Virtue and Dialogue: Ecumenism and the Heart

Jun 21st, 2013 | By | Category: Blog Posts

A number of years ago, before I became Catholic, I received a phone call from a moderator of a private internet discussion group to which I had belonged for nine years, informing me that I was being removed from the group. The news was painful. Officially I was being removed because of my views, which had changed somewhat. But after some months and then years of reflection, it became clear to me that no small part of the reason was that I lacked certain virtues crucial for participating in the discussion in a way that facilitated its advance. Over time I came to realize more fully that fruitful dialogue depends on much more than good argumentation and sound reasoning; it depends even more so on the presence of particular virtues in the heart of each participant. And so I began a long-term and still on-going endeavor to acquire these virtues and weed out their opposing vices.

In this post I’d like to consider the following questions. What virtues, disciplines and attitudes of the heart are needed for participation in genuine ecumenical dialogue, and for the fruitfulness of such dialogue? What actions, habits and attitudes thwart such dialogue or make it sterile? Preliminary consideration of such questions is critical for preparing the table for ecumenical dialogue. Without reflecting in advance on the role of virtue in dialogue, attempts at such dialogue can descend into something ugly and even spiritually harmful to the participants, giving the mistaken impression to divided Christians that ecumenical dialogue is a waste of time, and giving to non-Christians one more unfortunate example of Christians futilely quarreling and bickering with one another. So below I offer some thoughts regarding the virtues, disciplines and attitudes essential for fruitful ecumenical dialogue.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew at the Papal Installation Ceremony

What is Genuine Dialogue?

When approaching the ecumenical table we might easily presuppose that while we are dependent on the Holy Spirit for what He alone can do, what is needed on our part as humans seeking to resolve a disagreement is merely adherence to a set of neutral rules that we can mutually specify in advance. But in fact such rules are altogether inadequate, and not only because the operation of the Spirit is also necessary. Dialogue in the sense in which the term is used in the phrase “ecumenical dialogue,” is an activity requiring for its success certain skills, virtues, and attitudes. Without these there can be no successful dialogue, even if all the necessary rules are in place and followed. That is because dialogue is not fundamentally a meeting of ideas, but a meeting of persons, at the level of the heart and mind. And certain skills and virtues are necessary for the union and cooperation of hearts and minds. In a short blog post such as this I cannot lay out all the virtues and attitudes necessary for ecumenical dialogue, but my intention here is to examine only briefly some of the more important ones.

In order to consider what virtues are necessary for genuine ecumenical dialogue, we must apprehend clearly what dialogue is in essence, and distinguish it from other forms of communication, especially forms having the appearance of dialogue, but being sophistical. Recently Pope Francis said the following:

To dialogue means to be convinced that the other has something good to say, to make room for his point of view, for his opinion, for his proposals without falling, obviously, into relativism. And to dialogue it is necessary to lower one’s defenses and to open the doors.1

This description of dialogue is not uniquely Catholic or uniquely Protestant; rather it summarizes well the essence of dialogue. Genuine dialogue is an activity that cannot be reduced to the activities of those individual persons who enter into it. It is not a sum of individual acts, but rather an irreducibly social act. Much as second person knowledge cannot be reduced to third person knowledge, and the common good cannot be reduced to the sum of individual goods, and narratives cannot be reduced to logical sums of propositions, so genuine dialogue cannot be reduced to the sum of monologues. Dialogue is a different species of communicative act than is monologue.

Dialogue is not reducible to a plurality of monologues because it is inherently a communal activity in which the participants deliberately work together to achieve the following end: agreement concerning the truth of some matter under dispute between them. A plurality of monologues is not bound together in this way. Entering into a dialogue thus involves entering into an implicit agreement with the other participants to work together through the mutual exchange and evaluation of evidence and argumentation to come to agreement concerning the truth regarding a disputed question.

Entering into Genuine Dialogue

Each person entering into genuine dialogue must therefore intend to enter into this shared activity with its singular telos, together with those who disagree with him or her, not merely attempt to defend or oppose a position or argument. If a person merely intends to advance, defend or oppose a position or argument, he or she is engaged in his or her own activity, not yet having entered into the dialogue. In order to enter into the dialogue, he or she must take up as his or her own not only the goal of the dialogue, but also enter into the particular social activity by which this goal is pursued in dialogue, namely, the mutual pursuit of agreement in the truth through a cooperative process of evaluating the evidence and argumentation. So entering into dialogue requires not merely embracing the goal of “agreement in the truth,” which any lecturer or apologist could make his own goal, but also entering into a shared singular activity in which agreement in the truth is pursued together with other persons with whom one disagrees. Being an apologist is insufficient for entering into dialogue, because the activity of dialogue requires virtues and skills in addition to the ability to defend one’s own tradition. Apologetics can be done in the mode of debate, but dialogue cannot, for reasons I will explain in the next section below. Similarly, being a journalist is insufficient for entering into dialogue because the journalist can offer criticism or praise from a disengaged third-person distance, while dialogue requires the transition to self-invested and self-disclosing second-person engagement.

Entering into the mutual pursuit of a singular goal within a singular activity requires not only a choice but a disposition of sociability and a stance of willingness to collaborate to achieve that goal. The person with this virtue reveals himself as person, and thereby connects with others as persons, transcending thereby the ‘us vs. them’ divide at the level of ideas and positions. Maintaining anonymity, for example, hinders the development and expression of this virtue. So long as a person remains anonymous or hides his or her identity, he or she remains incapable of entering into authentic dialogue, because authentic dialogue requires the personal authenticity by which we reveal who we are, where we stand, and take responsibility for our words, by allowing them to be connected with our personal identity by those with whom we enter into dialogue.

Here too the vice of pride, for example, disposes a person to be unwilling to enter into a shared activity aimed at the mutual pursuit of truth, because collaborative inquiry requires a certain humility. Such a person will at best resort to teaching, attempting to transform the dialogue table into a classroom. Of course in the classroom there is typically a kind of dialogue between the teacher and the students, but there is also there a preceding mutual agreement to accept the respective roles of teacher and student. But the presumption of the teaching role in the presence of others placed into the student role by this act of presumption, without any preceding mutual agreement to accept a teacher-student relationship, indicates that the one so presuming has not entered into the mutual activity of dialogue, but is engaged in his own activity.

In addition to the virtue of sociability, in order to enter into genuine dialogue one must also believe that the other persons entering into the dialogue are capable of engaging in the activity of mutually exchanging and evaluating evidence and argumentation for the purpose of reaching agreement concerning the truth of the matter under dispute. And one must believe that the other persons sincerely intend to enter into this very same activity. In this way a good faith belief about the capacities and intentions of the other persons is necessary, and this belief itself requires the stance of charity toward those who would participate.

By contrast, a stance of suspicion and distrust concerning the motives of the other persons, or an assumption that the other persons are incapable of pursuing the truth in dialogue or rightly evaluating evidence and argumentation prevents the one having this stance from entering into dialogue with those he or she distrusts or assumes to be so incapacitated. If, for example, I believe that the other persons are only out to convert me, I cannot enter into dialogue with them, because I do not believe that they are engaged in dialogue. Similarly, if I believe that the other persons are blinded by sin or the devil, I cannot enter into dialogue with them, because I believe them in their present condition to be incapable of doing that which is essential to dialogue, namely, sincerely examining the evidence and argumentation with an aim to discovering and embracing what is true. To be sure, if in the course of attempted dialogue the other persons show themselves to be intending only to advance their own position, or to be incapable of evaluating evidence and argumentation, they show themselves to be incapable of entering into dialogue. If, however, one begins with this assumption about others, one cannot enter into dialogue with them.

The shared goal of the participants in a dialogue is agreement concerning the truth, not agreement with oneself. This does not require that any persons must suspend or deny their own present beliefs in order to enter into this activity, as explained in “Two Ecumenicisms.” Nor does the intention of entering into mutual dialogue require abandoning one’s intention to support and defend what one believes to be true. Neither does it require believing that one’s own standpoint is false. The intention to hold on to what is true and the intention to reach agreement in the truth through the mutual exchange and evaluation of evidence can both be maintained simultaneously without contradiction. Dialogue does, however, require that each participant’s love for the truth be greater than his or her love for his or her present position as such, even if this present position happens to be true. His or her love for the truth must be such that he or she is willing to reject beliefs shown to be false through this mutual pursuit of agreement in the truth. If we love our ideology more than we love the truth, our presence at the dialogue table is disingenuous.

Dialogue and Debate

The dialogue table is not a debate forum, because dialogue is not debate. In debate, as I am using the term, each participant’s aim is persuading onlookers of the superiority of his own position, in part by making his “opponent’s” position look inferior. The words and arguments are typically and ultimately aimed at observers. Usually the debaters are not facing each other, but facing the audience. And often there is a moderator, for very much the same reason that boxing matches require a referee in the ring. The ‘opposing parties’ are generally referred to in the third person, and typically in adversarial terms (e.g. “my opponent”). Usually there are some subtle or not so subtle criticisms of the other person himself, his intelligence, education, character, etc., again directed to the observers with the purpose of ‘scoring points with the crowd’ by denigrating the credibility of one’s “opponent,” and thus indirectly his position as well. Debaters attempt to dodge difficult questions rather than face them, and often attempt to score points by way of generalities and hand-waving, because in debate it does not matter if one’s position is true and one’s argumentation is sound; it only matters that one’s position seems to be true and that one’s case seems to be adequate. To the crowd uneducated in logic, hand-waving generalities and point-scoring sound bites will typically do for that purpose. Finally, at the end of the debate the question is “Which side won?”

In genuine dialogue, by contrast, the participants are talking to each other as collaborators in a mutual endeavor to come to agreement with each other concerning the truth regarding the matter about which they presently disagree. They are ‘facing each other,’ working toward a common goal. (Notice the bodily orientation and posture of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew in the photo above.) There is no moderator, because there is no need for one. The participants are not exchanging cheap shots or personal criticisms, because there is no intention of scoring points with observers, and because engaging in such behavior would be contrary to the singular activity in which by conscious intention they are mutually participating, namely, working together to achieve agreement in the truth. They are not ultimately speaking to or trying to persuade observers. Their shared goal is not winning a contest between one another, but is rather coming to agreement with each other concerning the truth. Anything short of attaining agreement with each other regarding the truth is considered by each participant to be a failure to reach the goal of their dialogue. In debate, by contrast, the activity is considered a success if one side ‘wins’ in the eyes of the crowd, even if the persons debating do not come to any agreement over the course of the debate.

For this reason debate is an entirely different type of activity from dialogue, and one clear sign that a person has not entered into dialogue is his engaging in the grandstanding that characterizes debate, that is, talking to the observers about the other person or his position rather than talking directly to the other participant. Sophistry, as Plato uses the term, mimics rhetoric by attempting to persuade apart from absolute devotion to the truth, and not on the basis of truth or reasoning ordered to truth. Likewise, the sophistical imitation of dialogue can superficially appear to be dialogue, but is entirely different in kind because it is not one mutual activity having one end, but an aggregate of activities each having the persuasion of others as its goal.

Debate is a sophistical contest of power, because it requires only the power to persuade, while dialogue is necessarily a shared collaboration of love, because dialogue’s goal of mutual pursuit of agreement in the truth requires love not only for the truth, but for the one with whom one pursues agreement in the truth. Debate is in this respect easier than dialogue because in debate one can remain disengaged from one’s “opponent,” and do battle in an arena without any second-person union. In dialogue, by contrast, one must enter into a shared activity with one’s fellow participants working together in an I-Thou relation to achieve agreement regarding the truth. Debate, like boxing, requires no friendship between the competitors; it requires only following the rules. Dialogue, on the other hand, requires a certain kind of civic friendship by which persons relating in the second-person work together in a singular activity to achieve a shared end.

Virtues and Skills Necessary for Participating in Genuine Dialogue

I have already mentioned several virtues essential for genuine dialogue: sociability, willingness to collaborate, and the humility these virtues embody. I also explained two ways in which the virtue of charity is essential to entering into dialogue: in the good-faith disposition one must extend to the others’ intentions and capacities, and in one’s love for the truth over whatever one happens to believe at present, and thus in a tractability in relation to the truth. For fruitful dialogue the necessity of certain virtues such as patience, prudence, good humor, self-control, truthfulness, and courage is quite evident. But the necessity of other virtues may be less obvious.

Participation in genuine dialogue requires in addition the disposition to listen so as to understand accurately the positions and perspectives of the others participating in the dialogue. In speaking of the disposition to listen, I am referring not to the unqualified disposition to listen, and not to the disposition to understand-so-as-to-criticize, but rather to the disposition to understand-so-as-to-come-to-agreement-in-the-truth. This disposition is an intellectual virtue that corresponds to empathy. By it at the proper time one silences not only one’s tongue, but also one’s mental movements directed toward any activity other than receiving the communication of one’s interlocutor, so that one can represent more accurately and thereby more perfectly achieve the view from within his paradigm, ordering each newly discovered detail in its place in that paradigm. Through this virtue one restrains even the internal movement to critical evaluation until the other paradigm has been fully comprehended and perceived from within. Rooted bitterness or deep animosity toward the other position or person does not allow the development or exercise of this virtue. Similarly, the vice of a “short attention span” prevents its possessor from developing and exercising the disposition to listen deeply.

This disposition to listen is essential for achieving the mutual understanding that is the first stage of dialogue. Accompanying and preceding this virtue is the deep desire to understand and represent the other participants’ positions accurately, and a genuine sorrow when one either fails to understand the others’ positions or misrepresents them as something other than, and especially something less than, they actually are. Repeatedly constructing or knocking down straw men, for example, is an indication that these two virtues are lacking. The person who finds himself repeatedly knocking down straw men has failed to develop within himself the virtue to listen, by which one refrains from criticizing a position until one has confirmed that one is understanding it accurately and representing it truthfully and fairly. If he lacks any sorrow regarding his condition, then he has in addition failed to develop the corresponding appetitive virtue by which one loves the truthfulness of truthful presentations of positions other than one’s own, and detests misrepresentations of positions other than one’s own. These virtues underlie the basic ground rule in ecumenical dialogue according to which, out of respect and charity, each person gets to define, articulate and specify what is his own position, such that no one ought knowingly to attribute to or impose upon another, a position his interlocutor denies is his own. The one holding a position has the say in determining what is his position. And this therefore requires on the part of each interlocutor a disposition and willingness to listen so as to allow his own conception of the other interlocutor’s position to be informed and shaped by the other interlocutor.

Related to the virtue by which one listens with an aim to entering conceptually the other’s paradigm so as to achieve agreement in the truth is the disposition to remain on-topic. When I first started graduate school, I would often have lunch with a fellow philosophy graduate student with whom I became good friends. Over time I noticed a pattern about the course of our lunch conversations. I noticed that during each conversation, he was repeatedly returning to the subject with which we had begun the conversation, typically a philosophical or theological subject. He would say, “Bryan, if I may return to the question we were considering earlier,” or some other such gentle comment that would get us back to the initial topic. I realized three things. First, he wished to stay on the topic initially raised until that question was resolved or by mutual agreement we agreed to set it aside and move to another topic. Second, by the lack of intellectual discipline I was repeatedly but unintentionally steering our conversations away from the initial subject of each conversation. Third, he had an intellectual virtue that I did not, namely, the virtue of remaining on-topic. And he was trying to help me develop that virtue, so that I could participate with him in a disciplined sort of conversation by which questions or problems could be worked through and resolved.

