Understanding the place of Dialogue and Proclamation in the Church

Today, Cathnews is carrying an opinion piece from The Huffington Post by Jesuit Fr James Martin in reaction to this address by South African bishop Kevin Dowling.

I do not endorse the ideas presented in either piece, but it does remind me of a conversation I had with a priest yesterday about the way in which the media (and hence our society as a whole) sees the Catholic Church as beurocratic and authoritarian. I had just had reason to revisit the 1964 encyclical of Pope Paul VI Ecclesiam Suam in which he proposes a new way of communication with the world, namely dialogue.

In this encyclical, Pope Paul discusses the different modes of communication that are appropriate to different audiences. He writes:

But it seems to Us that the sort of relationship for the Church to establish with the world should be more in the nature of a dialogue, though theoretically other methods are not excluded. We do not mean unrealistic dialogue. It must be adapted to the intelligences of those to whom it is addressed, and it must take account of the circumstances. Dialogue with children is not the same as dialogue with adults, nor is dialogue with Christians the same as dialogue with non-believers. But this method of approach is demanded nowadays by the prevalent understanding of the relationship between the sacred and the profane. It is demanded by the dynamic course of action which is changing the face of modern society. It is demanded by the pluralism of society, and by the maturity man has reached in this day and age. Be he religious or not, his secular education has enabled him to think and speak, and conduct a dialogue with dignity.

Of course, today (as indeed the publication of Bishop Dowling’s “off the record” speech demonstrates) anything said to one audience is instantly made available to audiences everywhere and of every kind. So what is said in one context finds itself in many contexts.

The Church has many different ways of communicating. One long standing and indeed apostolic mode is that of “proclamation”: truth is proclaimed and taught AS truth, and the hearers are invited to accept and receive it. This happens in homilies (be they by parish priests or by popes), and it happens in circumstances where the audience is reasonably expected to hear and receive it as Truth – for eg. in the exercise of the formal teaching office of the Magisterium.

Dialogue, in which I am daily involved, involves a different approach, where we speak of our experience and our perceptions of truth, and invite a dialogue with those who have different experiences and perceptions, remaining open to hearing and understanding the dialogue partner as well.

The point is that anything said anywhere by anyone in the Church today will very probably be heard by many who cannot distinguish proclamation from dialogue, or the original context in which something is said. I for one speak differently when I am teaching from how I speak when I am in dialogue. I am thinking even of pastoral letters of bishops, which may be addressed to the faithful, but which are, by their public nature, going to be read and heard by many others with many different backgrounds.

So I am wondering: how do we make room for the Church to do that which she must do – ie. proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and at the same time make it clear to the world who is hearing us that we are not closed to dialogue, but rather invite it and welcome it?

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11 responses to “Understanding the place of Dialogue and Proclamation in the Church

  1. wayne

    Who cares wht a church SAYS. What matters is what it does. A tree is known by its fruits. What are the fruits of the Catholic church?What do its holymen do? What are they famous for? Talk is cheap

    • Hi David. Is it ok to give out my blogsite on your site? People can come to my site and vent their feelings and not be deleted.

    • Well, besides the talk, there is, as you say, another way of communicating and that is by example and way of life. For this, I would direct you not only to the many great foundations and institutions of the Church which care for the sick, the poor and the needy throughout the world, but also the many many many saints of the Church, who have heroically displayed the love of Christ in their actions. These stories are not hard to find – you can start with the better known ones such as St Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa, or you can study the some of latest ones such as our own Mary of the Cross or St Damien of Molokai (there is a great film called “Molokai” which you can rent from your DVD store – I highly recommend it). Saints are not rarities in the Church, although to our sham we are not ALL saints!

  2. Peregrinus

    Interesting question.

    Communication is by definition a two-way process, and whether a particular communication functions as “proclamation” or “dialogue” or indeed as something less easily labelled depends not only on the intentions, disposition and actions of the “speaker” but also on the intention, disposition and actions of the “recipient”. And these in turn are influenced by the context in which the communication takes place.

    It’s obvious that dialogue requires a shared understanding between the participants about the process that they are engaged in, but this is also true of proclamation. Thus I’m not “proclaiming” the gospel (or anything else) merely because I consider myself to be proclaiming it. It isn’t true proclamation unless the people that I am speaking to understand the concept of proclamation and understand that I am engaged in a proclamation, and that they are engaged in receiving a proclamation.

    Proclamation, I suggest, involves an invitation to respond. If I simply stand on the street corner and recite a profession of faith at passers-by, without regard to whether they are listening or whether they respond in any way, but simply because I think reciting my profession of faith is inherently a good thing to do, I am not engaged in proclamation. There must be a word for what I am doing, but it isn’t “proclamation”. Perhaps it’s “monologue”.

