Toward Dialogue With the Church

A recent article about the Pope’s address to the European parliament poses questions that I think many of us have been asking ourselves.

“The Pontiff wasn’t the most obvious person to deliver hard truths to elected politicians about the rising threats to the democracies they serve, or, as head of the Catholic Church, to convey a blast against global corporations that undermine the democratic process by co-opting institutions, as he resonantly expressed it, to ‘the service of unseen empires.’ Yet standing at the lectern at the center of the plenary chamber, peering through wire-rimmed reading glasses at his script, he did these things and more. The leader of a religion that has created its share of fractures made an eloquent plea for the European Union to rediscover its founding principles of “bridging divisions and fostering peace and fellowship.’” ((Mayer, Catherine, Pope Urges ‘Aged and Weary’ Europe to Accept Migrants and Reject Hunger. Nov. 25, 2014. Time. Available:

This attempt is important because questions can’t be answered until they are asked. It seems that even if a writer is willing to participate in the conversation, there is a vague notion that dialogue with the church must be justified to a secular audience. I think I’ve answered some of these questions for myself, although there’s much I don’t know about the church, so any errors are unintentional.

First, the church’s defense of democracy, isn’t a new innovation—the supporting theology has been developed over the last century. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was published fairly recently but it was preceded by documents dealing with similar issues. The first was Rerum Novarum, the Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor, published in 1891.((Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor. Available:

Next you might be wondering about the level of religious commitment required for participation in this dialogue. The Evangelii Gaudium clarifies the part the church is willing to play in the conversation and it also deals with what it requires of other participants. If you are concerned about what is required of you, you would have to read it for yourself, but for what it’s worth I have a few thoughts.

It’s possible that the requirements are different for the dominant class than for bloggers like me. With the doctrine of solidarity, the Pope addresses society’s leaders. Solidarity urges justice for the working classes in the service of social peace. It’s true that in the past it’s also been a defense against socialist solutions, but in times of turmoil the political left, which is part of the dominant class, has participated in solidarity. From the church’s point of view this is not a cynical maneuver:

“The precepts of the sabbatical and jubilee years constitute a kind of social doctrine in miniature[28]. They show how the principles of justice and social solidarity are inspired by the gratuitousness of the salvific event wrought by God, and that they do not have a merely corrective value for practices dominated by selfish interests and objectives, but must rather become, as a prophecy of the future, the normative points of reference to which every generation in Israel must conform if it wishes to be faithful to its God.”((Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Available:

There are fewer alternatives available to the working class today, and immediate dangers threaten our ability to agree on them.  So in the short-term I think it’s important to at least understand what is being offered by the other participants in the conversation. This brings me to another set of questions unique to women.  In view of the importance to women of the reproductive rights issue, I think it’s necessary to offer a rationale for those who are otherwise inclined to consider the church’s proposals as a way forward. (I don’t think it’s likely that the church will change its position on abortion, but more on that later.) The rationale for female participation begins with the Pope’s statement that women should have a greater voice in the church. Critics have said the place of women in the church will not change all that much, but I don’t think this opening should be taken lightly. From what I can tell, the church continues to build on the statements of previous encyclicals. According to Catholic writer and historian Hilaire Belloc, change happens slowly with actual practice following a change in attitude.

“First comes in every great revolution of European affairs, a spiritual change; next, bred by this, a change in social philosophy and therefore in political arrangement; lastly, the economic change which political rearrangement has rendered possible.”((Belloc, Hilaire. The Crisis of Civilization. New York: Fordham University Press, 1937))

Claims to religious and political authority are always predicated on the ability to fulfill social responsibilities. The church is honoring its responsibilities at this time, while our politicians are doing their best to prove themselves illegitimate. I’ve based many of my previous articles on the assumption that the system is not working. I’ve even considered the possibility that it’s unworkable. There’s one way to prove me wrong and that is to make it work. If politicians can’t immediately solve the problems, they can at least begin to move in that direction.

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