When I became aware of this, I become much more attuned to the importance of staying on-topic, and our conversations became much more fruitful. Prior to that, I had viewed our conversations as simply an opportunity to talk and enjoy each other’s company, and had given no attention to staying on-topic. Of course that is a good kind of discourse as well, and has its proper time. But when I noticed this repeating pattern in our conversations, I came to realize that if my friend raised some kind of question or problem, he intended to continue discussing it either until we resolved the question or we agreed to set it aside and move to some other topic. To participate in this sort of conversation, I had to develop the discipline of staying on-topic, and not changing the subject at whim to whatever topic I wanted to discuss at the moment. Conversation of this sort was not for me (or for my friend); this mode of conversation was for the purpose of attaining the goal of a particular inquiry. Ecumenical dialogue is conversation of this latter sort, and for the same reason requires within those who participate in it the virtue by which one stays focused on the topic in question until the question is resolved or the participants by mutual agreement decide to set that question aside.

Because dialogue is an activity ordered to the goal of reaching mutual agreement regarding the truth, participating in it requires the virtue by which one perseveres through the task to its completion. The person who can only ‘pop’ in and out from the ecumenical table cannot enter the activity. Entering into this sort of conversation requires not only making a sort of personal and mutual agreement to stick to it to its end, but the virtue by which one endures through difficulties, setbacks, and even seemingly intractable obstacles in the task of attaining the goal of dialogue. Commitment of this sort requires the kind of love that sees marriages through their most rocky times, not the merely sentimental sort that comes and goes with time and contingencies. The internet can exacerbate this problem, by providing ready access to online discussions while abstracting from the personal, face-to-face aspect of human communication, and thus from the implicit commitment we make to each other when we sit down around a physical table with the explicit purpose of resolving some matter about which we are divided.

In addition to the dispositions to stay on-topic and the commitment to see the task through to its end, dialogue requires abiding by the principle of charity. When we speak of following the principle of charity in dialogue, what we are referring to is not merely a rule, but a virtue, i.e. a rule that has become connatural within the soul and character. Charity “believes all things,” and by the principle of charity we believe the best about others, given the available evidence. By this virtue we choose the better of two or more possible interpretations when we are faced with ambiguous statements by others. By this virtue we assume the better of two or more possible motives underlying our interlocutor’s comments or actions. Charity is not blind, yet it does not presume the worst, but thinks the best when such explanations are available. This virtue ‘oils the gears’ of dialogue, because by its perceived presence in one’s fellow participants in dialogue it removes the threat of personal offense or insult, and frees the participants from the worry of being misunderstood or misjudged in a way that is harmful to themselves or to their fellow participants.

Of course the activity by which participants in a dialogue come to agreement most certainly requires critical evaluation of the various positions under consideration. But there is a crucial difference between mutual engagement in critical evaluation of the various available positions, and the vice of being captious, deprecatory, or disparaging. The ability to find actual errors in positions or arguments is a useful and necessary skill when evaluating positions and arguments. But the vice of captiousness disposes its holder to minimize or even fail to see and accept what is actually true and good, or to magnify errors disproportionately. In this way it prevents or hinders the attaining of the goal of dialogue, by preventing or hindering its possessor from seeing and embracing the positive truth present, and not seeing only the negative truths. In order to enter into dialogue the participants must have the virtues by which they see fault and error in their proper proportion, and act in a way that corresponds to this.

A certain qualification is necessary here. What counts as a fault or error, and the magnitude accorded to that alleged fault or error, can differ according to the position under evaluation and the position of the one evaluating. That difference has to be taken into consideration by the participants in the dialogue. But that difference is not the same as the vice of captiousness, which is not merely the intellectual disposition to see as false what is false according to one’s position or paradigm, but is rather simply the disposition to see only the false or to see generally as false what is not false, or to see falsehood as disproportionately magnified.

Likewise, the person with the vice of disputatiousness or quarrelsomeness is incapable of entering into dialogue because he is incapable of reasoning together with others, and is inclined instead to reason only in opposition to others. He opposes every position advanced by the others, and affirms or in some way praises every position rejected by the others. He never acknowledges when his claim is shown to be false, and subsequently never seems to remember that it has already been shown to be false. He seems to disagree just to disagree. He does this perhaps to affirm his individuality and intellectual independence, but this vice makes him incapable of affirming a position together with the other participants or collaborating together with the others, and thus disqualifies him from even entering into dialogue from the outset. If he comes upon the table of dialogue, he does so already in debate mode, not comprehending that he is at the wrong table. The corresponding virtue required for dialogue is cooperativeness, agreeableness, civility, amenability, affability. By way of this virtue we behave in a becoming and agreeable manner toward others, disposed to work together with them toward a good, and especially toward our common good, including the common good of agreement in the truth.

In addition, participants in dialogue must possess a certain kind of hope, particularly the hope that the goal of the activity can be achieved. This is not a pollyannishness, but a vision in the present of the goal as accomplished in the future, and of the real possibility connecting that future achievement with the present condition of disagreement. In ecumenical dialogue such hope rests firmly upon the will of Christ that His disciples be united (cf. John 17), and on the power of God by which what seems impossible to men in the present day can be actualized tomorrow (cf. 2 Kings 7). This hope is the energy of dialogue, driving it by anticipation toward the accomplishment of the end-as-envisioned. For this reason those who come to the table predicting that unity and agreement between Christians will not occur prior to Christ’s return, or who claim that the pursuit of such unity is the disillusioned expectation of heaven-on-earth, disqualify themselves from participating in genuine ecumenical dialogue. Without the hope that the goal of dialogue can be attained, they can only be cynical observers of the ecumenical dialogue table.

I have focused so far on interpersonal virtues necessary for dialogue. But certain skills are also essential for dialogue, among which are grammar, logic, and rhetoric, traditionally known as the trivium, the first three liberal arts. As most of us know, grammar is the skill by which we put words together into intelligible coherent sentences. Logic is the skill by which we put concepts into judgments, and judgments into arguments so as to arrive at true judgments by reasoning rightly from true judgments. And rhetoric is the skill by which we arrange sentences and paragraphs in accord with logic, and by way of beauty and unity, in order to achieve effectiveness in persuading others to the truth.2 These three skills, but especially the first two, are essential for participating in dialogue. Those who have not learned how to put words into sentences cannot communicate their judgments, and so cannot participate in the communicative activity essential to dialogue, namely mutually evaluating evidence, positions and arguments.

Likewise those who have not acquired the skill of logic can neither evaluate arguments nor engage in argumentation. They frequently fall into formal and informal fallacies such as the non sequitur, begging the question, and knocking down straw men. They do not amend or retract their line of reasoning when its fallacious nature is pointed out to them because without the skill of logic they do not see fallacies as fallacies, nor for the same reason do they recognize sound reasoning as such. Sound reasoning supporting a position contrary to their own tends to appear to them as merely a conglomeration of assertions one of which, at least, is contrary to their position. Such persons are limited to asserting judgments, whether their own or that of others, and supporting them with faulty reasoning. But the mere exchange of assertions is futile, because it can neither confirm nor disconfirm any position. And when faulty reasoning cannot be grasped as such, such reasoning cannot be discarded from the dialogue, and the dialogue cannot advance. For this reason, without logic there can be no advance toward the telos of dialogue, and thus without having the skill of logic there can be no entering into the activity which is dialogue. Logic is a necessary but insufficient condition for entering into the activity of ecumenical dialogue. Without the virtues, logic is cold, dead, and off-putting. But without logic, even the most virtuous intentions are reduced to superficial sentimentality and the vain exchange of aphorisms in a frustrated attempt to reason together while lacking the tools needed to do so.

