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Don’t Fear Franciscan Dialogue

Two important new articles on Pope Francis appeared this weekend. The first by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig for The New Republic examines, at some length, conservative “reverence” vis-à-vis ideas of tradition and dialogue. It’s a stunningly well-written piece as we’ve come to expect from Bruenig, and no matter your pragmatic sense it remains impressively balanced throughout. The second article is an interview with Cardinal Burke by Rorate CaeliAs usual, Burke is remarkably clear and charitable. Both deserve reading in their entirety.

At first, the relationship between these articles—aside from coincidental publication—appears to be their diametrically opposed points of departure. Bruenig is continuing coverage on conservatives “at war” with Francis. Rorate, on the other hand, emphasizes primarily Francis’s (and specifically, Francis’s administration’s) persecution of tradition-minded clergy.

While that’s true, another—and frankly much more interesting—connection lies in a diametrically opposed presentation of “dialogue,” or perhaps better, dialectic. The word “dialogue” itself appears only in Bruenig’s piece; she uses it to typify the style of engagement that Francis maintains with the past and with his apostolic mission at present, motivated in large part by the manner of his namesake, Francis of Assisi. (Of course, there’s room for everyone to identify with the poverello, especially those who love the liturgy.) And she’s right: Francis is nothing if not a man in conversation with virtually everyone whose path he crosses. Francis, we’ve learned, always has something to say.

A lacking sense of “dialogue” is understandable in Rorate‘s questions to Cardinal Burke: The angle of persecution doesn’t permit such things, and even implies against them. Burke doesn’t offer a correction outright; quite unlike Francis, he’s nothing if not direct and succinct toward his interlocutors. But as usual, he does call attention back to more “dialectical” principles by emphasizing the importance of due process, the influence of duly appointed curial bodies, and even “the nature” of these things.

It would be a mistake to believe that, at least somehow, “dialogue” is anything other than a proxy for one’s own barometric reading of success. The ruffle amongst conservatives is very real—exemplified in the five hundredth interview of Cardinal Burke asked seemingly the same ten questions. Just so, realizing the “new riches at every turn” provided for by Francis’s “dialogical approach,” as Bruenig puts it, is not nearly as simple or pristine as advertised.

Dialogue and dialectic are bloody games, but in many ways they’re just that: games. And games, by definition, demand total adherence to certain rules. For dialogue and dialectic to work we need to give less heed to color commentary and pay our entire attention to the moment we’re actually in. The draw of both Bruenig’s and Rorate‘s pieces are that they do encapsulate a particular lived experience; but at the cost of having to extract oneself too far from it to remain an uninterrupted participant.

If Franciscanism highlights one thing above all, it’s that freedom is primarily intensive rather than extensive. This is the real brilliance of Francis of Assisi; and it’s the hallmark of true dialogue that we should be careful not to talk away.


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  • Does anyone really want to have this conversation? For as thoughtful as ESB is, the vast majority of interlocutors are simply not willing to hear Francis out or at best, find him a naive fool that doesn’t realize the consequences of his dialectic in terms of restraining or promoting partisan passions. The Catholic chattering classes cannot be expected to take their conversations as an important mediation of the Holy Father’s words to the ordinary Catholic faithful. They simply cannot be bothered.

    • Gabriel S. Sanchez

      At one point in history, I wonder, did armchair psychologizing replace thoughtful analysis and careful criticism in the realm of ideas? It must have been some time ago, before all of us were born. Now we accept it was commonplace and never bother once to question it. Good gravy.