Sounding Board

Bishops in dialogue


Vatican II was a gathering of bishops from all over the world. But it did not happen that only bishops talked while all others merely listened. Non-bishops were there too, both cleric and lay, and also women, acting as experts or  periti. The voices that found a place in the final documents were not just those of bishops. Notably, for instance, the decree on religious liberty owed much to the teaching of John Courtney Murray, SJ, whose freedom to write and lecture had been restricted by the Church before Vatican II.

The experience of bishops in dialogue at the council, I believe, is part of the reason why after Vatican II there has been a growing number of people who do not think of the Church mainly as hierarchy but as the Body of Christ and the People of God, cleric and lay, men and women.

Among the bishops themselves dialogue was intense. In an article titled “Conversation Starters,” Richard Gaillardetz made the observation that “some of the most important work of the council were accomplished at the coffee bars (nicknamed after two Gospel characters, Bar-Jonah and Bar-Abbas) kept open behind the bleachers in the  aula  [Latin for ‘hall’]. Bishops, after struggling to stay awake during one mind-numbing Latin speech after another, found respite at these coffee bars and often engaged in frank conversation about a variety of topics. It was the sustained, face-to-face conversation and sharing of diverse experiences that opened episcopal eyes to new possibilities.”

One dynamic emphasized in the article of Gaillardetz was the commitment of the Vatican II bishops to humble learning. “In the century before the council, it had become common to divide the church into two parts: a teaching church (ecclesia  docens) made up of the clergy, and a learning church (ecclesia  discens) consisting of the laity. This way of imagining the church dangerously overlooked the fact that bishops do not have a monopoly on divine truth.” Historians also “point out the remarkable willingness of so many of the council bishops to become students once again. It is easy to forget that a good number of bishops, then as now, found that their pastoral responsibilities made it difficult for them to keep up with current historical, biblical and theological scholarship.” (Not to mention related secular sciences.) Even Bishop Albino Luciani (the future Pope John Paul I) admitted feeling, during the council, that everything he had learned from the Jesuit Gregorian University had become practically useless. He said that fortunately he had an African bishop as a neighbor in the bleachers in the council hall, who gave him the texts of the experts of the German bishops. That helped him prepare better.

Another dynamic in the council was openness to the world. “Pope John XXIII was convinced that Christians must be willing to read ‘the signs of the times’ and enter into a more constructive engagement with the world. Indeed the history of the council can be read as a long struggle among the council bishops to acquire a form of balanced engagement in which the church could preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a humble confidence, challenging the forces of hate and greed even as it affirmed the signs of God’s reign already present in the world. Over the course of the council the bishops became convinced that the times demanded a church that lived in vulnerable and open mission to the world, effecting a transformation from within as leaven. The council thereby turned its back on that pre-conciliar tendency to stand in severe judgment of the world from some privileged Olympian heights.”

The importance of dialogue in the Church remains today. New problems have arisen. The Reproductive Health bill problem is perhaps the simplest. But the Church is struggling with others, such as the ordination of women, married clergy, what to say about gay people, opening communion to the divorced, stem cell debate, etc.  Pope Benedict XVI has recognized this and has put a priority on dialogue with the unbelieving world. He has expanded the Pontifical Council for Culture to improve communication between believers and nonbelievers, “which is often impaired, in his words, by ‘mutual ignorance, skepticism or indifference’.” To lead that dialogue, he appointed Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, whose leadership has been met with widespread praise. Let me end with a quote on the subject:

“When controversies broke out lately over invitations by the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Council for Culture to scientists whose research, especially on stem cells, was thought to contravene Catholic teaching, the cardinal rose to give a vigorous defense of dialogue with the church’s ideological opponents. ‘It’s a shaky or fundamentalist grasp of faith that sparks suspicion or fear of the other,’ Catholic News Service reported the cardinal saying. ‘When you are well formed, you can listen to other people’s reasons,’ he added. Solid, serious catechesis is compatible with respectful dialogue.

“At a time when it seems that rote repetition of catechetical formulae is more and more expected of even the most educated Catholics, the cardinal’s openness to dialogue and his trust in Catholics of mature faith and learning to carry on such dialogue are reassuring. In the modern world, the scandal is not that Vatican officials would engage scientists who disagree with church teaching, but rather that such engagement is regarded as taboo.”

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Tags: Catholic Church , Religion , Vatican II

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