The form of all the virtues necessary for dialogue is love, not just love for the truth, but also love for the other participants in the dialogue, and for union in the truth with them.3 Love for agreement in the truth is essential to dialogue because this agreement is the telos of the activity of dialogue. Without the choice to pursue together agreement in the truth, and without the disposition of love by which dialogue as defined here becomes second nature, a person cannot enter truly and fully into the activity of dialogue, but only into some part or simulacrum that differs in end and thus in species from dialogue. Those who are content with the divided condition of Christians cannot enter meaningfully into ecumenical dialogue, because they do not desire the telos of ecumenical dialogue.

Acquiring the Skills and Virtues Necessary for Genuine Dialogue

How do we acquire the skills and virtues necessary for dialogue? First, one important requisite is understanding clearly the genre difference I have explained above between dialogue and debate. The more we understand what dialogue is, the better we can understand what is needed to enter into it. Secondly, there is no shortcut to acquiring the skills of grammar and logic. When I was much younger, logic was a standard high school course. Now, in part because of a failure in our education system, persons commonly go throughout their entire education, even acquire a PhD in just about any area of discipline, and never take a logic course. As a result, because of their high level of education such persons assume (quite understandably) that they have been adequately equipped for dialogue, and do not realize that they have not acquired a skill necessary for dialogue. A person who discovers that he lacks the skill of logic would be right to refrain from attempting dialogue until he has acquired the skill. Here I am not speaking of formal logic, but simply basic logic. Two good introductory logic books I recommend are Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic (Second Edition), and John Oesterle’s Logic: The Art of Defining and Reasoning (Second Edition).

How do we acquire the virtues necessary for dialogue? We begin with a regular examination of our heart and actions to discover and root out the vices that hinder dialogue. We have to take a step back and examine our comments to others. Are they kind? Are they rude or mocking or angry or derogatory or cynical or continually sarcastic? Do they constructively advance the discussion toward reaching agreement in the truth? Do they show an appreciation for what is true and good in the opinions of others? By their tone do they invite a cooperative response from others, or do they drive others away? Do they attack the other participating persons? Do they misrepresent the positions of others? Do they stay on-topic or do we use any forum to advance our own agenda? Are we truly trying to achieve agreement in the truth with the persons with whom we are speaking, or are we merely trying to make their position look bad to others who may be observing, or have our questions answered, or get our opinions out there? These are the sort of questions a person wanting to grow in the virtues essential for dialogue must ask himself sincerely, with an aim to discovering the truth about himself. One way to do this is to ask these questions to others who know and read our writing, who perhaps can see us better than we see ourselves, and are willing to tell us unpleasant truths about ourselves.

In light of what we discover upon reflecting carefully on our present habits and attitudes, we can then take small steps or adopt disciplines that develop the necessary virtues in us over time. For example, when entering a dialogue, it is a good idea first to take some time to learn the positions and arguments of the other participating persons. Always try to learn the history of a discussion. When commenting within a dialogue, we should be able to specify to ourselves how our comment will help advance the dialogue toward agreement in the truth. We should not speak unless we have something worth saying or worth asking; in this information age especially, we have a responsibility not to add to the deluge of unnecessary information or distract from the dialogue. Before publishing a comment or article, we might have someone of good character, distance, and objectivity read it and point out to us any places where our content or tone is not gracious, kind, or edifying. When I began writing at Principium Unitatis, I made it a habit never to post anything without having my wife read through it to look for any unkind words. That habit helped me acquire the habit of examining all my drafts carefully for any unkind or uncharitable comments, even though sometimes uncharitable comments unfortunately still slip through, both in writing and in speaking. But by developing the discipline of prescreening all our writing for any words or statements that are either uncharitable or do not help advance the dialogue toward agreement in the truth, we can develop the habit of writing and speaking in dialogue with more charity, focus, and substantive content that is helpful for advancing the dialogue toward its goal of agreement in the truth.

One way we can develop the virtue of listening is by disciplining ourselves to confirm if necessary that we have understood correctly the position we are criticizing, by writing or calling in advance the person whose position we are criticizing, before publicly responding critically to his writing. We can also develop this virtue by sending a private draft of our criticism to the person whose position we intend to criticize, and letting his response reform our criticism prior to publishing it. In general we should always take some time to think carefully before responding to anyone, and never say anything when angry, or say anything critical of our interlocutor’s person, especially not any unnecessary critical comment. In ecumenical dialogue I recommend praying for the other person before and after writing any draft reply; then re-reading your draft to make sure that there is agreement (not contradiction) between how you write to the person, and how you pray for the person. When I first began writing for Called To Communion, I adopted the discipline which I keep to this day of saying a prayer not only before publishing any post or article, but also praying for each person to whom I reply, before I reply to that person. This sort of discipline can help us develop the virtues necessary for entering into fruitful dialogue with persons with whom we disagree.

Dialogue and Called To Communion

When we began Called To Communion on Ash Wednesday of 2009, we intended to create a forum for dialogue, not debate. As I have watched and participated in the various ecumenical conversations both here and elsewhere, I have come to see not only the importance of distinguishing at the outset the difference between debate and dialogue, but also the necessity of certain skills and virtues for entering into the activity that is dialogue and for advancing that activity toward its fruitful end. Entering into dialogue requires serious and personal preparation. On the internet especially it is easy to see an ecumenical conversation and attempt to jump right into it without realizing either that it is a forum for dialogue (not debate) or what skills and virtues are required to participate in dialogue. In my experience, a significant percentage of cases in which attempts at dialogue fail are due either to a failure to recognize the difference between dialogue and debate, thus leading to a situation in which some persons are attempting to dialogue and the others present are attempting to debate them, or to a deficiency in one or more of the skills and virtues necessary for dialogue.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes “grey town” as a place that is constantly expanding at its outskirts as people perpetually try to move further away from each other, unable to get along with each other, and each wanting to be lord of his own domain. The internet too, even while establishing technological means by which we are informationally connected to everyone, allows us to ‘move away’ from one another in something like the way C.S. Lewis describes. When dialogue becomes too difficult, one can simply “start one’s own blog,” and each man becomes a radio station broadcasting from his bunker what seems right in his own eyes. But being called to communion in Christ requires precisely the opposite movement, and thus requires those virtues that draw us into dialogue and allow us to advance to the attaining of the unity that is the telos of dialogue. Rather than retreat each to our own broadcast portals, we must acquire the virtues by which we can enter into that dialogue, and actualize its goal.

Of course we all, even the most virtuous among us, sometimes fall short of virtuous action. And the thoughts I’m sharing here are reflections by one who is still at the beginning stage of the pursuit of virtues found to be lacking within himself some years ago, and is deficient still in many ways, as regular CTC readers know well. What I have laid out here is only an overview of some thoughts that sketch out what I’ve learned about this subject since receiving that painful phone call years ago. But my hope for this post is that by specifying the difference between debate and dialogue, and highlighting some of the virtues and skills necessary for entering into dialogue, I might with God’s help raise our awareness both of what we are doing when we enter into dialogue, and what we need to bring within ourselves when we do so.

Laudetur Iesus Christus, nunc et in aeternam.

  1. Source. []
  2. For a helpful introduction to the trivium see The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, by Sister Miriam Joseph. []
  3. On the relation of truth and love see “Truth Speaks in Love.” []
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  1. Would that you had given this speech at Leipzig and Worms!

    And thank you, Bryan, for putting this down in writing. Very helpful, challenging, and humbling.

  2. Thank you for these guidelines, especially the advice to judge what we write against our sincere prayer for the interlocutor. Even as a life long Catholic (though a revert in my early university years some twenty years ago) and not a native speaker of English, I take delight in following your blogs and exploring vast archives on your site. Although I live in a predominantly Catholic country in Central Europe, protestant minorities have been increasingly vocal here, especially on-line. Hence, I would appreciate it if you could share some more thoughts from your broad experience on the following issues:

    1. You criticise “broadcasting from a bunker”, yet is the Called to Communion itself not a direct counterevidence to this view, as it proves that starting one’s own fully Catholic site/blog rather than engaging in dialogue on the existing (ecumenical or protestant) sites can be of great value?

    2. Somewhat connected with (1), while writing on other sites/forums/blogs we submit to their moderation, which is often biased and uses pretexts to censor any Catholic entries (e.g. deleting comments defending veneration of icons as “inciting idolatry” or simply “unbiblical”, that is because of their content not impolite form). Don’t you think then that starting one’s own blog/site may be the only effective way of providing grounds for a dialogue then?

    3. You consider the intention to “come to agreement concerning the truth regarding a disputed question” as a prerequisite of dialogue rather than debate. Yet this dispisition seems to be easier if you exercise private judgment on each issue (i.e. in the protestant paradigm), so that you can easily change it in view of new evidence or logical reasoning. We, Catholics, once we accept the Church’s claim to true teaching (Catholic paradigm), we follow the Church teaching rather than forming our own private judgment on particular matters. Hence, we are often accused by our protestant cousins that no dialogue is in fact possible with us, as we will ex definitione not change our views if such a change would go against the Church teaching. How can you reconcile strict adherence to the Church teaching (rather than private judgment) with the true intention to consider arguments to the contrary and “come to agreement concerning the truth” (as we Catholics believe that the Church already knows the true answer on a great number of subjects)?

    4. On various forums, blogs and sites, a typical strategy of some of our protestant cousins is to provide a long list of assertions against the Church in a single paragraph (from Blessed Virgin Mary, icons, papal infallibility, paedobaptism, Eucharist, confession, marriage annulment, Purgatory to alleged changes in Catholic infallible teaching at SVII, immoral popes, crusades, etc. and, last but not least, alleged link between celibacy and pedophilia – sometimes all in a single sentence!). What do you do yourself and what would you generally recommend when faced with such flooding technique? Should we ignore it (but sometimes there seem to be Catholic “audience” which is confused and would welcome some kind of refutation); or should we try to provide a concise and polite one-sentence answer to every claim; or should we respond by offering dialogue on the basics (meta-level) of how we can know the truth (i.e. private interpretation of Scripture vs. Church as a vehicle of spreading undistorted Christian message and the right interpretation of Scripture).

    Thanks once again for a truly inspiring entry!
    Godspeed, Jan

  3. Jan,

    Thanks very much for your comment.

    Regarding my “broadcasting from a bunker” comment, let me clarify. I’m not saying that no one should start his or her own website. I’m referring rather to a disposition to choose the mode of broadcast (i.e. monologue) over the difficulty of dialogue. It is very easy to criticize from a distance, and in the third person. And it is easier from that distant stance to misunderstand and set up straw men of those one criticizes. CTC is intended to be a forum for dialogue, which is why we give much of our time to the dialogue that takes place in the comboxes, and why we invite persons who disagree with us to enter into dialogue with us here, under specified guidelines that are intended to protect and foster dialogue.

    2. Somewhat connected with (1), while writing on other sites/forums/blogs we submit to their moderation, which is often biased and uses pretexts to censor any Catholic entries (e.g. deleting comments defending veneration of icons as “inciting idolatry” or simply “unbiblical”, that is because of their content not impolite form). Don’t you think then that starting one’s own blog/site may be the only effective way of providing grounds for a dialogue then?

    Again, I understand, and agree that if another site is not allowing you to set out your position, then you would need a forum in which to you could do so. The other site might not be committed to dialogue, but rather to defending its own position. And it is not possible to enter into dialogue on a site or forum committed only to defending its own position. But even a site committed to dialogue needs to be moderated. The difference is between cutting off comments that oppose one’s own position, and disallowing comments that engage in the sort of behavior that nullifies the possibility of dialogue, or hinders its fruitfulness. See our “Posting Guidelines” under the ‘About’ tab at the top of this page.

    3. You consider the intention to “come to agreement concerning the truth regarding a disputed question” as a prerequisite of dialogue rather than debate. Yet this dispisition seems to be easier if you exercise private judgment on each issue (i.e. in the protestant paradigm), so that you can easily change it in view of new evidence or logical reasoning. We, Catholics, once we accept the Church’s claim to true teaching (Catholic paradigm), we follow the Church teaching rather than forming our own private judgment on particular matters. Hence, we are often accused by our protestant cousins that no dialogue is in fact possible with us, as we will ex definitione not change our views if such a change would go against the Church teaching. How can you reconcile strict adherence to the Church teaching (rather than private judgment) with the true intention to consider arguments to the contrary and “come to agreement concerning the truth” (as we Catholics believe that the Church already knows the true answer on a great number of subjects)?

    That’s a very good question, in my opinion, and one I’ve heard a number of times. I did not intend to answer it in the body of the post, because I addressed it in the “Two Ecumenicisms” post to which I linked here. I agree with you, of course, that Catholicism comes as a whole package, and that we [Catholics] cannot treat each particular doctrine as if it is something we can pick or choose while in the Catholic paradigm. But that doesn’t make it impossible for Catholics to enter into dialogue with Protestants regarding particular Catholic doctrines that Protestants do not accept. One doesn’t have to believe that one’s present beliefs are false in order to be committed to following the truth, even the truth that comes to light through dialogue. This is why I said in the post, “The intention to hold on to what is true and the intention to reach agreement in the truth through the mutual exchange and evaluation of evidence can both be maintained simultaneously without contradiction.” In my experience, this is not easy for some people to see, and so they see dialogue as presupposing a sort of skepticism about the truth, and/or a willingness to compromise regarding the truth. But I’m claiming that one can enter into genuine dialogue (as defined in the post above) without believing that one’s present beliefs are false, and while firmly intending not to compromise what one believes to be true.

    4. On various forums, blogs and sites, a typical strategy of some of our protestant cousins is to provide a long list of assertions against the Church in a single paragraph (from Blessed Virgin Mary, icons, papal infallibility, paedobaptism, Eucharist, confession, marriage annulment, Purgatory to alleged changes in Catholic infallible teaching at SVII, immoral popes, crusades, etc. and, last but not least, alleged link between celibacy and pedophilia – sometimes all in a single sentence!). What do you do yourself and what would you generally recommend when faced with such flooding technique? Should we ignore it (but sometimes there seem to be Catholic “audience” which is confused and would welcome some kind of refutation); or should we try to provide a concise and polite one-sentence answer to every claim; or should we respond by offering dialogue on the basics (meta-level) of how we can know the truth (i.e. private interpretation of Scripture vs. Church as a vehicle of spreading undistorted Christian message and the right interpretation of Scripture).

    I call that the “throw everything but the kitchen sink” move. It is something done in *debate,* for the reasons I have described in the post above where I describe the nature and purpose of debate. But it is not something done in genuine dialogue, because the purpose of dialogue is to reach agreement regarding the truth, and throwing the laundry list of disagreements at someone is not what one does if one is trying to achieve agreement with him or her about these things. So the way we respond to that action, here at CTC, is to request that the person focus on one thing at a time, and begin with only one of those points of disagreements, and enter into a dialogue with us about that particular disagreement. Basically, sometimes you have to invite persons who only know “debate mode,” to enter into “dialogue mode.”

    I hope that helps; thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  4. Bryan,

    1. First let me say that I learn as much from all the information which is presented on this site and the clear and logical arrangement thereof (detailed ‘capsules’ matched by more general overviews) as from the way you tirelessly try to pursuit a meaningful dialogue in the combox, including humble patience in responding to those seemingly interested in debate rather than dialogue. I can’t remember who has said something along the line “What good there is if you win a discussion, yet lose [your opponent’s] soul”, but you really exemplify this attitude.

    2. As to my question #3, what I think now is that if we truly believe that what the Church teaches is true and right (and we both certainly do), then we simply know that no evidence or reasons presented in a dialogue will ever falsify what we believe (within the scope of the infallible teaching, naturally), as it is simply ‘physical impossibility’. Hence, we can sincerely adopt the disposition to dialogue (rather than debate) which you’ve beautifully described, even though at the same time we know perfectly well that it is ‘physically impossible’ for any of our interlocutors to undermine the Church teaching. So, we can remain sincere in our attitude to dialogue and at the same time be fully confident that the Church teaching is right. Well, perhaps it is yet one more advantage of the Catholic paradigm over the Protestant one, after all ;-)

    3. Thank you for your original post and subsequent thorough answers, as well as for all you do. From across the pond, I will keep all your ‘staff’ in my prayers.

  5. Could ecumenical dialogue ever lead to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church is wrong on key points, for example, justification by faith apart from works?

  6. Erik, (re: #5)

    Of course, otherwise no person could ever have reached such conclusions in the course of ecumenical dialogue. But undoubtedly some persons have reached such conclusions in ecumenical dialogue. The question of truth, and the question of what conclusions can be reached through ecumenical dialogue, do not necessarily have identical answers. But that wouldn’t be a good reason to give up on ecumenical dialogue, because the pursuit of truth, and the pursuit of unity, are both good pursuits, and quite possibly are mutually supporting pursuits. They are both integrated into the pursuit of agreement in the truth.

    And if you are intending to ask whether the Catholic Church can contradict or repudiate something she has previously taught infallibly, then this is precisely one of the questions ecumenical dialogue seeks to answer. And neither side’s initial position on this question need be viewed by the other as nullifying the possibility of entering into ecumenical dialogue. The purpose of dialogue is not to get the other person to compromise or change, but to reach agreement in the truth. And that can be done so long as both persons love the truth more than whatever position they presently hold as such, as I explained in the post. In order to enter ecumenical dialogue the Catholic need not state up front “the doctrine of infallibility could be false” for the same reason the Protestant need not state up front “justification by faith alone could be false.”

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  7. Bryan #6,

    Maybe Erik is asking not what is required to enter into ecumenical dialogue, but what is required between the Roman Catholic church and those of us not in the Roman Catholic church, for whatever reason, to reach “agreement in the truth” over what comprise the basic tenets of the Christian Religion. Surely the Roman Catholic who holds to the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant who holds to justification by faith alone have not achieved “agreement in the truth.”

    So what does “agreement in the truth,” with respect to ecumenical dialogue, look like between these two hypothetical agents, given that ecumenical dialogue means that each agent is necessarily not seeking to change the other.


  8. AB (re: #7)

    So what does “agreement in the truth,” with respect to ecumenical dialogue, look like between these two hypothetical agents, given that ecumenical dialogue means that each agent is necessarily not seeking to change the other.

    As I said in comment #6, that question is precisely the question ecumenical dialogue seeks to answer. If all of the participants already believed that one participant’s preliminary answer to that question was correct, they would have already reached the goal of ecumenical dialogue.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  9. Bryan #8,

    Well, OK. Thanks Bryan the ecumenical dialogue here, with me. Whether the issue is infallibility, justification, or any other topic of Christian Theology, all Christians should understand themselves to be sinners. So this process of reaching, “agreement in the truth,” is something that, in my opinion, won’t be achieved fully in this life. But as you state, the pursuit of unity and the pursuit of truth are good, in and of themselves, and quite possibly mutually supporting.

    Take care,

  10. AB,

    By way of your example, and not to get too far off track, contra-posing “the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church” and “justification by faith alone” seems to assume that the two are mutually exclusive. But, they are not. If the Roman Catholic Church taught “justification by faith alone” (and in a qualified sense She does), then it would be compatible with Her infallibility, since Her teaching it would make it an example of such a teaching. Even more, I can see nothing in either phrase that makes the two claims mutually exclusive.

    I would recommend that you pick one of your two issues: justification or infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church. Then find an article about it and state your case. Dialog could proceed.

    In fact, this would be an example of dialog. If you disagree with my assessment in the first paragraph, I would be interested in your reply. If you agree then I would hope that at least on this point, the alleged incompatibility of the “infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church” and “justification by faith alone”, we would agree upon something.

    Dialog. Progress.



  11. Brent,

    I can say more than this. But RCism’s infallibility claim means she upholds the Council of Trent. That there sets the stage for the disagreement over justification, “Justification is seen by Protestants as being the theological fault line that divided Catholic from Protestant during the Protestant Reformation.[1]”

    I can keep going, later. There might be other threads better suited for this dialog. Thanks for your comment.

    Bye for now,

  12. AB,

    Just to make sure I understand you, your claim is that because the Roman Catholic Church promulgated Trent, and because you hold that Trent undermines the “true gospel” (I’m putting words in your mouth here, I apologize), and this is some kind of “fault line” that divides us, the RCC’s claim to infallibility is undermined (in your view).

    1. A is B
    2. A teaches C
    3. I think C is incompatible with B
    4. Therefore, A cannot be B

    Notice what the crux of this scenario is. #4 does not hinge on 1 or 2, but rather 3. Therefore, I recommend that you go to the Index on this site, and search “Trent”. There are a lot of articles, and I’m sure the authors would be happy to dialog with you about them. I also recommend that you read the Council of Trent. When I was a Protestant, I had a view of Trent that significantly changed once I actually read the Council in its entirety.

    Peace to you on your journey,


  13. Brent,

    Thanks for pointing me to where I can dialog more here at CtoC about the Council of Trent, if I ever find the free time to do so. My logic building will never be bullet proof, and my attempt in #11 was only to respond to the fact that you saw nothing in the two statements about Roman infallibility and justification by faith alone that makes them mutually exclusive. Thanks for the dialog, and peace to you as well.


  14. Dear Bryan,

    Thank you for this exquisite post. I am reminded of Christ’s sobering declaration: “But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account for it in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-7). Thanks also for suggesting Sister’s book, which is one of my favorites.

    I do have one question for you regarding rhetoric and dialogue. Do you think of them as mutually exclusive? I am asking this question not because I want to quibble over the definition of either “rhetoric” or “dialogue,” but because I am interested in what you think about the role that persuasion plays between participants in a dialogue.

    ad maiorem Dei gloriam,

  15. Bryan,

    Can it ever be appropriate to be aggressive and impolite when dialoguing with another? Dr. Edward Feser often has had to defend his acerbic tone in The Last Superstition, a book-long refutation of the new atheism. I think his tone was entirely called for, and I think we can point to Christ as an example of that kind of toughness. How he rebuked his opponents and sometimes his own apostles was very harsh. But then I look at quotes like this:

    I don’t believe you until you tell me, do you really believe, for example, if they say they are Catholic, “Do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer, it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?” Mock them. Ridicule them. In public. Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.

    The above is Richard Dawkins. He thinks we Catholics should mocked, ridiculed, and shamed. If we take up those tactics, doesn’t it give license for them to do so as well?

  16. “Over time I came to realize more fully that fruitful dialogue depends on much more than good argumentation and sound reasoning; it depends even more so on the presence of particular virtues in the heart of each participant. And so I began a long-term and still on-going endeavor to acquire these virtues and weed out their opposing vices.”

    You and me both. Thank God for His unfathomable patience and love.

  17. Excellent! Your quote that Frank Ramirez posted on July 6th is “quote worthy”….I may use it on my Facebook page. I know I don’t have those virtues…but by Our Lord’s grace…

    May I have permission to use that quote if I give you credit and also refer to this wonderful blog site, CTC?

    Peace of Christ be with you

  18. A person who discovers that he lacks the skill of logic would be right to refrain from attempting dialogue until he has acquired the skill.

    A million tongues (including my own) should be silent after reading this statement.

    Thanks for the powerhouse article Bryan.

  19. Paul, (re: #14)

    I do not think of rhetoric and dialogue as mutually exclusive. Rhetoric is a skill that can be used well, or abused. It is used well when it is subservient to the pursuit and communication of the truth in love. It is abused when it disregards either the truth or love. Persuasion is not rightly an end in itself; that’s the error of the sophists, as Plato defines the term. But the skill of persuasion in the service of truth, out of love, guided by prudence, is a great good. A dialogue of the sort I’m describing in the post above is not merely mutual attempts at persuasion, i.e. I attempt to persuade you of the truth of my position, and you attempt to persuade me of the truth of yours. Dialogue can and does include efforts to persuade fellow participants, and that is why rhetoric remains compatible with dialogue. But a case of mutual attempts at persuasion, even aimed at what each one believes to be true, does not necessarily include an essential dimension of dialogue, namely, that aspect of agreed mutual collaboration and mutual receptivity that builds on achieved mutual understanding in the pursuit of agreement in the truth. That’s a different telos than merely attempting to persuade the other person of what one believes to be true. Under that telos, persuasive activity is different in kind, because it is subordinate not merely to the goal of attaining agreement in the truth, but to the goal of achieving that agreement in the truth through a mutual collaborative and mutually receptive inquiry built on mutual understanding. That’s why attempts at mutual persuasion within a dialogue do not reduce to two (or more) persuasion activities. Dialogue includes the dimension of civic friendship described above that attempts at mutual persuasion do not necessarily include, even though attempts at mutual persuasion to the truth are in important ways distinct from debate, as I am using the term ‘debate’ in the post above.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  20. Brian, (re: #15)

    He who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and the same is true of rudeness and incivility. If I wish to be treated with civility and respect, I must do the same. If I don’t, I invite the descent into the trading of insults and invective, and the possibility of reaching agreement is lost. So I agree with you that if we “take up those tactics” we “give license” for others to do the same. Not all exchange of communication is dialogue. The sort of exchange that takes place between Feser and Dawkins, etc. is not dialogue. It is not for the sake of reaching agreement with each other, but for defending or attacking particular claims or beliefs, so as to convince or persuade onlookers. That’s polemics. Christ’s public rebuke of the Pharisees was not a case of failing to be kind or charitable, nor was it polemics or dialogue; it was a pastoral rebuke, by the Good Shepherd. That’s a different genre, and there is a time and place for that. In this post I am speaking about dialogue, and there are virtues necessary for entering into dialogue, as I explained above. The resolution of disagreement between persons requires dialogue, as Pope Francis explained just yesterday:

    “If we go out to encounter other people, other cultures, other religions, we grow and we begin that beautiful adventure called dialogue,” he told the students.

    “Dialogue is what brings peace,” the pope told the group, which included Christians and Buddhists. “Peace is impossible without dialogue.

    “All wars, conflicts and troubles we encounter with each other are because of a lack of dialogue,” he said.

    Pope Francis said there is always a danger that two people with firm identities and an inability to be open to the other will fight instead of dialogue.

    “We dialogue to meet each other, not to fight,” he said.

    Dialogue involves asking the other, “Why do you think this?” or “Why is that culture this way?” then listening to the response, he said. “First listen, then talk — that’s meekness.”

    “If you don’t think like I do … and you can’t convince me to think like you do, that’s OK. We can still be friends,” he said.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    Update: (re: #17) Teresa, of course you may use it as you wish.

  21. Bryan,

    I just saw your thoughtful, articulate response to my question above. Thank you.

    ad maiorem Dei gloriam,

  22. The Greatest Listener

    The Truth comes to us,
    First in thirty years of listening.
    The Truth becomes one of us
    Not only at a single moment,
    But through a whole span of life.
    “Is not this the carpenter’s son?”
    Through time, known to be one of us?
    By acquired tongue,
    Is not he a Galilean?
    First we had no space for Truth;
    We consigned Him to the livestock.
    In humility the fullness of Truth
    Made ignorant space within Himself,
    To listen and learn from us ignorant,
    With patience and true sincerity,
    So that the Truth could be heard
    In the confusion of our noise and banter.
    The Truth did not boast,
    Or conquer by mere assertion.

    Lord, You disclosed Yourself
    As the Greatest Listener,
    Unwilling to remain walled off or insular.
    Born into our constant buzz and chatter,
    You speak as Truth to every tongue,
    Precisely through Your capacity
    First to listen in our tongue,
    In order truly to understand
    In love not pride,
    We benighted bickering bearers
    Of Your image
    Who long for the Truth You are.
    You speak only first with
    Listening catholicity, unafraid
    Of what rests or lies behind
    Any fences and walls,
    Unafraid of truth or falsehood.
    As Solomon showed who was
    The mother of the babe, by love,
    So Truth, by your listening Love
    You show where You are,
    And thereby distinguish Yourself
    From that which is neither true nor love.
    For Truth, You alone can listen truly
    Even outside the bounds of coalescence by agreement.
    Others listen truly only in You.
    Your voice goes out to all the earth,
    Through first listening to every tongue,
    Spoken over Your manger,
    Over and around Your Temple.

    The Listener is the Truth
    And only listeners follow the Truth,
    Show themselves thereby to be true followers of the Truth,
    Listening to others, as they were first listened to by Truth,
    And, by listening, truly bring the Truth to all the earth,
    As the Listener listened first from a manger
    To the bellows and bleats of beasts in a stable.

    Christmas Eve, 2013.

  23. What I described above as the distinction between sophistry and authentic dialogue, Randall Smith explains as the distinction between wittiness and logic in his article titled “Logic: What’s Missing in Public Discourse.”

  24. Without moral and intellectual formation, we would all be feral children who as such could not hear each other, let alone the Gospel, but would grunt and hiss unintelligibly each from atop his own mountain. So likewise, since grace builds on nature, without adequate moral and intellectual formation we Christians cannot hear each other in authentic dialogue, and thus cannot grow up into the fullness of Christ’s truth by which we overcome our divisions and enter into the full unity of the Body. Instead without adequate formation we speak each from his own bunker, each to the cheers and applause of those sharing his bunker, but unintelligibly if even audibly to those in every other bunker — provoking and perceiving hostility in all that seems alien and other, eyes and ears darkened like dwarves once in a Calormene stable.

    Lord Jesus, prepare the way in nature, filling every valley and making low every mountain. Continue your incarnation in and through us; give us the gift of tongues, and open our eyes to see and our ears to hear, by granting us to enter and become one with those from whom we are now estranged.