    Because proclamation invites a response, I don’t think it can be entirely separated from dialogue, since that response may take the form of “tell me more . . .” or “but what about . . .?” Of course, the response doesn’t have to be a dialogue; the response what we ultimately want from proclaiming the gospel is that people will change their lives. But the response very commonly will be, or will include, dialogue. Thus I don’t think there’s the fundamental opposition between “proclamation” and “dialogue” that your post might suggest.

    I think that the problem may lie in the fact that what we may think is proclamation can sometimes look to our audience a lot like monologue. That may be their fault, or it may be our fault, or it may not be anyone’s fault; it could simply be that we have different understandings of the context in which the communication takes place, and so have different understandings of what kind of communication it is.

    The lesson, I think, is that if we want to “control” the communication to the extent of determining whether it is a proclamation or a monologue or something else, we need to be familiar with who we are speaking to and what they understand about the context and nature of our communication, and we need to tailor our communication to their expectations and understandings. Not that we tailor what we say, but we tailor how we say it, so that what we are saying is better understood.

    • How is proclamation distinguished from dialogue? Well, at first, I think in intent. I can set out to begin a dialogue by asking a question. Proclamation is not a question, but an announcement, as in Jesus’ own “The Kingdom of God has come near: repent and believe the Gospel!” To be sure, this invites a response, and from that response may follow a dialogue, but it is not in its initial form a “dialogue”. It isn’t a monologue either, precisely because AS a proclamation it INVITES response. Monologue does not do so, per se.

      Also, perhaps one of the reasons why the Church comes across in her communication as dogmatic is because the “response” that Christian proclamation invites is FAITH. It does not invite debate. It does not invite question. It does not invite a vote. There are only two responses: Faith or rejection. It is worth taking a look at the rhetoric in the New Testament sometime in relation to this question.

      There are also times in the New Testament where dialogue is obviously taking place, especially in Acts when Paul interacts with Roman governors or with members of the synagogues.

      But I suspect that what I am getting at is that in this day and age we need a way of proclaiming the Gospel that has a “soft” or “porous” surface, in which “Faith or Rejection” are not the only two options, which can on on the one hand be quite certain and clear of the new reality we are proclaiming in the Gospel, and on the other hand not discourage those who would wish to enter an honest dialogue about these matters.

      • Peregrinus

        I’m not convinced that proclamation and dialogue are completely exclusive categories.

        Yes, you “can initiate a dialogue by asking a question”, but that’s not the only or normative way of intitiating dialogue. If you and I go to see a film together, say, and talk about it afterwards over a pint, we will engage in a very real dialogue without actually interrogating one another. We just talk about what we like and disliked, what we though it meant, etc, and we respond to one another’s views.

        And there may be proclamation in that exchange too. For example, if the film we are discussing is Avatar, in the course of our conversation you may very well learn about my convictions on subjects like materialism, or the use of force, or whether Sam Worthington’s American accent is plausible, and we could very well find ourselves arguing about such matters, seeking to persuade one another, or change one another’s views.

        I think your suggestion that proclamation invites faith, and that this is inconsistent with inviting debate, or questioning, or voting, is too simple. Faith is a choice to accept the truth of what is proclaimed and (certainly in the context of the proclamation of the gospel) to live according to that truth. Questioning, debating and even voting are among the many ways that we approach, sustain and reinforce faith. If “accepting” something means not being free to question it, debate it, etc, then that’s not faith; it’s something more like credulity, or even brainwashing.

        • I’ll give an example of what I mean from Tom Wright’s commentary on Romans, which I am reading at the moment. Commenting on Romans 1:5 (“the obedience of faith”) Wright says:

          “When Paul thinks of Jesus as Lord, he thinks of himself as a slave and of the world as being called to obedience to Jesus’ Lordship. His apostolic commission is not to offer people a new religious option, but to summon them to allegiance to Jesus, which will mean abandoning other loyalties. The gospel issues a command, and imperial summons; the appropriate response is obedience.”

          This goes hand in hand with what he says about the Gospel itself in Paul’s use of the word:

          “Note that for Paul ‘the gospel’ is not a system of salvation, a message first and foremost about how human beings get saved. It is an announcement about Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord.”

          Announcement = Proclamation. The greek word is very clear, and is often used for “preach” as well: “kerygma”.

          Kerygmatic discourse is not the same as didactic (“didache”) discourse, nor is it the same as dialogic discourse. Dialogue does not call for “the obedience of faith”. Kerygma announces, whereas dialogue proposes. Both can be called “witness” and both are hence part of the evangelising mission of the Church.

          What much of the media picks up (eg. “Pope condemns same-sex marriage” etc.) is the Church’s preaching or teaching. My point in this post is that what the world wants from us is dialogue, which is a little different from the kerygmatic and didactic discourse that the Church is used to offering for her own faithful.

          • Peregrinus

            What much of the media picks up (eg. “Pope condemns same-sex marriage” etc.) is the Church’s preaching or teaching. My point in this post is that what the world wants from us is dialogue, which is a little different from the kerygmatic and didactic discourse that the Church is used to offering for her own faithful.

            I take your point. And it ties in with my point that what characterises any particular communication is not just the attitudes and intentions of the speaker, but also those of the hearer. You cannot preach or teach unless the recipient is ready and willing to receive preaching or teaching. To the extent that the world wants dialogue, then the only way in which the church can communicate with the world is through dialogue. There is no point in railing against this.

            And here, I think, we have to remember the point you have already made, that “anything said to one audience is instantly made available to audiences everywhere and of every kind”. This is especially true for the pope, whose central teaching role has grown and grown as the church has encountered modernity.

            If we look back to the reformation, what the reformers mostly kicked against was the pope’s jurisdiction – whether it was appointing bishops, annulling marriages, banning theses or imposing excommunications. There is less complaint about the teaching role of the pope and this, I think, is because it was not exercised so vigorously. When the church wished to tackle the doctrinal claims of the reformers, a Council was summoned. It was the bishops collectively, or-the-bishops-and-the-pope, who were seen to teach most authoritatively.

            It’s not a coincidence that there was minimal conciliar activity in the next four hundred years. Between Trent and Vatican II there was only one Council, and it was aborted early, meeting for only one session and never reconvening after it had done the one thing the pope required of it, which was to affirm in stronger terms than ever his own teaching authority.

            What led to this shift in focus as the central teaching authority? A couple of things. It may have been a reaction to the reformers’ attacks on the institutions of the papacy. It may have been a reaction to the steadily eroding temperal/secular power of the papacy. It may also have happened because it [I]could[/I] happen – popes could communicate throughout Christendom a lot more effectively once the printing press existed. And no doubt there were other factors at work.

            The point, though, for our purposes, is that the pope has come to embody the definitive, authentic voice of the church in relation to teaching, faith and morals in a way that wasn’t always true. In modern times, popes have done what in earlier times councils and bishops did. And this leads to an awful lot of attention being focussed on everything the pope says. It doesn’t matter who is actually sitting in front of the pope when he speaks; the world hears what he says – but it hears it filtered through the values, interests and prejudices of the media. (I’m not sure that the present pope always understands this, or is entirely comfortable with it; hence we get things like the Regensburg problem. Perhaps his qualities would have been better suited to the role that popes filled in an earlier age.)

            Which means, of course, that he is always speaking to the world. And if the world can hear only dialogue, then if the pope wishes to communicate with the world, if he wants the world to hear anything behind hostile or imcomprehensible noise, he has to engage in dialogue. If the church wants to preach and teach – and of course the church [I]should[/I] want to preach and teach – it may be that the papacy is no longer the organ of the church best adapted to preaching and teaching. Which would an ironic consequence of making the papacy [I]too[/I] central in the church’s communication strategy.

            • “This is especially true for the pope, whose central teaching role has grown and grown as the church has encountered modernity. …The point, though, for our purposes, is that the pope has come to embody the definitive, authentic voice of the church in relation to teaching, faith and morals in a way that wasn’t always true.”

              I have been reflecting on exactly these ideas today, having recently taught a course on the Reformation and now listening to a program from Catholic Answers in 2003 on the topic of the popes. We cannot deny that the way in which the Pope has exercised his office (the keys of the kingdom of heaven) has changed dramatically again and again over the last 2000 years – always it is the same office, but it has changed to meet the demands of the times. And so the way Peter exercised his office in apostolic times, the way the pre-Contantinian popes exercised their office, the way the popes exercised their office after the West fell to the invading barbarian tribes, the way the popes exercised their office in the emerging Europe of the high-Middle ages, the way the popes exercised their office before and after the Reformation (or not), the way the popes exercised their office with and then without the Papal States – all this has been a constant kaleidoscope. Even in our day, the phenomenon of the globe-trotting pope (initiated by Paul VI, but exemplified by John Paul II) has also changed the way in which his office is exercised. This last factor, plus the new global community of all nations, plus the immediacy of the electronic age of communication has given us a papacy today that is radically different even from the papacy of Pius XII.

              I don’t think all this has been a bad thing. I am glad that we do have an articulate and learned teacher as the spokesman for the Universal Church. Ecumenical Councils will have their roles in the future, but (as Vatican II partly showed us) in this new age of the global Church such an instrument will be increasingly unwieldy. Other structures, such as Synods of Bishops and National Bishops Conferences, always acting in communion with the Bishop of Rome and the Universal Church, will, I think, become more and more the organs of deliberation in the future.

              Who can tell where this will lead? Not me. But wherever it goes, we need to be able to speak with a unified voice in making our appeal to the world in love. The Pope is still the best bet for this.

              • Peregrinus

                Sure. I don’t mean to suggest that the way in which the papal office is exercised evolves through history. (It would be a bad thing if it didn’t.) But it does mean that the way in which that office is exercised now, or was exercised at any point in the past, is not the only, or necessarily the best, way in which it could be exercised.

                And if we find that what the pope says is misrepresented in the media, or misunderstood by the world, well, maybe to some extent the solution to that problem is in our own hands.