The Church in dialogue
By Gregory Baum
At Vatican Council II the bishops of the Catholic Church engaged in dialogue among themselves. In preparation for the Council they had listened to the people in their diocese; and during the Council they were in dialogue with the appointed theologians. Dialogue also characterized their relationship to the Pope. Pope John XXIII wanted the Church to renew itself and respond creatively to modern society, a process to which all members of the Church were to make their contribution. Because the Holy Spirit speaks to all, to the ordained teachers as well as the community of believers, dialogue among them would open the Church to this divine guidance.
The largest number of bishops in recorded church history attended one or more of Vatican II’s sessions, a total of 2,860 bishops from all over the world, and engaged in dialogue. Depending on the session, the number of bishops was between 2,000 and 2,500.
I had the privilege of witnessing the dialogue among the bishops. John XXIII had appointed me as a peritus (Latin for expert), a theologian, at the Secretariat of Christian Unity, the conciliar commission that was to draft three conciliar statements: on the Church’s relation to Judaism and the world religions, on religious liberty, and on the ecumenical movement.
These were controversial issues. The Church’s teaching authority or magisterium had repeatedly taught that heretics, Jews and pagans were deprived of grace and went to hell when they died. In the 19th century, the papal magisterium had condemned the idea of religious liberty and in 1928 in his encyclical Mortalium Animos (The Promotion of True Religious Liberty), Pius XI had condemned the ecumenical move-ment. Yet in recent years, the Catholic people and their theologians had reread the Scriptures, acquired new insights in the meaning of the Gospel and had new religious experiences. It was time for the Church to rethink its official teaching.
Catholics became convinced that God’s mercy revealed in Jesus Christ was operative in the whole of humanity. In John’s Gospel (1:9) we are told that God’s Word addresses every human being coming into this world—a bold message that was already recognized by the church fathers in the early centuries. The Council confirmed this teaching. But if God is calling all human beings, then the people in the world religions are also addressed by God, and the Church must review its perception of Judaism and the great religious traditions. This took place in the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). If God addresses all human beings, they must be free to follow God’s call, and the Church must learn to respect people’s religious liberty. In fact, the Council published a declaration on religious liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). The Council also took a new look at non-Catholic Christians—they were no longer seen as heretics, deprived of divine grace, but as separated brothers and sisters, true Christians and members of Christ’s mystical body. Because Jesus wanted his followers to be one and united, the Church now blessed the ecumenical movement and urged Catholics to join it.
I was present when the bishops engaged in dialogue about these matters. For a good number of them, the recognition of God’s grace working in the world beyond the boundaries of the Church was a new idea. Yet they listened to one another, they invited theologians to speak to them, they spoke freely of their deepest religious convictions. This intra-ecclesial dialogue produced a new consciousness in the episcopate and led to the renewal of the Church’s teaching.
Because the Holy Spirit speaks to all, to the ordained teachers as well as the community of believers, dialogue among them would open the Church to this divine guidance.
The Council recognized that the Holy Spirit guided the Church by speaking to the people and their ordained leaders. That is why dialogue has an essential function in the Church. Even the pope and the bishops were to be in dialogue; the technical name for this new relationship was collegiality. Collegiality was also to be practiced by the national bishops’ conferences—they were given the authority to devise pastoral policies that responded to their country’s culture. The Church, we are told in Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #4), is guided by “hierarchical and charismatic gifts,” the former referring to the teaching of pope and bishops and the latter to the insights and ideas of the baptized. The Council actually spoke of the priesthood of the baptized, that is to say, their participation in Christ’s priesthood and his prophetic ministry. (Lumen Gentium, #10; Apostolicam Actuositatem, #2).
Popes and bishops are the appointed teachers, but to be fully open to God’s guidance they have to engage in dialogue with the Catholic people and their theologians. To foster this dialogue the Council recom-mended setting up parish councils and holding diocesan and regional synods.
In dialogue with the world
Since the intra-ecclesial dialogue was the source of the Church’s renewal at the Council, Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (1964), on dialogue in the Church and the Church’s dialogue with the world. Here is what he writes: “How greatly we desire that this dialogue with Our own children may be conducted with the fullness of faith, with charity, and with dynamic holiness. May it be of frequent occurrence and on an intimate level. May it be open and responsive to all truth, every virtue, every spiritual value that goes to make us the heritage of Christian teaching. We want it to be sincere…We want it to show itself ready to listen to the variety of views which are expressed in the world today. We want it to be the sort of dialogue that will make Catholics virtuous, wise, unfettered, fair-minded and strong.” Popes and bishops keep their authority and the Catholic people have to obey, Paul VI writes, but their authority will be practiced in the spirit of dialogue.
This openness to dialogue came to an end soon after the Council. In 1968 Paul VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning all forms of artificial birth control without an antecedent dialogue with the bishops and their people. In subsequent years, the Vatican controlled the world synod of bishops: its agenda and its final report were produced by the Roman Curia. Soon the bishops’ conferences were deprived of their teaching authority, and diocesan bishops were told to control the diocesan synod, determine their agenda and demand that people obey the present Vatican teaching. In the 1990s Catholics holding a position in the Church’s organization, including bishops, had to take an oath of fidelity to papal teaching, abolishing dialogue on this high level. The sad consequence of this opposition to dialogue has been the loss of the Church’s authority. Empirical research has shown that most church-going Catholics do not follow the papal teaching on sexual ethics. While Catholics have great respect for their hierarchical superiors, they do not necessarily follow their teaching.
The creative dialogue practiced at Vatican Council II has not been allowed to become the model for a renewed Church, as Paul VI had wanted in his Ecclesiam Suam. This is a great disappointment. Yet it reminds us that the Good News we have received is not the Church, but the Gospel. In the teaching of Jesus and in his life, death and resurrection, Christians find the newness of life, the forgiveness of sin, the rescue from despair and the power to love God and today’s deeply troubled humanity. Faith in the Gospel continues to produce vital movements in the Church, groups of Catholics committed to social justice, protecting the environment, practicing meditation, developing theological insights, working for peace, serving the weak and the sick, supporting community development—and in doing so, welcoming God’s kingdom coming into the world.
Gregory Baum, Catholic theologian and author, is Professor Emeritus at McGill University’s Faculty of Religious Studies. He is the founder and long-time editor (1962-2004) of The Ecumenist, a journal of theology, culture and society.