  25. On the virtue of empathy as a necessary condition for true dialogue, Pope Francis said in August to the bishops of South Korea:

    But in undertaking the path of dialogue with individuals and cultures, what should be our point of departure and the fundamental point of reference which guides us to our destination? Surely it is our own identity, our identity as Christians. We cannot engage in real dialogue unless we are conscious of our own identity. Nor can there be authentic dialogue unless we are capable of opening our minds and hearts, in empathy and sincere receptivity, to those with whom we speak. A clear sense of one’s own identity and a capacity for empathy are thus the point of departure for all dialogue. If we are to speak freely, openly and fruitfully with others, we must be clear about who we are, what God has done for us, and what it is that he asks of us. And if our communication is not to be a monologue, there has to be openness of heart and mind to accepting individuals and cultures.

  26. In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates says that there is a certain experience or condition that we must be careful to avoid:

    That we should not become misologues [i.e. haters of reason], as people become misanthropes. There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse. … It would be pitiable, Phaedo, when there is a true and reliable argument and one that can be understood, if a [misologue who despises reasoning and argumentation] … should not blame himself or his own lack of skill but, because of his distress, in the end gladly shift the blame away from himself to the arguments, and spend the rest of his life hating and reviling reasonable discussion and so be deprived of truth and knowledge of reality. … This then is the first thing we should guard against. We should not allow into our minds the conviction that argumentation has nothing sound about it; much rather we should believe that it is we who are not yet sound and that we must take courage and be eager to attain soundness …. For the uneducated, when they engage in argument about anything, give no thought to the truth about the subject of discussion but are only eager that those present will accept the position they have set forth. … If you will take my advice, you will give but little thought to Socrates but much more to the truth. If you think that what I say is true, agree with me; if not, oppose it with every [good] argument. (Phaedo, 89d – 91c)

  27. Pope Francis recently said:

    For this to happen, we must first listen. Communicating means sharing, and sharing demands listening and acceptance. Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.

    Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.

    Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication. It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups. The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks. I pray that this Jubilee Year, lived in mercy, “may open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; and that it may eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination” (Misericordiae Vultus, 23).

  28. Sometimes we’re reminded by interlocutors that the “argumentum ad hominem” is a fallacy only as a response to an argument. When a personal attack is not a response to an argument, then, say these interlocutors, it is not a fallacy. And strictly speaking that is true. In effect such a reminder tends to provide a kind of approbation and justification for opening the ‘bomb bay doors’ and releasing a payload of insults that are not responses to arguments, because, it is thought, logic does not prohibit personal attacks. Of course virtue and civility go far beyond the formal requirements of logic, and if we wish to improve and elevate the quality and fruitfulness of both public and private dialogue we do well to nurture not just our skill in logic, but, more importantly, the virtue of civility, especially in dialogue with those with whom we disagree, as I have discussed above.

    I wish to point out here, however, that even within the domain of logic there is a way in which the public use of personal criticisms not as a direct response to an argument or as an intended refutation of an argument, but directed to or said of persons whose argument or position we reject, can be nevertheless fallacious.

    Here’s why. All other things being equal, public insults and criticisms of persons who have advanced an argument or hold a position, as part of one’s critical response to that argument or position, are fallacious because they criticize the argument or position indirectly (i.e. by criticizing its source) but not by evaluating the soundness of the argument or the truth of the position. And even if such personal criticisms are accompanied by a critical evaluation of the argument or position itself, they remain fallacious because their rhetorical purpose is to criticize the argument or position through attacking the person making the argument or holding the position rather than resting on the refutation of the argument or the falsification of the claim.

    Defending the use personal insults that are not responses to the interlocutor’s argument, nor intended to refute or falsify their argument or position, by noting that such personal attacks do not formally commit the “argumentum ad hominem” fallacy focuses on the “letter” of the ad hominem fallacy. But the fallacy has a spirit as well, because it has implicit forms and not only an explicit form. There are many ways of implying that a person’s argument or position is bad because of something negative related to the arguer or position holder, without explicitly saying that the person’s argument or position is bad because of something negative about the person. Those too are ad hominem fallacies of the well-poisoning sort, albeit again implicitly so, for the very same reason that the explicit ad hominem is a fallacy, namely, because they attack the position or argument by attacking the person holding it. That’s why, all other things being equal, stating something negative about the arguer, within the broader context of critically evaluating the arguer’s argument or position, just is engaging in the ad hominem fallacy, because that statement of something negative about the arguer is not accidentally included in one’s attempt to criticize the argument or position, but is included in one’s statements (either preceding, accompanying, or following one’s other statements) in order to aid in one’s attempted refutation of the argument or position, at least aid in one’s attempt at dissuading others from believing it. And such is an instance of implicit engagement in the ad hominem fallacy.

    So under what conditions is criticizing a person in the public square not fallacious in the way just described? There are at least three. Publicly denouncing the personal, character, moral, or behavioral flaws of a person is appropriate when (a) either the person is being considered for holding or retaining a public position or role requiring certain character qualities, or (b) the truth of a person’s claim is being questioned, the person’s character flaws or deficiencies are relevant to the likelihood of the truthfulness of the person’s claim, and there is no other way of determining the truth of the claim than by evaluating the character of its source, or (c) the criticism is a public rebuke directed at the person deserving of rebuke, when the conditions call for such a rebuke, any preceding requirements have been satisfied, and the person giving the rebuke is at least one of the right persons to do so.

    Apart from conditions such as these where personal criticisms are appropriate for reasons altogether different from illicitly short-cutting a refutation of an argument or falsifying of a position by attacking the messenger, public insults and criticisms of persons who have advanced an argument or position, as part of one’s critical response to that argument or position even if these insults and personal criticisms are not made with the explicit or conscious intention of refuting the argument or falsifying the position, are fallacious because they criticize the argument or position indirectly by criticizing its source, rather than solely by evaluating the soundness of the argument or the truth of the position.

  29. Chris Castaldo, in reviewing Peter Leithart’s 2016 book: The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, writes:

    But his [Leithart’s] focus on institutional unity suffers from two fundamental flaws. First, Roman Catholic ecclesiology postulates a hierarchy of churches, in which Rome stands over other Christian traditions, particularly Protestantism. This is observed in Rome’s insistence that “the one Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church,” an assertion made by the Second Vatican Council in the ecumenical decree Unitatis Redintegratio (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 8), and reiterated by more recent statements such as Ut Unum Sint (1995) and Dominus Iesus (2000). Unfortunately, this undermines the dialogue that Leithart envisages by placing conversation partners on an unequal footing, suggesting that one side of the conversation (Protestantism) is inferior and defective.

    Setting aside the theological question (for now), I want to focus on Castaldo’s claim that Catholic ecclesiology “undermines the dialogue” between Catholics and Protestants by placing them “on an unequal footing, suggesting that one side of the conversation (Protestantism) is inferior and defective.” First, as I pointed out in comment #3 above, if this conclusion followed, it would entail that no two people who believed that the other person is wrong, could enter into a dialogue with each other about their disagreement, a dialogue aimed at resolving their disagreement. But two people who disagree with each other can enter into such dialogue with each other, as our human experience shows. Therefore disagreement does not undermine such dialogue.

    Second, Castaldo’s own position is that Catholic soteriology and ecclesiology are “inferior and defective”; otherwise, he would be Catholic. So if Catholic doctrine implies that Protestantism is “inferior and defective,” Protestantism implies that Catholicism is “inferior and defective.” So this isn’t a uniquely Catholic problem, as Castaldo seems to imply. Rather, it is entailed by the nature of disagreement between two parties.

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