialogue emerge as an acceptable form of religious discourse,” said Fr. Joseph O’Malley, SJ, in his keynote address. “With World War II, the cultural imperialism of Western nations was at an end. Christian missionaries realized they had to divest themselves of their cultural prejudices. Religious pluralism had become a fact of life. People rubbed elbows with Jews and Muslims on a daily basis. Was it really true that there was no salvation outside the church?”
O’Malley, the author of What Happened at Vatican II?, observed how in the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the style avoided words of alienation and condemnation. The church was developing a new language: friendship, brotherhood, sisterhood, conscience, the dignity of every person, collegiality, reconciliation, and mutuality. “Dialogue is the word that captures their spirit. Vatican II represents a language reversal—from monologue to dialogue—in the history of the church,” he said.
In “The Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), O’Malley observed, the church’s relation with the world is described as a dialogue—a cultural dialogue on a mega scale. “But dialogue does not exhaust the meaning of the Council. Dialogue and proclamation must be taken together. The church’s inclusion of dialogue, however, signals a significant shift in mindset--from threats to persuasion, from exclusion to inclusion, from suspicion to trust, from intransigence to seeking common ground, from alienation to recognition, from monologue to dialogue.”
Fr. Thomas Stransky, CSP
In his “Reflections of an Insider,” Fr. Thomas Stransky, CSP, one of the four founding members of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, gave it all a human context. “Our little boat had no map, compass or clock. We only had in hand a vague papal mandate to help separated Christians find the path to the unity for which Christ prayed. In our first meeting, Cardinal Bea said, Well, no one can tell us ‘This is how we did it last year’. We were given four cramped rooms with three huge bathtubs that served as the containers of files for our archives.”
“We were looking for a new language for our relations with the ‘others’– dialogical rather than juridical,” shared Stransky. “There was a conscious struggle with the question of conscience. No one could have predicted that our Secretariat’s drafting work would evolve into 3 of the 16 documents of the Council—the most from any commission“ (The Decrees on Ecumenism, Religious Liberty, and Non-Christians).
Catholic and Irrevocably Ecumenical
Dr. Catherine Clifford of St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario, reminded listeners in her talk “Catholic and Irrevocably Ecumenical” that unity belongs to the very identity of Christ’s Church, and that the Council calls every member of the Roman Catholic Church to work and pray for restoration of full unity among the followers of Jesus. “Pope John XXIII considered unity the ultimate aim of the Council,” she said.
Dr. Catherine Clifford
Dr. Clifford described the language of the Council as a subtle shift away from the narrow and exclusive identification of the Roman Catholic church and the church of Christ. “The experience of dialogue,” she reflected, “gives rise to a deeper understanding of the one church, as well as of each particular church’s contribution to it with its own unique spirituality, theological emphases and practices.”
She noted how the French priest Paul Couturier, who in the 1930s was one of the shapers of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, invited Christians to pray together rather than for each other’s conversion. He invited people to pray for unity “as Christ wills it and when he wills it.” Couturier’s vision was not centered on Catholicism or a single confessional church, but on Christ so that each of the churches would become more fully “church”.
And in its Decree on Ecumenism, the Catholic church acknowledged that the church of Christ, while it continues to exist in the Catholic church, extends beyond the boundaries of the Catholic communion. There was a shift from an “ecumenism of return” to an” ecumenism of recognition.”
On the topic of dialogue and ecclesial identity, Clifford observed how, when Paul VI succeeded John XXIII, he brought a heightened consciousness that the identity of the Church must include the dissonance between the Church’s self-identity and it’s identity in the eyes of the world in its divided state.
“Ecclesial identity is not a fixed reality,” said Clifford, “but a dynamic reality.” As developed in his 1964 encyclical Ecclesial Suam, Paul VI saw the church’s dialogue with the modern world as critical if the church is to fulfill its mission. It can’t be indifferent to the world, but must come closer to it. Dialogue is to become the fundamental disposition that underpins every aspect of the church’s life and mission. “There’s scarcely a page in the Council documents in which ‘dialogue’ does not appear.”
It is to be a hallmark of the church’s relations both within and beyond the church. Clifford noted that “Vatican II embraced this principle of dialogue in its Decree on Religious Liberty which affirms the right of very person to follow the dictates of conscience, while also requiring us to seek the truth. Dialogue is a common search for the truth.”
