A Fearful Church Retreats from Dialogue

By Diana L. Hayes
National Catholic Reporter
April 2, 2004

About 70 years ago, while our nation was in the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asserted that we have 'nothing to fear but fear itself.'

Since then, the world around us has changed drastically. It seems a perfect time for the Catholic faithful to engage in collegial dialogue on what we foresee for the 21st century, both in the church itself and in the world in which we, as persons of faith, are deeply involved. Yet, to the dismay of many, dialogue, debate, even conversation among Catholics with differing views have become anathema.

Why? What is everyone - especially our religious leaders -- so afraid of? As a member of Cardinal Bernardin's Catholic Common Ground Initiative, I have marveled at the apparent outrage many have expressed that such an entity exists. Bernardin was attacked openly by his brother cardinals for daring to suppose that Catholics could gather and talk to each other about their faith. Groups of Catholic faithful now are denied permission to meet in their own churches or parish halls. One archbishop noted that he banned such meetings on Catholic sites because he feared the members would discuss issues that are forbidden, such as, I assume, women's ordination, celibacy, a married priesthood and homosexuality, among a growing list of others. Since when has it become heretical to dialogue about our faith' Is this not what Jesus did?

Jesus, a Jew, was born in a land of conflict. Rabbis and charlatans competed with each other for the attention of the people. Jesus certainly experienced oppression from those in power in occupied Palestine, both Jew and Roman. But Jesus was different from all of those who had come before him. He was willing to listen -- and not just to the wealthy or to those with high political or religious positions. He listened to ordinary people. He listened to the poor, the crippled and the blind, to tax collectors and prostitutes. He fed and healed them without requiring payment or allegiance or any evidence of orthodoxy. He even listened to those who were not of his people, and to women, and was willing to have his mind changed as a result.

Jesus came from a tradition of dialogue. Students of the Talmud and Torah debated the teachings, reinterpreted them and attempted to make them relevant for their times and situations. As a result, they were strong in their faith, for they had challenged it and been challenged by it over and over again.

What have we done with this heritage? For centuries, it was a critical part of our Christian tradition. Paul's letters attest to the need for dialogue. The early church members were trying to understand how they were to live Jesus' message as the time of his return slipped further and further into the future. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed is the result of dialogue and dissent, as are many other teachings that are now the foundation of our Christian belief.

This dialogue cannot take place in a vacuum, however, but must be grounded in knowledge of scripture, tradition and human experience. The U.S. bishops, in their 1999 pastoral letter on adult religious education, 'Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us,' recognized and affirmed the need for ongoing education for Catholics. Too often many adult Catholics have a faith based on what they learned in grade school religious education and Confirmation classes in their teens or even earlier. After that, many never open a religious text again, relying simply on Sunday homilies and occasional parish programs. Their faith is a child's faith, and when challenged -- by death, catastrophic illness or the horrors of today's violent world -- they find that they have little or nothing to sustain them.

It has been said that a faith unchallenged is no faith at all because it is too easily destroyed by the first challenge it encounters. As St. Anselm noted centuries ago, theology is faith seeking understanding. For me, this means that all persons of faith are engaged constantly in theological dialogue as they go about their lives. As one's understanding grows as a result of study, questioning and dialoguing with other persons of faith, then one's faith grows and matures into an adult faith that can withstand anything the world throws at it.

Dialogue today is no longer restricted to a small minority of priests and religious, bishops and cardinals. Lay persons like myself now dare to speak on issues of faith and morals and invite discussion in our lectures and classrooms. As a teacher, I raise questions, I challenge and I probably even scandalize from time to time. But is this not what Jesus, our divine teacher, did for all of us'

Perhaps we need to remember the words of Jesus in rebuttal to the Pharisees: 'I tell you that if they keep quiet, the stones themselves will start shouting' (Luke 19:40).

Diana Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington.


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