In I Must Be Talking to Myself, best-selling author Mark Patrick Hederman traces the history of dialogue in the Roman Catholic church since its introduction in the 1960s by Pope John XXIII and provides a philosophical analysis of the idea of dialogue.
He also suggests that we have only begun to understand the implications of this reality in our religious lives; that it was the Holy Spirit who must have inserted the idea into an otherwise unlikely constituency; that Christianity in the twenty-first century - which is becoming a minority interest - had better take this notion of Dialogue fully on board if it is to survive and to accomplish the unity which was the unambiguous precept of its founder.
Mark Patrick Hederman
Mark Patrick Hederman has been a monk of Glenstal Abbey in Limerick for over thirty years. Formerly headmaster of the school, and currently academic dean, he did his doctorate in the philosophy of education. He studied in Paris under Emmanual Levinas. He has lectured in philosophy and literature in America and Nigeria as well as Ireland, and was a founding editor of the cultural journal The Crane Bag. His first book, Kissing the Dark (Veritas, 1999) was a bestseller.
The question to which Mark Patrick Hederman returns repeatedly in the course of this book is whether the dialogue in which the Catholic Church is engaged with other Christians is, in the light of Martin Buber s theories, a conversation of equals, in which either partner recognises and accepts the giftedness of the Spirit in the other as well as the lacunae or an imbalanced lecturing, if not outright monologue, in which other Christians have nothing to teach the Roman tradition but have everything to gain from a magisterial Catholicism... I Must Be Talking to Myself is an ambiguous title, suggesting either the need for deep personal reflection, an examination of one s own heart, or the sort of frustration in which one feels that no-one is listening and that one may very well be muttering to oneself. The book is a very useful overview of a fraught and complex area. Doctrine and Life, November 2004.
This book is a blockbuster. The author, a monk of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland says he began it 20 years ago. It is the well-told story of how the Catholic Church has come to stand at a crossroads in history, a situation only to be expected in virtue of its divine foundation. It describes, slowly and carefully, how two phenomena, dialogue, as understood by Martin Buber, the most vivid form of self-understanding given to our time, and the Catholic Church, with her claim to be the one true Church of Christ, come face to face. But in Hederman s carefully assembled picture, the meeting is to be fruitful, for the roots of each of the participants go as deep as the mind can go. The thing that really was to set the two on what seemed a collision course was something mystical, in the full Catholic sense... The Tablet, February 2005
In I Must Be Talking to Myself, bestselling author Mark Patrick Hederman traces the history of dialogue in the Roman Catholic church since its introduction in the 1960s by Pope John XXIII. Providing a philosophical analysis of this idea in Martin Buber, he compares the uses made of it in Catholicism using that role model. He also suggests that we have only begun to understand the implications of this reality in our religious lives; that it was the Holy Spirit who must have inserted the idea into an otherwise unlikely constituency; that Christianity in the twenty-first century - which is becoming a minority interest - had better take this notion of Dialogue fully on board if it is to survive and to accomplish the unity which was the unambiguous precept of its founder. Catholic Ireland.Net
- CHAPTER 1: Genesis of dialogue
It is not possible to trace the genesis of the term dialogue as it was used in the council documents of Vatican II. The document on ecumenism, unlike the document on the liturgy, was not the result of long and laborious effort on the part of recognized and established groups working within the Church. Apart from a handful of courageous and isolated pioneers such as Cardinal Mercier, L Abb?® Portal, L Abb?® Coutourier and Dom Lambert Baudouin, the whole notion of ecumenism was a comparative novelty in Catholic theology before Vatican II.
Many would claim that the notion of dialogue, as it was incorporated into Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes and the Decree on Ecumenism itself, was the result of a direct if somewhat vague inspiration of Pope John XXIII. Be that as it may, it is clear from even a cursory reading of the pronouncements and the spiritual journal of this pope, that his ideas on dialogue and on ecumenism were, in fact, very traditional and rather limited. The evidence seems quite convincing that in spite of personal sympathy for Orthodox and Protestant Christians, he never departed from the standard Catholic doctrine that the only acceptable kind of Christian unity was a return to Rome.
However, it is also true to say, with Rene Laurentin, that John XXIII was the personification of a certain spirit and that his secret strength was instinctual rather than intellectual. This strength was embodied in two basic laws which regulated his actions: the law of growth and the law of dialogue. Indeed, it is apparent that the notion of making Vatican II into a great step forward towards Christian unity was quite incidental to his original purpose in calling the council, and could be seen as almost accidental. In his journal he has described as entirely my own idea the notion of a council, and at first this idea seemed to surprise even its author. In his opening allocution at the first session he said that it was completely unexpected, like a flash of heavenly light, shedding sweetness in eyes and hearts. So, the possibility is that the Holy Spirit having sowed the seed of dialogue in the twentieth century, allowed this Pope John, almost in spite of himself, to incorporate it into the Roman Catholic Church, much as his predecessor, John the evangelist, introduced the word logos into the Fourth Gospel.