The exchange involved in dialogue reveals the inner nature of the church which reflects God’s dialogue with the world. “The Church is called to be a sacrament, a sign of unity for the whole human community. We have to live that not only among ourselves within our own church but amongst all churches,” she said.
“We would do a great disservice to seminarians today if we did not prepare them to be agents of dialogue, “said Dr. Clifford. A deep commitment to ecumenism must inspire them to work for the ongoing renewal of the Catholic church. They must become themselves instruments of dialogue and reconciliation. The way we live together and love one another is the only effective way we have to ‘be church’ today, to proclaim the gospel.”
Dialogue with Other Religions
In its closing paragraphs, Vatican II’s final document, “The Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), called for mutual harmony within the church itself, with pastors and people engaging in fruitful dialogue “for the ties which unite the faithful together are stronger than those which separate them: let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful, and charity in everything.” It spoke of unity among Christians as “a harbinger of unity and peace throughout the world.” But it didn’t stop there, reaching out “to all who acknowledge God and who preserve precious religious and human elements in their traditions” (92).
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, past president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and former papal nuncio to Egypt and delegate to the League of Arab States, opened his presentation “Becoming Catholic through Meeting Others” with the observation that the Council’s 1965 “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church with Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate) should not be taken in isolation from other Vatican II documents. With a walk through the decades following the Council, he demonstrated how the spirit of dialogue was not only on the printed page in documents but lived and modeled by the church’s leadership.
Paul VI was the first pope to leave Italy since 1809, and the first to visit the Western Hemisphere, Africa, and Asia during his tenure. When he traveled to the Holy Land in 1964 and embraced the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in Jerusalem (which led to rescinding the excommunications of the Great Schism in 1054), he also met with Jewish and Muslim leaders.
When he traveled to Bombay, India, he said, “This visit is the fulfillment of a long desire. Yours is a nation that has sought God with patience and passion.” In Uganda, he met with Muslim leaders, and back home in Italy he met with Japanese leaders, saying to them “Pray for us that we may always be worthy to love you and serve you.”
He visited six continents, and was the most travelled pope in history to that time, earning the nickname "the Pilgrim Pope”. With his travels he opened new avenues for the papacy, which were continued by his successors.
Pope John Paul II spoke to 80,000 Muslim youth in Casablanca in 1985 and a year later brought religious leaders from around the world together in Assisi for a day of prayer for peace, an event which found its sequel in 1993, 2002, and 2011.
Archbishop Fitzgerald spoke about two key Vatican documents that have given further development to the Church’s outreach in interreligious dialogue. The first, Dialogue and Mission (1984), situated interreligious dialogue firmly within the mission of the church, reassuring those engaging in it that they are not marginal to the church’s life. One of the document’s key contributions is the identification of four forms of dialogue: the dialogue of life, of action, of intellectual exchange, and of spiritual experience.
“While deepening conversion to God is a goal of interreligious dialogue”, Fitzgerald said, “conversion of the other to my faith is not. To be sure, we have in dialogue the love and beauty of Jesus Christ in our hearts, and yes, we want him to be loved and embraced by others, but we’re not in the dialogue to make converts. It is delicate and difficult. And it’s important to have a code of conduct which is not to trick or entice people.“
Fitzgerald described the second document, Dialogue and Proclamation (1991), as “a more ponderous document than Dialogue and Mission since it tries to steer a ‘both-and’ path” rather than the latter’s primary focus on dialogue. ”Both dialogue and proclamation are authentic elements of the church’s evangelizing mission,” Fitzgerald said. “They are interrelated but not interchangeable. Proclaiming Jesus Christ is to be carried out in the gospel spirit of dialogue in which we share our faith with one another. Despite the difficulties, the church’s commitment to dialogue remains firm and irreversible.“
Archbishop Fitzgerald reflected on how relating to people of other religions is a stimulus for Christians to pursue unity among themselves. “It helps us to discern what is essential in Christianity; it is by going to the roots of our faith that we will find the way to unity in diversity,” he said. “In a world marked by war and injustice, interreligious dialogue should be seen as a preventive measure that allows for tensions to be overcome and conflict avoided. It’s more necessary than ever today.”
The Planners hope to eventually post the talks on the conference website
Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC.