Growing up, I saw a lot of sitcoms. Too many: The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Night Court, Cheers (ok, so I was an NBC guy). One thing you start to realize when you watch these shows is how incredibly formulaic they are: The Teaser, The Trouble, The “Muddle,” The Triumph, and finally The Kicker. Like anxious teenagers urgently trying to “stand out” by looking like everyone else, sitcoms conform religiously to the formula.
Sometimes it seems as if the debates in the Church over the past few decades are just as formulaic – call it “That 60’s Show,” starring aging Catholic hippies along with a few of their young “hip” liberal sidekicks, in endless repeats. The results, however, are anything but funny:
The Teaser: Some fringe radical theologian, or perhaps even a bishop, proposes a new teaching/practice contrary to Catholic Tradition.
The Trouble: Progressives come around to embrace the idea, and begin to promote it more and more vigorously. Faithful Catholics, on the other hand, resist the proposal, noting its conflict with perennial Church teaching/practice.
The “Muddle”: Progressives, as well as their unwitting lackeys among conservative Catholics, call for “dialogue.”
The Triumph: Progressives continue calling for dialogue ad infinitum until the progressive proposal is accepted either de jure or de facto. (Sorry, 60’s progressives – forgot the trigger warning before all that Latin).
The Kicker: Reset to a new “normal” before beginning the process all over again for the next, more radical, issue.
This is the playbook progressives in the Church have used to push continually for acceptance of contraception (de facto win!), abortion, altar girls (de jure win!), women priests (keep trying!), and a host of other issues.
Today we see this formula playing out regarding divorce and remarriage as well as acceptance of homosexual relationships. Any resistance to these anti-Christian proposals is met with, “We need to dialogue! We need to hear from those who have experienced divorce or same-sex attraction. Their voices are important and need to be heard.” This sounds noble, so why shouldn’t Christians embrace the practice of dialogue?
The presupposition underlying the modern principle of dialogue is that there are two equally valid viewpoints, neither of which is assumed to be “right.” Dialogue then is the process by which both parties discuss their views and, presumably, one party eventually comes over to the other side. Or, two parties reach a mutually agreeable compromise. If two people disagree, for example, on the value of priests wearing cassocks, they could engage in dialogue and try to come to some agreement.
However, progressives have attempted to extend this concept of dialogue to areas of settled doctrine – particularly those pelvic issues they are obsessed with, such as contraception, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. Now everything – from doctrine to moral teaching to disciplinary practices – are supposed to be subject to dialogue. This is an innovation unheard of in Christian tradition.
Witness of Our Lord and the Saints
Reading the Gospels you will be hard-pressed to find any example of Our Lord participating in “dialogue.” Jesus proclaims the Good News; he does not “dialogue” with those who oppose his teachings. His biggest adversaries were the Pharisees, and we are all familiar with the “dialogue” that Christ engaged in with them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” “Woe to you, blind guides!”
Even when Our Lord spoke to sinners in conversation, there was no hint of dialogue (as it is understood today) regarding doctrine or moral teaching. Consider the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). First Jesus proclaims his Good News: that he provides “living water” which will last for eternity. When the woman expresses interest in this living water, Jesus confronts her with her sinful lifestyle: in this case, the fact that she has had numerous husbands and is currently living with a man out of wedlock. As a thought experiment, imagine what advice Cardinal Kasper would have given our Lord after hearing this conversation (“You must affirm the positive aspects of this woman’s relationships!”)
The apostles, too, eschewed dialogue when it came to doctrinal and moral matters. Consider St. Peter’s sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36): the first Pope accuses the crowd of crucifying Jesus, the promised Messiah, and then calls the people to repentance and conversion. Such an approach reaps bountifully: Luke tells us that three thousand souls were baptized (Acts 2:41). Again, there is no “dialogue” regarding the truths of the faith.
Some argue that St. Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34) was an early example of dialogue between religions. That is only because they haven’t read the actual sermon since Sunday school. The Apostle does not dialogue with the pagans – he proclaims the ignorance of pagan worship and the need to embrace the true God in repentance. I suspect that if St. Paul were alive today, he would not be the first choice for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
The Church Fathers were no different. In one famous scene St. Polycarp, a disciple of St. John the Apostle, encounters the heretical leader Marcion. The Heresiarch asks Polycarp, “Do you know me?” and the Saint responds, “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” Would this qualify as the “theology of encounter” many progressives are calling for?
The list of examples could go on and on: St. Athanasius, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Theresa of Avila (read her words on the “Lutherans” some time when you’re in a particularly unecumenical mood). There are no examples of saints or theologians embracing dialogue with sin or doctrinal error.
Tyranny of Dialogue
Unfortunately, many well-meaning people have accepted this language of “dialogue,” even if they don’t support changing Church teaching. It is considered arrogant today by many people to present yourself as having definitive answers on any question of theology or morality. But this is a false humility: it is like a man who has won a million dollars, yet doesn’t want to give any to the poor for fear of looking rich. When it comes to defined Church doctrine – such as the inadmissibility of the divorced and remarried to Communion, or the sinfulness of homosexual acts – we do know the answers. They are not our answers – just as the millionaire didn’t earn his money through his own ingenuity – they are teachings we have received as part of Revelation through the Church Christ founded. The saints of old had a bold confidence to proclaim these truths, not accepting even the possibility they could be erroneous, because God is Truth and cannot err.
Ultimately, this insistence on “dialogue” is a form of tyranny, for it prevents the Truth, who is Jesus Christ, from being openly proclaimed to, and accepted by, those in sin and error. By calling for endless dialogue (it is never made clear how such dialogue should ever conclude), progressives keep people enslaved to sin and error. Paradoxically, the never-ending appeal to “dialogue” becomes a bullhorn to shout down those who support Church teaching.
When a person is enslaved to sin and error, the absolute worst thing we can do is to “dialogue” with him. This will only allow him to continue in his destructive ways and keep him from receiving the healing of Christ. What then is the proper Christian response when we encounter sin and error? We need to follow the model of the saints and fathers who have preceded us:
- Be in continual prayer for those who are living outside Christ’s loving commands.
- Continually study the Church’s teachings so that we understand them to the best of our abilities.
- Unapologetically defend those settled teachings without compromise and without fear.
- Call those who have embraced sin and error to repentance and conversion.
Of course our defense of Church teaching and call to repentance and conversion must be done in charity, always remembering the dignity of each human person as an image of God. (Even in comment boxes. Especially in comment boxes.) But charity does not mean we ignore the call to repentance; we often forget that the beginning of Christ’s preaching was “Repent!” (Mark 1:15). We also must understand that we do not get to set the timeframe for another’s conversion. Some may respond immediately, others may take years, even decades for God’s grace to work in them. We simply remain faithful to proclaiming the Gospel truth, no matter the results.
Hopefully, if faithful Catholics begin to replace dialogue with charitable proclamation, eventually the endless repeats of “That 60’s Show” will be permanently cancelled.
Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993. He is the father of seven children and author of seven books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did.