e-mail us


Consensus from dialogue, not silence


The good thing about these months of turmoil in the Catholic church is that the anger and dismay over priests’ and bishops’ abuse of power are motivating Catholics to take seriously their responsibility to be, in the words of Vatican II, the “authors and the artisans” of their Catholic identity. It is easy to invoke the mantra of the church as the people of God, it is quite a bit more demanding to take this charge seriously.

I am thankful we have taken the first steps in this unceasing journey. Catholics have started talking to one another about what it means to be Catholic. The conversations are happening in all sorts of places -- at Little League games, at Starbucks, at dinner parties and even on occasion over donuts in parish halls. The conversation found its most public forum at the recent convention of the Voice of the Faithful in Boston.

The conversations, of course, are not always pleasant and comforting. Sometimes people express opinions and suggest possibilities for reform that others find objectionable. The correct response to this, I think, is not to shun debate and discussion, not to dampen a diversity of views but to seek out a broad range of informed opinion. Groups such as Voice of the Faithful, for good strategic reasons, want to be centrist, to avoid the ideological polarization that is now so commonplace in American public culture. But to be “centrist” does not mean that one should not critically appraise the doctrines of the right and of the left and of the center itself.

The culture of silence explicitly imposed by the Vatican over the last several years and its prohibition of public discussion of theological ideas necessarily exerts a chilling effect on dialogue about a whole host of Catholic doctrinal and structural questions (not that the two can, in practice, be dissociated). This is a great pity. To be human is to be communicative, to necessarily engage in mutual exchange with others of thoughts, ideas and aspirations. One of the great contributions of Vatican II was to affirm the essential communicative dimension of persons joined together in continuing dialogue. Vatican II was not an aberrant moment in the church’s history. Its documents represent the profound collective voice of the bishops of the church called together by Pope John XXIII and sent home with the blessing and commendation of Pope Paul VI. We have to take its deliberations seriously. Vatican II was, as Paul VI averred, “a unique moment, a moment of incomparable significance and riches.”

One of the many riches it conferred on Catholics was the obligation to participate in the dialogical work of the church, including the obligation to offer “solutions” or ideas that might help ameliorate the defects and contradictions within the church itself. Vatican II recognized that this would not be a seamless or tidy process but would entail frequent and legitimate disagreements among sincere Catholics. What a gift! What trust these bishops showed in the Catholic laity!

Communication is not about achieving consensus for the sake of consensus; a consensus built on a spiral of silence, whether in politics, finance or the church, can often be a mask obfuscating our collusion in immoral practices. But a consensus forged out of an open and honest dialogue in which participants attentively listen to and argue with each other will be a robust consensus for action allowing Catholic laity and hierarchy alike to move forward, repair, remodel and refurbish the church they treasure. The church hierarchy’s fear of “dissent” and Voice of the Faithful’s concern that it not be portrayed as a “dissenting” Catholic organization both betray an unfortunate misunderstanding of the importance of dialogue to human community, and of the vibrancy that can emerge when people encounter new ideas. Challenges to the status quo do not necessarily rupture a cultural or religious tradition; they may instead offer new ways of thinking about and implementing the tradition’s core ideals, and in so doing strengthen and revitalize it.

Trying to silence or avoid those with whom we might disagree also betrays the trust endowed by Vatican II and more fundamentally inscribed in scriptural accounts of Christ encouraging us to cast our nets widely. We can enrich our church and our Catholicism if we are brave enough to resist imposing closure where closure does not exist and when in fact it is not necessary. Community thrives on and is always carved out of diversity, including a diversity of informed opinions.

Michele Dillon teaches at the University of New Hampshire.

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002