Dialogue as a Model for Communication in the Church

by Hermann J. Pottmeyer

Professor Hermann J. Pottmeyer is one of Europe’s leading Catholic theologians. He studied with Lonergan at the Gregorian University in Rome and taught with Carl Rahner at the University of Munster. Dr. Pottmeyer is Professor of fundamental theology at the University of Bochum, Germany. He is the author of fifteen books. Among his articles in English are: "The Traditionalist Temptation of the Contemporary Church," America, Aug. 29, 1992); "A New Phase in the Reception of Vatican II: Twenty Years of Interpretation of the Council;" and "Why Does the Church need a Pope?

This article is from Media Development, World Association for Christian Communication, London, 1992.


Dialogue as a Model for Communication in the Church, by Hermann J. Pottmeyer

The transition from a style of authority that was part patriarchal and part authoritarian to one that is exercised in the form of dialogue creates difficulties for the Church. The new awareness that ‘we are all the Church’ creates fear in some people. The author looks at the process of communication-reception-in the early Church, and concludes that the bishops must also be listeners and seek guidance in Holy Scripture and in the tradition of the faith of the People of God.

I. Dialogue as the Key to the Ecclesiology of Communion

The theological understanding of the Church allows for a wide range of emphases. This is shown in the history of the Church and in ecclesiology. History reveals a direct connection between the image of the Church that may be predominant at any given time and the forms of communication which the Church favors during that same time. As Klaus Kienzler noted in his chapter, Vatican II continued the tradition of the early Church. It defined the Church as the People of God and as the communio fidelium (the communion of believers). This vision of the Church as a community of brothers and sisters included dialogue, which became the guiding principle and the basic model for communication in the Church. The Council affirmed:

The Church stands forth as a sign of that brotherliness which allows dialogue and invigorates it. Such a mission requires in the first place that we foster within the Church herself mutual esteem, reverence, and harmony, through the full recognition of lawful diversity. Thus all those who compose the one People of God, both pastors and the general faithful, can engage in dialogue with ever-abounding fruitfulness. For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything that divides them. Hence, let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful, and charity in everything (Gaudium et spes 92).

The word "dialogue" as a description of communication within the Church is new. It is not found in preconciliar ecclesiology whose key words were "jurisdiction" and "obedience." The following priorities characterized preconciliar ecclesiology.

- the priority of the universal Church over the local Church (universalist ecclesiology)

- the priority of the ordained office holder over the congregation and the charisms (clericalism)

- the priority of the monarchical over the collegial structure of office (centralism)

- the priority of unity over plurality (uniformity) One-way communication "from above to below" corresponds to the hierarchical system of strict superiority and subordination.

The ecclesiology of communion reveals a different picture. The communio fidelium (the communion of believers) is structured as the communio ecclesiarum (the communion of churches). The following characteristics distinguish it from preconciliar ecclesiology.

- an organic connection between the universal Church and the local churches

- the cooperation between ordained office holders and lay people

- the theological necessity of both primacy and collegiality

- unity within plurality

The above qualities are necessary for that communication which is characterized as dialogue. Paul A. Soukup rightfully noted: "Those who choose this model of dialogue as defining the communication process usually choose a model of the Church or local community that is small enough to facilitate the face-to-face communication they seek."' Dialogue means mutual communication in which the partners-their experience and their judgment-are taken seriously. This does not exclude the official authority of the pastors and the obedience due to them, but it requires the pastors to exercise their authority in dialogic fashion." 2

II. The Danger of Reverting to One-Way Communication

The transition from a style of authority that was part patriarchal and part authoritarian to a style of authority that is exercised in the form of dialogue creates difficulties for the Church. The new awareness that 'we are all the Church' creates fear in some people. This is one of the reasons for the tendency to return to one-way communication. One indication of this is the emphasis in recent Church documents on obedience to the hierarchical teaching authority and on the relationship between hierarchical superiority and subordination.

This development can be briefly outlined as follows. Dei Filius of Vatican I (Denzinger-Schonmetzer 3008) and Dei Verbum 5 of Vatican II demanded full submission of "intellect and will" as the "obedience of faith" which we owe to God who reveals himself Lumen gentium 25, however, demanded "religious obedience of the will and the intellect" to the teaching of the bishops and the Pope. Although the use of the expression '.of the will and intellect" to designate obedience toward the hierarchical teaching authority creates problems, its exclusive application in Lumen gentium 25 to non-infallible teaching authority is still not clear. Canons 752 and 753 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law use the expression "religious obedience of the intellect and will," which has become the specific way of describing adherence to non-infallible statements of the hierarchical teaching authority. This creates the unfortunate impression that when the teaching authority of the Church cannot or does not wish to make a definitive statement and in principle leaves open the process of searching for the truth, this process is at once terminated by the demand for obedience.