By June 1960 Pope John came to realize the importance of Christian unity as a public aim of the council even though this goal was still connected in his mind with reunion with Rome. However, once again, it was the intuition and the deed that really mattered and here again he furthered the intuitive cause which he was fostering by inviting Orthodox and Protestant observers to attend the council sessions and by setting up the Secretariat for Christian Unity. These gestures proved to be the seeds which caused the reality of ecumenical dialogue to flower in a way that surpassed the expectations of even the most visionary pioneers of this movement within the Roman Catholic Church.
So, the notion of dialogue was greeted with euphoria by the world press and Pope John XXIII was projected through the media as the most open and the most popular pope that ever reigned in the see of Peter. Very little critical examination was applied either to the exact meaning of this word dialogue in the vocabulary of the Pope himself or to its implications in Roman Catholic ecclesiology. In fact, Pope John XXIII died before any such detailed elucidation was either possible or necessary and this task became one of the more important preoccupations of his successor, Paul VI.
Jean Guitton in an article in the London Tablet of November 1963 made the following perceptive comment on both these popes. His remarks are all the more valuable since he was a personal mend of Pope Paul VI:
John XXIII when he encountered serious difficulties raised himself above them by an act of supernatural faith; he surmounted them, he rose right above them, and so made them disappear. Paul VI, on the other hand, swoops on the difficulty like an eagle - he sees right through it, he feels it ... Paul VI likes to go to the heart of the matter and cause the solution to emerge from the core of the problem.
Many critics of the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II have suggested that the notion of dialogue was a philosophical fashion which was borrowed in a misunderstood and cheapened form and incorporated into theological jargon to make the Church look relevant and attractive to a generation which prized the dimension of interpersonal human relationships. These critics would claim that the Church had exercised a somewhat typical sleight-of-hand whereby it pretended to be open and attentive to the insights of contemporary culture by paying lip-service to the current trends in popular philosophy, but that, in fact, its understanding and use of philosophical language, especially the term dialogue, were misleading and detrimental both to the cause it sought to promote and the philosophy from which it claimed to be inspired.
In the context of such criticism, the names of Gabriel Marcel and Martin Buber are constantly evoked as sources from which the Church would have borrowed its fashionable notion of dialogue. These two philosophers are hailed as the secular authors of this unprecedented term which appeared in the history of Roman Catholic theology for the first time in the documents of Vatican II. Pope John XXIII would be nominated as the unwitting carrier of this philosophy into the alien idiom of ecclesiastical terminology.
The implication here is that the notion of dialogue enjoyed intellectual respectability and rigorous scientific definition in the realm of philosophy from which it was drawn, and that it then faded into hazy liquidity and sentimentality when introduced into the more rarefied and eclectic setting of Roman Catholic doctrine. Such an evaluation of the problem is unjustified on two counts: it fails either to face up to the mystical quality of the philosophical experience which gave birth to the notion of dialogue in the first place, or to do justice to the extremely rigorous examination of this concept undertaken by Paul VI.
Despite attempts to give a firm philosophical pedigree to dialogue by linking it to the Copernican revolution of modern thought, suggested by Feuerbach and elaborated by the so-called personalists, Gabriel Marcel had this to say about his own role in the introduction of this notion into the history of philosophy (Marcel: 1967, 41-48):
By a striking coincidence, I discovered the particular reality of the Thou at approximately the same time Buber was writing his book. His name was quite unknown to me...
Thus we are faced with one of those cases of spiritual convergence which always merits attention. Generally they are not easy to interpret. Nevertheless, without calling directly upon that Zeitgeist which is always a little too easy to fall back on, we may say the following in this case:
At a time when a philosophy which concentrated more and more exclusively upon the world of the It, the denotable, upon the Eswelt, was leading into technocratic developments increasingly perilous for the integrity of man and even for his physical existence - the current atomic threat representing merely the paroxysm of this trend - it was surely inevitable that here and there men were moved to bring clearly and methodically to consciousness a counterpoise, that is, a consideration of the Thou.
And Martin Buber also admits that his philosophy of dialogue was something given to him like a vision rather than something which he worked out for himself in a rigorously scientific fashion (Buber: 1960, 123):
When I drafted the first sketch of this book (more than forty years ago). I was impelled by an inward necessity. A vision which had come to me again and again since my youth... had now reached steady clarity. This clarity was so manifestly suprapersonal in its nature that I at once knew I had to bear witness to it. Some time after I had received the right word as well and could write the book again in its final form, it became apparent that while there was need of some additions these had to be in their own place and in independent form.
