Understanding our call to dialogue

“What ever happened to people just talking?” One hears this exhortation frequently: in casual conversation, in colleges and universities, and ironically, on Facebook. A casual stroll down the street or through a shopping mall will let you know how isolated from personal contact so many have become, as people are walking and texting, enjoying lunch with another while texting, and even driving while texting.

The art of dialogue has always been the most difficult thing for screenwriters to create, as it takes a keen ear to detect subtle differences in dialect and meaning from the spoken word to sound convincing. Closer to the point of this discussion, in the 1950s-60s, television situation comedies gave us the stereotypically inattentive husband, who is intently reading his newspaper while his wife futilely tries to communicate with him.

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, during a meeting with him and four imams from Britain at the Vatican April 5. CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano, handout

Perhaps more specifically we should ask, whatever happened to people communicating in a civil fashion? Even one who is only casually aware of the difficulties people have understands that our country and our world have become extremely polarized. Due to advances in communication, many of us find ourselves in an information bubble, only willing to risk a challenge to our beliefs when we feel we are in our comfort zones, even as those channels of communication are often more strident and opinionated than we are ourselves.

It is clear that many citizens are not just unwilling to communicate civilly; many have entirely forgotten or never learned how it’s done. Again, the channels of communication to which we are exposed often preach an entirely different way of engaging in dialogue: Those who disagree with us are uninformed or stupid at best, and an enemy at worst, who must be fought and fought hard, even if in extreme cases it means resorting to violence. This has certainly been happening recently within political discourse, but the violence aspect goes back at least to the 1980s, egged on by the television shows of Morton Downey Jr. and Jerry Springer.

Priority of popes

Dialogue is something that the Catholic Church has come to appreciate relatively recently — in the last 50 years. But it has also received renewed prominence from Pope Francis.


“Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the 11th hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16),” Pope Francis told the U.S. bishops in his address to them at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in September 2015. “The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that ‘exodus’ which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.”

The roots of the pope’s concern can be found in the teaching of one of his predecessors, Paul VI, whom Francis beatified in October 2014. Pope Paul, who reigned from 1963-78, wrote his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (“On the Church”), in 1964, as the Second Vatican Council was unfolding.

“The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make,” Paul VI wrote.

The bishops gathered at the council took Pope Paul’s words to heart, and the value of dialogue is a rich vein running through the council’s subsequent documents on ecumenism, non-Christian religions and religious freedom.

Dialogue of faith


There is a widely held perception that of all the areas of conflict and disagreement that exist in the human condition, none separates us more than our faith, or lack of faith. Whether or not this is actually true is subject to some debate, but it is undeniable that our views and beliefs of faith cause us to dig in our heels in conversation.Fortunately, for more than a century now, people of various faiths have been coming together around the world to create dialogues and — among Christians — work toward eventual unity. In a Christian-to-Christian context this is known as “ecumenical dialogue.” When dealing with members of disparate religious traditions, such as dialogue between Christians and those of other faiths such as Judaism and Islam, the term “interreligious dialogue” applies. It’s worth noting that the purpose of these groups is to promote an understanding of the differences that separate them, with an appreciation for that which unites these otherwise disparate groups. We can only engage in dialogue if we wish to do so. Then we need to respect those with whom we speak, listen to what they have to say, empathize with how and why they may disagree with us, approach them with charity and love in our hearts, and not be too quick to judge them or their opinions.

Author James Keck described his view of modern discussions of disagreement as everyone agrees on 80 percent of everything; the secret is to find what that 80 percent is by getting to know people and listening to them, and then work out your differences on how best to reach a synthesis of views or common ground. Whether or not one accepts the premise of his argument, and whether or not 80 percent is accurate, it seems like a beneficial starting point toward having effective dialogue.

Peter Seely is chair of the Communication Arts department of Benedictine University in Illinois.

For Fruitful Dialogue
Here are some key principles for engaging in dialogue with those with whom we disagree, and which are consistent with and derive from many Catholic teachings:


Roots in history

The concept of dialogue predates internet discourse by millennia

Socrates and Plato played a major role in dialogue development. Shutterstock

In western civilization, the origin of dialogue is generally credited to Socrates and Plato, though there is some evidence of the commonly recognized techniques we have come to associate with dialogue in various Asian and non-Western civilizations. Socrates used what has become known as Socratic dialogue, using conversational techniques to stimulate critical thinking and to allow his students to question their own hastily formed opinions, allowing them to eliminate those lacking logic.

The seminal work in literature that is still the best work to consult in this regard is Dialogues of Plato. In these dialogues, Plato has cast Socrates as the main character. Socrates portrays himself as a simple man with very little knowledge on a variety of larger moral and philosophical issues in Greece. When confronted with self-proclaimed experts in various fields, Socrates by and by comes to deconstruct the statements made by such people, pointing out the inconsistencies in their theories and arguments, thereby leading them to begin questioning hard and fast beliefs and opinions they have come to hold very dear. Through these deconstruction techniques, the student arrives at his or her own conclusions to eliminate illogical beliefs. Most of the Platonic dialogues were later confirmed by Aristotle as actually Socratic in origin.

Aristotle widely is viewed as the father of modern persuasion. While dialogue serves a multitude of purposes, its most difficult application is within the realm of persuasion. It was Aristotle who coined the terms logos, pathos and ethos. Logos describes a logical response: the notion that to win over the minds of people, one must offer logical reasoning through effective arguments, supported by facts and an abundance of other evidence. The use of reasoning comes from a sound cognitive idea and a firm grasp of logic. As it has developed since the days of Aristotle, reasoning can be inductive, or reasoning from particular instances to broader, generalized assumptions. For example, most practicing Catholics follow the teachings of the Church and the writings of the popes for spiritual guidance; therefore, this formulates the foundation of the thinking of most Catholics.

Deductive is reasoning from the general to the particular. For example, all who believe that Jesus Christ is the savior of man are Christians. St. Peter, who was the first pope of the Catholic Church, believed Jesus was the savior of man. Therefore, all Catholics are Christian. Of course, if the initial premise is incorrect, the argument falls apart.

Pathos as described by Aristotle is a human emotional response. In modern times since the development of the theories of Sigmund Freud, pathos has come to mean a psychological response by humans. We often communicate about questions of value; opinions are formed by more qualitative, human concerns, even dualities. Things are right or wrong, just or unjust, or one thing is better than another, for example.

Lastly there is ethos, or an ethical response. Humans are convinced of the worth of the argument based upon the credibility of the presenter. To determine whether the source of information is credible, one will ponder: is the person honest, intelligent, educated, charismatic, knowledgeable, compassionate, charitable, empathetic, reasonable, likeable, and a whole host of issues related to why a person is considered a reliable source. I believe this person because he/she has a track record of being correct on many issues, has proven to have compassion and understanding to people who are affected by this issue, will be reasonable in their ideas, or has the knowledge and intelligence to be able to solve the problem.

Four Kinds of Dialogue
Pope Francis
Pope Francis stands between Jewish and Muslim religious leaders during an interfaith prayer service at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York on Sept. 25, 2015. CNS photo by Paul Haring

The Catholic tradition holds that dialogue is about more than speaking and listening, particularly with dialogue between believers. In 1991, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue issued the document “Dialogue and Proclamation,” which outlined four forms of dialogue that had emerged in the Church’s understanding of dialogue in the years since Vatican II. They were: