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The Fetishism of Dialogue

by Bishop Robert BarronMay 20, 2009

It was with a great deal of dismay that I listened to the speeches given last Sunday at Notre Dame by Fr. John Jenkins the President of the University and Barack Obama the President of the United States. Both are decent men and both are eloquent speakers, but both, I’m afraid to say, are confused in regard to some fundamental matters. Fr. Jenkins wrapped himself in the mantle of humility and open-mindedness, protesting that he was standing in the great Catholic intellectual tradition of dialogue and conversation, and President Obama cast himself in the role of reconciler and peace-maker, discoverer of “common ground” between people who radically disagree with one another. When protestors shouted out during his speech and Notre Dame students began to chant the Obama campaign slogan, “yes we can” in order to drown out the offending voices, the President calmly passed his hand over the crowd and said, “we’re alright; we’re alright.” He seemed to embody the very principle that he was articulating. So why was I dismayed at such humility and equanimity? 

It comes down to that slippery little word “dialogue.” I realize that to say that one is against dialogue is akin to saying that one is impatient with motherhood, patriotism, and sunny days. But the point is this: one should, in certain circumstances, be suspicious of dialogue. The great Canadian Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan laid out the four basic moves that characterize the action of a healthy mind. First, he said, a properly functioning mind ought to be attentive, that is to say, able to take in the facts, to see what is there to be seen. Second, it ought to be intelligent, by which he meant, able to see forms and patterns of meaning. In the scientific context, this corresponds to the formulation of hypotheses or likely theories. In more ordinary cognitional contexts, it means conversation, the sharing of ideas, dialogue. It is at this stage that open-mindedness is a great virtue, because sometimes the most outrageous theory turns out to be right. But the healthy mind cannot stop at this stage. It must move next to what Lonergan called reasonability. This stage of judgment, the moment when the mind, having surveyed a variety of possibilities and scenarios, having listened to a range of perspectives, finally decides what the truth is. Many people balk at judgment, precisely because it is painful. The word “decide” comes from the Latin term “scisere,” which means “to cut.” The same words stand at the root of “scissors” and “incision.” All judgments, all decisions, are bloody, because they cut off a whole range of rival points of view. Then finally, having judged, Lonergan says, the mind must move to responsibility; it must accept the implications, both intellectual and behavioral, of the judgment that it has made. 

What I sensed in both Jenkins’s and Obama’s speeches was a sort of fetishism of dialogue, an excessive valorization of the second stage of the cognitional process. The conversation, they seemed to imply, should remain always open-ended, the dialogue on-going, decision or judgment permanently delayed. But dialogue is a means to an end; it is valuable in the measure that it conduces toward judgment. G.K. Chesterton said that the mind should remain open, but only so that it might, in time, chomp down on something nourishing. The Church has come to the considered judgment that abortion is morally objectionable and that Roe v. Wade is terrible law, as bad as the laws that once protected the practices of slavery and segregation in our country. To suggest, therefore, that a Catholic university is a place where dialogue on this matter is still a desideratum is as ludicrous as suggesting that a Catholic university should be the setting for a discussion of the merits of slavery and Jim Crow laws. I would like, actually, to stay with these last examples. Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the legendary retired President of Notre Dame, was mentioned several times in President Obama’s speech as a model of the dialogue and openness to conversation that he was extolling. Does anyone think for a moment that Fr. Hesburgh, at the height of the civil rights movement, would have invited, say, George Wallace to be the commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary degree at Notre Dame? Does anyone think that Fr. Hesburgh would have been open to a dialogue with Wallace about the merits of his unambiguously racist policies? For that matter, does anyone think that Dr. Martin Luther King would have sought out common ground with Wallace or Bull Connor in the hopes of hammering out a compromise on this pesky question of civil rights for blacks? The questions answer themselves. 

Then why in the world does anyone think that we should be less resolute in regard to the heinous practice of abortion which, since 1973, has taken the lives of 43 million children? Why does anyone think that further dialogue and conversation on this score is a good idea? I think those questions answer themselves too.