in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Sunday, 22 June 2014

'The Gift of Dialogue': Ecclesiam Suam and Christian Dialogue with Non-Christians

Dear All

We really had a stunning conference at Twickenham this week on Ecclesiam Suam. I think in retrospect we took a risk inviting people to dialogue and relying on 3 days of intense study of one Vatican document. Yet it paid great dividends and all agreed that one of the stars of the week was Pope Paul VI and this extraordinary document. If you go on the Vatican website you can download it for free. As the week went on I realised that Ecclesiam Suam opens up a theological space where dialogue can occur... with other Christians, non-Christians and those of no faith. I attach below part of my paper that clarifies this idea. Stephen Bullivant and I are now collating the papers for hopeful publication soon. We have also video recorded two of the dialogues: Those between Dr Mustafa Baig and Abbot Timothy Wright on Islam-Christian Dialogue and between Dr Jonathan Gorsky and Prof Mary Boys on Jewish-Christian Dialogue (both pictured - with Dr Lynne Scholefield). Once I have these links I will post them on here. I am of course extremely grateful to all who participated especially our exceptional speakers. As events darken in the Middle East it is good to know there are beacons of light still burning...

I write this in San Antonio, Texas where I have just touched down to begin a 2-week summer school at the Oblate School of Theology on Teresa of Avila... More of this anon...

best for now


Dialogue according to Ecclesiam Suam

As we have seen throughout this conference Ecclesiam Suam gives three aims for dialogue. The first is to achieve greater self-knowledge not only for all of those engaged in dialogue but indeed to help the Church learn in greater depth about the nature of the mystery of revelation:

We are convinced that the Church must look with penetrating eyes within itself, ponder the mystery of its own being, and draw enlightenment and inspiration from a deeper scrutiny of the doctrine of its own origin, nature, mission, and destiny. (ES:9)

Hiding behind this goal is the necessary separation the document makes between the full revelation as given by Christ to the Church (‘the holy and spotless Bride’) and our current understanding or interpretation of this revelation which will necessarily be fostered by engagement with the perspectives of our non-Christian colleagues:

A vivid and lively self-awareness on the part of the Church inevitably leads to a comparison between the ideal image of the Church as Christ envisaged it, His holy and spotless bride, and the actual image which the Church presents to the world today.

But the actual image of the Church will never attain to such a degree of perfection, beauty, holiness and splendor that it can be said to correspond perfectly with the original conception in the mind of Him who fashioned it. (ES:10)

Or as Levy puts it:


          One does not need to deny the fullness of God’s revelation in

Christ in order to acknowledge the existence of a saving wisdom

in non-Christian religions — a wisdom which, on many points, has

something to teach our present understanding of God as derived from

the revelation of Jesus-Christ. The key to the solution does not lie in

the distance between the pre-existent Logos and the historical Christ,

but in the distance between Christ, in whom dwells the fullness of

the Logos, and the content of wisdom which the Church, through her

meditation on Christ’s Gospel, has till now been able to draw from

this fullness. (Levy p.17)


As he continues: ‘What is revealed is one thing — quite another thing is

what we are able to grasp of this revelation, even with the help of

the Holy Spirit’. Thus, with our co-religionists, we work on the nature of revelation given by Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Ecclesiam Suam thus suggests that the process of dialogue will inevitably lead us all to greater self-understanding of the original revelation of Christ. This process of ‘defamiliarisation’, as Levy calls it, leads, according to Ecclesiam Suam, to the necessary renewal and reinvigoration of the Church (a reinvigoration, I would argue, nicely embodied in the person of Pope Francis):

Hence the Church's heroic and impatient struggle for renewal: the struggle to correct those flaws introduced by its members which its own self-examination, mirroring its exemplar, Christ, points out to it and condemns. (ES:11)

For the Church to be true to itself and its mission it must then, according to ES, engage in this dialogue with those beyond the boundaries of the Church:


We believe that it is a duty of the Church at the present time to strive toward a clearer and deeper awareness of itself and its mission in the world, and of the treasury of truth of which it is heir and custodian. (ES 18)

To adopt Erasmus’ translation of the opening lines of John’s Gospel, in the beginning the Logos is the conversation and this conversation will continue until the consummation of all things:

Here, then, Venerable Brethren, is the noble origin of this dialogue: in the mind of God Himself. Religion of its very nature is a certain relationship between God and man. It finds its expression in prayer; and prayer is a dialogue. Revelation, too, that supernatural link which God has established with man, can likewise be looked upon as a dialogue. In the Incarnation and in the Gospel it is God's Word that speaks to us. That fatherly, sacred dialogue between God and man, broken off at the time of Adam's unhappy fall, has since, in the course of history, been restored. Indeed, the whole history of man's salvation is one long, varied dialogue, which marvelously begins with God and which He prolongs with men in so many different ways.  (ES:70)

From this theological perspective the rest of the encyclical’s delineation of the nature of this dialogue inevitably follows. Thus it must be:

·        Non-coercive: ‘No physical pressure was brought on anyone to accept the dialogue of salvation; far from it. It was an appeal of love.’ (ES:75)

·        Universal:The dialogue of salvation was made accessible to all. It applied to everyone without distinction. Hence our dialogue too should be as universal as we can make it.’ (ES: 76)

·        Its aim is not conversion: ‘If, in our desire to respect a man's freedom and dignity, his conversion to the true faith is not the immediate object of our dialogue with him, we nevertheless try to help him and to dispose him for a fuller sharing of ideas and convictions.’ (ES:79)

·        Its aim is to produce clarity in all participants: ‘Clarity before all else; the dialogue demands that what is said should be intelligible. We can think of it as a kind of thought transfusion. It is an invitation to the exercise and development of the highest spiritual and mental powers a man possesses.’ (ES: 81)

·        Expressed through ordinary language: ‘All of us who feel the spur of the apostolate should examine closely the kind of speech we use. Is it easy to understand? Can it be grasped by ordinary people? Is it current idiom?’ (ES:81). ‘We must forego all privilege and the use of unintelligible language’. (ES:87)

·        Centred on humility: ‘It would indeed be a disgrace if our dialogue were marked by arrogance, the use of bared words or offensive bitterness... It is peaceful, has no use for extreme methods, is patient under contradiction and inclines towards generosity.’ (ES:81)

·        With confidence and in fellowship: ‘Dialogue promotes intimacy and friendship on both sides. It unites them in a mutual adherence to the Good, and thus excludes all self-seeking.’ (ES:81)

·        And adaptability: ‘The person who speaks is always at pains to learn the sensitivities of his audience, and if reason demands it, he adapts himself and the manner of his presentation to the susceptibilities and the degree of intelligence of his hearers.’ (ES:81)

We can thus characterise the model of dialogue presented by Ecclesiam Suam as one that is non-coercive, universal, clear, humble and adaptable, proceeding in fellowship without the aim of conversion and expressed in ordinary language,


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