One of the most promising aspects of the recent visit by Francis to the U.S. was his insistence on "dialogue." He is right to do so. American society is not a model of political and social dialogue; the global world is riven by acrimony and division. And then there is the church itself.
Francis is not unaware that dialogue is a mode of community-building, a living conduit of mutual respect, a guarantor of freedom. In his address to Congress he highlighted the special significance of the contemplative-poet Thomas Merton, whose role in shaping interreligious dialogue has become paradigmatic for our time.
But we need dialogue not only in the extra ecclesia world but in the intra ecclesia world as well. In other words, we need dialogue not only outside the church but inside too. One of the reasons why the upcoming Synod in Rome has commanded so much interest, generated so much in the way of expectation or fear, is the pope's openness to frank discussion. This is not the conventional papal modus operandi and precisely because it is a departure from the norm many people, prelates in particular, are anxious about performance and results. I don't blame them. They have not been called to this kind of forum of debate and discovery before, and when there was the opportunity to advance a view new and even prophetic--Archbishop of John Quinn of San Francisco, for instance, on the role of the papacy--the backlash proved intimidating rather than welcoming. Temerarious bishops paid a heavy price. Caution and intellectual timidity became prized episcopal qualities.
But Francis is looking for something else. And there are many who fear it; they fear dialogue because it implies vulnerability; they fear dialogue because it demands a freshness of perspective and capacity for change that they see as the roots of infidelity.
Whereas dialogue requires humility, the oracular and unassailable posture of the privileged truth-possessors demands submission and conformity.
Dialogue is the "D" word of choice. The alternative, and its shadow haunts us still, is the other "D" word: delation.