And at the end of his life Buber wrote that no system was suitable for what I had to say. Structure was suitable for it, a compact structure but not one that joined everything together ... It may not sacrifice to consistency anything of that reality which the experience that has happened commands it to point to.(Marcel: 1967, 690) Later in the same final testament, at the end of his long life of dialogue, he concludes: I must say it again: I have no teaching, I only point to something. I point to reality. I point to something in reality that had not or had too little been seen. I take him who listens to me by the hand and lead him to the window: I open the window and point to what is outside. (Marcel: 1967, 693)
Whatever these quotations may prove or disprove about the legitimacy of such intuitions in the history of philosophy proper, they certainly show that the origin of this notion of dialogue in the secular domain was no less abrupt and visionary than it was in the life of the Church. The vision which prompted John XXIII was similar to and as unformed as that shared contemporaneously by Buber and Marcel. In all three cases some suprapersonal intervention seems to have inspired the vision or the dream. And it has become a legend in the Vatican that when asked during an interview why he had decided to call a council together, Pope John XXIII went and opened a window in his study to illustrate the precise nature of that purpose.
The particular religious genius of John XXIII seems to have been his capacity to read what became incorporated into the Council documents in another ambiguous formula: the signs of the times. He was able to detect and decipher what the Spirit was saying to the Churches in those ubiquitous manifestations of this presence in the world which cannot unfold themselves within the tight confines of the official ecclesiastical organism. These manifestations infiltrate their unprecedented and surprising directives through individual seers whose sensitivity and obediential capacity are subtle and sanguine enough to receive and to relay the vibrations without shock-absorbing distortion. John XXIII had the humility to know that the Spirit of God was alive and active in the world and that his task, as pope, was to listen to what that Spirit might by saying even to the Church of Rome itself.
The vision which this pope obeyed when summoning the second Vatican Council has much in common with the one which inspired both Buber and Marcel. It was based upon an experience which was authoritative and supralogical. Obviously reason is included in this experience, not as autocratic judge or critic, but simply as one of the vehicles of the experience. The task of explaining and elucidating the experience is necessarily a logicizing one. Here reason becomes the most important intermediary. However, it is important that this task of elucidation be recognized as a second and derived moment within the total experience. Buber puts this very succinctly when describing the movement from initial vision to philosophical elaboration in the case of his own notion of dialogue (Marcel: 1967, 690):
What is important, however, is that the indispensable capacity for thought not misjudge its office and act as if it were the authoritative recipient... It is incumbent upon it to logicize the superlogical, for which the law of contradiction does not hold valid; it is incumbent upon it to hold aloof from the inner contradiction; but it may not sacrifice to consistency anything of that reality itself which the experience that has happened commands it to point to.
This second task of elucidation of the vision of John XXIII, as so often happens in an institution like the Roman Catholic Church, fell to his successor, Paul VI, and, as again so often happens in these cases, his gifts for logicizing and elaborating rationally were vastly superior to those of his predecessor. However, such gifts might have led him to misjudge his function and his role, had he not been so aware of the visionary quality of John XXIIIs original intuition, and had he not had himself so subtle an intellect.
Paul VIs elucidation of this concept came in his first encyclical of 6 August 1964, published on the Feast of the Transfiguration, Ecclesiam Suam. This text was a courageous but ambiguous one: courageous because it faces up squarely to the task of elaborating a mystery without allowing any of the scope of that mystery to be lost in the consistency of the elaboration; ambiguous because, in trying to elucidate the paradox which John XXIIIs original vision encompassed, Paul VI is forced to stretch the grammar and the words he uses in logical presentation to the point where they, necessarily, cease to have the univocal clarity which a less opaque subject matter would both allow and require.
In a striking preamble, in which he compares the Churchs dialogue with that dialogue which occurs between God and humanity, he stresses the inexpressible quality of all such dialogue (Ecclesiam Suam: paragraphs 70 & 71):
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... Indeed, the whole history of mans salvation is one long, varied dialogue, which marvelously begins with God and which he prolongs with men in so many different ways... Child and mystic, both are called to take part in this unfailing, trustful dialogue; and the mystic finds there the fullest scope for his spiritual powers.
This relationship, this dialogue, which God the Father initiated and established with us through Christ in the Holy Spirit, is a very real one, even though it is difficult to express in words. We must examine it closely if we want to understand the relationship which we, the Church, should establish and foster with the human race.
However, after this preamble, he does go on to explain what kind of dialogue the Catholic Church can engage in and here all the ambiguity begins. This text, which predates the Vatican Councils Decree on Ecumenism, leaves us in doubt as to whether, at this point in time, Paul VI really recognizes the reality of other Christian denominations. Is not his notion of ecumenism no more than a disguised form of proselytism? Does it not really boil down to a programme of education towards a truth which his Church already possesses? He says explicitly in section 80 of the text that our dialogue presupposes that there exists in us a state of mind which we wish to communicate and foster in those around us. Later in section 95 he says that what the Church is really saying to humankind is: Here in my possession is what you are looking for, what you need. So, again we are left in doubt as to whether this version of ecumenical dialogue is no more than a repetition of the idea of Christian unity as a return to the fold. This becomes more probable, and more worrying to non-Catholic observers, at the end of the encyclical where (96) Paul VI sums up the situation by describing it as a series of concentric circles around the central point at which God has placed the Roman Catholic Church. All other Christians seem to be defined according to their capacity to produce evidence of their similarity to the Church of Rome.