The Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome will be hosting a year-long series of lectures on the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae. The featured speakers are not known to be great proponents of the encyclical, while noted scholars on the subject of the consequences of ignoring the prohibition against contraception, such as Mary Eberstadt, are conspicuous by their absence. The series is, of course, billed as an “interdisciplinary study,” a form of “dialogue” among differing views – yet the preponderance of views represented leans in a certain, predictable direction.
This seems to be a recurring phenomenon when the call to “dialogue” arises – even inside the Catholic Church. When the University of Notre Dame announced it would invite newly elected President Barack Obama to deliver its 2009 commencement address and present him with a doctorate honoris causa, many objected to the nation’s premier Catholic university bestowing such honors on a politician as radically pro-abortion as Obama. He had, for instance, voted against a bill in the Illinois state legislature that would have protected children who survived abortion. (Most are currently killed or left to die post-birth. Others claimed that Notre Dame had extended such invitations to virtually every newly elected president for decades, and that the invitation was a chance for Notre Dame to express its concerns about his agenda – in other words, a chance for “dialogue.”
At that time, a friend and I found ourselves on opposite sides of the debate. I asked my friend, hypothetically: if the radical segregationist George Wallace had somehow managed to win the 1968 presidential election, would Father Ted Hesburgh, the great civil rights champion famously pictured holding hands with Martin Luther King, Jr. during a protest, have invited President Wallace to give the university’s commencement address and granted him an honorary doctorate? My friend argued that Father Hesburgh indeed would have, as “there would have been something going on in the country that merited discussion.” Fat chance, I thought.
My skepticism was deepened when Notre Dame declined to extend the same, supposedly routine invitation to President Donald Trump, citing a desire to not let controversy detract from what should be a joyous day for the university’s graduates. (One wonders where such desires were when dozens of the nation’s bishops wrote in protest of the invitation to Obama, including the bishop of Notre Dame’s own diocese.) Why would the university not want to share its concerns with President Trump as it did with President Obama? The university did invite Vice President Mike Pence, former governor of Indiana and a significantly less polarizing figure, though some graduates walked out during his speech.
When certain sectors of the Church press for “dialogue” with elements of the secular culture or those who stand opposed to the Church’s teaching, it is evident that the dialogue only moves in one direction. Just last month a conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy for Life on end-of-life questions featured proponents of euthanasia. And in January, a conference sponsored by two pontifical academies on “how to save the natural world” featured Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, who has advocated extreme policies from “sex-selective abortion to mass forced sterilization.”
Again, many Catholics protested, asking why the Vatican would give a platform to people with views so antithetical to the truths the Church professes. “Dialogue,” we are told. Yet not every Vatican conference or Catholic university seminar features people with viewpoints that oppose those of the Church. Earlier this year, a Vatican-sponsored conference on economic inequality was held in Modesto, CA that denounced racism, but that conference did not invite white supremacists in order to “enter into dialogue” with them or gain a new perspective. And one is unlikely to find any advocates for an aggressive foreign policy among the fellows at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. But why not, if the goal is dialogue with diverse viewpoints?
Some might respond, “Because such views are repugnant, and are simply to be rejected.” But the same could be said of abortion and euthanasia. What is the difference, then?
One line of defense might be that the acceptance of abortion and euthanasia are much more common in the West than are racism or military adventurism, and thus the Church must engage with such ideas to better understand them. But it is precisely because such ideas are so common they are already well known. What pro-life proponent could not give the arguments from the other side? These ideas are not mysterious to us.
If the goal is to bring in representatives of these ideas not only to listen to them but to present to them the Church’s vision – that is, to have a true dialogue – then surely these conferences would do well to invite more defenders of the Church’s beliefs, and to engage in debates or feature response panels to controversial speakers? Yet for the most part, that is not what we see.
Instead, the “dialogue” turns into a monologue, with those opposing the Church’s beliefs being given a platform by the Church itself with very little pushback. It is curious – and distressing. These are opportunities for evangelization that, instead, are squandered.
Is it any wonder now that many Catholics have grown soft on quite serious moral questions and rather skeptical of the hardier truths the Church is supposed to teach?