This same line of thought is continued in the new version of the Professio fidei and the Oath of Fidelity of 1989.3 Although Canon Law had already required it, "religious obedience" must also be promised and sworn to by all theologians and office holders. The "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian" issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1990, stated that no public discussion of non-infallible doctrinal statements is permitted within the Church. Although Pius XII had

already said as much in 1950, Vatican II did not adopt that declaration. 4 According to Canon 1371.1 of the Code of Canon Law, any "pertinacious rejection" of non-infallible doctrines is punishable, even if the rejection is based on justifiable doubt. 5

This development concerns many Catholics. It makes dialogue in the Church more difficult, and it can hardly be reconciled with the following recommendation of Vatican II: "Let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful, and charity in everything" (Gaudium et spes 92). Nor does it correspond to the actual position of the majority of the faithful today. Their fidelity to the faith and their acceptance of the truths of the faith are based less on obedience to their pastors than on understanding and conviction. Such an approach also corresponds to what Vatican 11 called the "dignity of human person and their social nature." Even in the area of religion, men and women attain to the truth through "right and true judgments of conscience" which are formed as a result of "free inquiry, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication, and dialogue" (Dignitatis humanae 3).

III. Reception within the Process of Dialogic Communication

In order to prevent Church communication based on dialogue from becoming becoming abstract or merely turning into a moral appeal, it will be worth our while to take a close look at a specific aspect of the process of communication-reception-in the early Church. Structurally, the early Church was a communion of local churches (communio ecclesiarum). Each individual local Church considered itself to be a communion of believers (communio fidelium). Even though the Church of Rome acquired particular respect because of its association with the apostles Peter and Paul and eventually became the point of reference for the whole Church, the relationship among the local churches and with Rome was not understood in the sense of jurisdictional superiority or subordination. Communication among the churches was achieved by mutual exchange of information concerning their respective traditions of faith and ecclesial customs and by mutual reception. In this way-whether through normal communal relations or at synods and councils-a consensus developed. It took place first among local churches and ultimately within the entire Church.

We must pay particular attention to the process of reception in the early Church. There are good reasons why the concepts of reception and dialogue have not played a role in modem ecclesiology prior to Vatican II. In fact, within a system of jurisdictional superiority and subordination, reception has no separate or legally relevant significance. In such a system, it is presumed that official decisions will be received without hesitation and out of a spirit of obedience. This differs from the practice within a Church that perceives itself as being a communion of sister churches. The manner of reception in the early Church was part of a process of communication based on dialogue.

As a result of his investigations, Yves Congar defines reception in the early Church as follows: "By 'reception,' I mean the process by means of which a Church body truly takes over as its own a resolution that it did not originate in regard to itself, and acknowledges the measure it promulgates as a rule applicable to its own life." 6. This definition is purposely couched in general terms in order to cover the many processes of reception. What is received is not only doctrinal truths but also disciplinary matters, ecclesiastical laws and customs, as well as persons. The recipients may include not only local churches but also institutions of the universal Church or synods of the local Church. The processes of reception can go from the level of the universal Church to that of the local churches or vice versa.

Yves Congar characterized the special character of reception at the time of the early Church as follows:

Reception includes something more than what the Scholastics called '.obedience." For the Scholastics it is the act by which a subordinate submits his will and conduct to the legitimate precepts of a superior, out of respect for the latter's authority. Reception is not a mere realization of the relation "secundum sub et supra": it includes a degree of consent, and possibly of judgment in which the life of a body is expressed which brings into play its own, original spiritual resources. 7

According to Congar, 8 the method of reception practiced by the early Church was "dangerous" to preconciliar ecclesiology, since in the early Church the adoption of papal and conciliar decisions by the local churches or individual believers was not simply the fruit of obedience but rather that of the recipient's own judgment regarding the truth or expediency of such decisions. This does not exclude due consideration being given in this judgment to the authority of a pope or a council. However, it is important that the ratification of a decision through ecclesial consensus gives it considerable weight. According to current terminology, reception by consensus does not per se validate a decision. Rather it confirms the decision and its intrinsic authority and thus contributes to its respect. Moreover, this makes it easier for any additional reception to take place. Indeed, the consensus of the universal Church regarding doctrinal decisions was, from the outset, the most important criterion in determining whether a doctrinal statement was to belong to the Church's binding tradition of faith. This is linked to the idea that the Church is a community in which all the members have joint responsibility. This is why canon law adopted the secular Roman legal maxim: "Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet" ("What concerns all must be discussed and approved by all").9 This idea is also the basic premise of communication that is based on dialogue.

Vatican II emphasized the active and creative role played by the faithful during the process of tradition and reception. "There is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts" and also through the "intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience" (Dei Verbum 8). At the same time, the People of God are guided by their sense of the faith. Their faith "penetrates" the Word of God "more deeply by accurate insights and applies it more thoroughly to life" (Lumen gentium 12).

IV. The Exercise of Ecclesial Authority in Dialogue

The above discussion leads us to posit three demands for the exercise of authority in dialogue. First, bishops should consider to whom their decisions are addressed as serious conversation partners and take their insights and judgments into account. This is best accomplished by prior consultation. Second, the manner in which bishops seek the truth and arrive at decisions should lend credibility to their decisions; their decisions should have a convincing ring to them and thus make reception easier. Third, the new experiences acquired in the process of reception by the faithful should be taken into consideration and, if necessary, lead to the improvement or correction of the decisions.

The United States Bishops' Conference in its pastoral letters on peace (1983) and the economy (1986) are good examples of the exercise of authority in dialogue. In both instances, the bishops first released a draft of the pastoral and invited members of the faithful to comment on it. The bishops carefully screened the responses, and, if they were useful, they took them into account as they prepared the next draft. That draft was in turn also submitted for discussion. Finally, relying on their authority, the bishops ratified the final version of the text. As a result, those pastoral letters received great attention, in contrast to many other Church documents. In 1990, the Austrian Bishops' Conference followed the same procedure in preparing its pastoral letter on social matters.

What is remarkable in this process is the linking of consultation and creative reception which leads to consensus. This was done without questioning the higher responsibility of the bishops. During the reception of the various drafts, the faithful were invited to reflect on the issues under discussion and to form their own opinions. By asking the faithful to share the results of their deliberations, the bishops consulted the faithful with a view to the subsequent draft of the document and, ultimately, the final version. We should add that at issue were matters which many members of the faithful had already reached a reasoned judgment on the basis of their own experience and insights. Obviously, modem communications media are extremely important in this kind of consultative process.

An objection has been raised concerning the process used by the American bishops' conference. Some say that it distorted the divinely founded distinction between the teaching Church and the listening Church. Behind this accusation stands a preconciliar ecclesiology, although one must acknowledge that the distinction does have some positive value. It means that not everyone in the Church has the right to speak for the Church and to claim that such teaching is binding. However, in the search for truth, the distinction between the teaching Church and the listening Church does not apply. The bishops must also be listeners and, like all the members of the faithful, must seek guidance in Holy Scripture and in the tradition of the faith of the People of God.

The pastoral letters we have mentioned dealt with contemporary social questions. They showed, however, that the transmission of the faith involves not only the imparting of dogmatic truths but also the living witness of the Gospel in the modem world. Responding to the challenge of "the signs of the times" (Gau&um et spes 4), the Gospel must be continually reinterpreted and witness must be given to its healing and liberating power in life. The contribution made by the faithful is indispensable if "the signs of the times" are to be recognized and a living witness is to be given to the Gospel in the Church and in the world. Bishops, therefore, must take into account the judgment of the faithful. All we have said adds greater weight to the necessity of exercising authority in dialogue.

Although we have limited ourselves in this chapter to the discussion of dialogue within the Church, we must not forget that Vatican II also used the term "dialogue" to refer to communication with separated Christians,10 with non-Christians and atheists,11 with the entire human family, and with the world.12 This aspect deserves our attention even more than the use of the dialogue model for exchanges within the Church.

Of course, dialogue may have its own special conditions according to the various partners involved. Yet the latter should be recognized as such and be taken seriously. The ghetto mentality of preconciliar ecclesiology is thereby abandoned. However, in order for the Church to show itself "the sign of that brotherliness which allows honest dialogue" among all human beings, it will be necessary "to foster within the Church itself . . . dialogue with ever abounding fruitfulness" (Gaudium et spes 92). The important goal of global dialogue on which the future of humanity depends will not be served by a relapse into preconciliar one-way communication.




l. Paul A. Soukup, Communication and Theology: Introduction and Review of the Literature (London. 1983), P. 50.

2. See Lumen gentium 37.

3. See Catholic Theological Society of America, Report from the Committee on the Profession of Faith and the Oath of Fidelity (Washington, 1990), and Gustave Thils and Th. Scimcider, Glaubensbekenntnis und Treueid (Mainz, 1990).

4. See Giuseppe Alberigo and FTanca Magistretti, eds., Constitutionis dogmaticae Lumen gentium synopsis historica (Bologna, 1975), pp. 296 ff.

5. See Bernard Hiring, "Erzwingung von Verstandesgehorsam gegentiber nicht-unfehlbaren Lehren?," Theologie der Gegenwart 22 (1986): 213-19.

6. Yves Congar, "Reception as an Erclesiological Reality," in Concilium (English edition), no. 77 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 45.

6. Yves Congar, "Reception as an Erclesiological Reality," in Concilium (English edition), no. 77 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 45.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 43.

9. See Gaines Post, "A Romano-Canonical Maxim 'Quod omnes tangit,' in Bracton," Traditio 4 (1946): 197-251. Also see Yves Congar, "Quod omnes tongit ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet," Revue historique de droit frwkais et diranger 36 (1958): 210-259.

10 See Unitatis redintegratio 9, 14, 18, 19, 21.

11. See Gaudium et spes 21, 92.

12. See Gaudium et spes 3, 40