The Pope of the Dialogue

“In all the exchanges of Pope John’s four-year pontificate,”says BARBARA WARD,“one can observe a common thread: to understand what lay behind men’s angers and suspicions, to find what united men and where a common interest could be discerned.”Here is Barbara Ward’s appraisal of the late Pope.

IN ONE of the hymns of the great feast of Pentecost, the faithful pray that the Holy Spirit may “loosen men’s rigidities" (fleve quod est rigidum), and if there was one grace which seemed more than any other to illumine the pontificate of John XXIII, it was surely this. Wherever he found a human situation caught in a rigor of fear, hate, anger, or distrust, he began, patiently and quietly, to look for the means of reconciliation, or, if this was beyond reach, its preliminary — relaxation.

His method was simplicity itself. He sought the man behind the emotion, greeted him with the affectionate courtesy which men owe to each other as brothers in the human family, and then invited him to speak his mind. The Pope has been called “the Pope of the Dialogue,” and one cannot exaggerate the significance of his efforts to restore communication where it had effectively broken down, to make possible a full human exchange when the effort to learn and understand had been abandoned, to put an end to antihuman confrontations in which each side, looking inward to its own fears and prejudices, does no more than fling insults and epithets across a blind incomprehending gulf.

Anyone who has reflected on his or her own reaction to opposition or encroachment must

recognize how easily the human dialogue does break down. Most of us have a sneaking vision of ourselves as completely rational, completely disinterested, and completely right. But if we are, the people who attack our positions or denounce our attitudes must, by definition, be irrational, grasping, and wrong. So we react with selfrighteous indignation. Yet, at another level of consciousness, we are equally aware that our pretensions are false. So those who criticize us expose our weakness, and we react with fear. Fear and pride make deplorable counselors. Instead of the dialogue of mutual enlightenment, we fall back on insult or the silence of injury. Communication ceases. Hatred begins. It is for this reason that historians almost always give a truer perspective of embattled issues than do contemporaries. After four hundred years of increasingly dispassionate scholarship, we know how profoundly the stagnant Catholic Church and the bellicose papacy of the Renaissance were in need of reform. We also know the degree to which the reformers, in breaking the unity of Christendom, paved the way not so much to a renewed Christianity as to the rise of the divisive loyalties of modern nationalism. There were contemporaries who had inklings of this dilemma. Erasmus, Budé, Vives, Sir Thomas More, the great generation of humanists, loved the Church as a “seamless garment,” yet longed for its radical reformation. But the reforming energies had been frustrated by 1520. Thereafter the dialogue between Christians became increasingly the dialogue des sourds, the exchanges of men deaf to each other, drowning the voice of conciliation in cries and countercries of “Antichrist” and in the clash of arms.

Now, if the passage of time and the calming of passions can show so frequently that the original dispute was not as irreconcilable as it appeared, may it not be true of present dissensions, and may it not be the path of self-interest as well as of wisdom to try the method of the renewed dialogue, in order to prevent further estrangement or, in more violent disputes, to see that hostilities do not get out of control?

THIS appears to have been Pope John’s constant preoccupation. In all the exchanges of his fouryear pontificate, one can observe a common thread: to understand what lay behind men’s angers and suspicions, to find what united men and where a common interest could be discerned. The method was perhaps most apparent in his approach to the ecumenical movement. The broad search for the reunion of Christendom did not, until the pontificate of John XXIII, receive any marked official encouragement from Rome, and at least two of the attitudes of some leading Catholic clerics had proved solid stumbling blocks. Strict theological interpretations of the Church as the fullness of Christ’s revelation and the (necessarily) complete prolongation of His ministry seemed to make it impossible for Catholic churchmen to admit that any blame, and hence responsibility, for the divisions of Christianity could be laid at the Church’s door. “We are a ‘perfect society.’ We are the True Church. Take us or leave us.” This seemed to be the last word, and clearly no dialogue can be fruitfully conducted in an atmosphere in which give-and-take is excluded a priori.

A close pendant to this attitude lay in the suspicions felt by non-Catholic Christians that, in some way, their faith and sincerity were suspect in Catholic eyes. If the Catholic Church was so obviously without blame or stain, only some special obduracy could keep men from recognizing its authentic claims. It is true that isolated attempts, as in Boston, to revive the view that salvation was possible only inside the Church were quickly suppressed as heresy. But what of the apparently more widespread belief that only Catholics could claim to be truly Christian? And could self-respecting men and women join wholeheartedly in a dialogue over which hung an uneasy question mark as to their own good faith?

In fact, both positions could be held only by adhering to a high order of theological abstraction. In existential fact, any historian studying the pre-Reformation Church knew perfectly well how wide was the spectrum of failure, and hence of culpability. And to believe that a John Wesley or a David Livingstone or an Albert Schweitzer — quite apart from millions of less notable livesdid not show forth, like a candle set in a dark room, the love and compassion of Christ was to live with a myopia worthy of the original Pharisees.

It is precisely away from thought at a high level of abstraction that Pope John sought to lead his people. In his last great encyclical, Pacem in Terris, he underlined the distinction between error as an idea and the life and conduct of people who may be said to err. The actual concrete development of history may already be leading them away from error. Moreover, their good faith and fidelity to their own conscience are alone decisive. This fundamental insistence upon freedom of conscience is one of the great liberating formulations of the encyclical.

Within the context of life as it is lived and not as it is analyzed and defined, the Pope accepted the other Christian communions as members of the Christian family, welcomed their prayers for the success of the Council, and gave their representatives the fullest access to documents and debates. In fact, one great cardinal jokingly complained to Protestant friends that they were the spoiled children of the conference, receiving meticulous translations at every turn while he had to rely on his not always very adequate Latin. The warmth of the welcome, the assiduous attention the delegates encountered banished forever any uneasy suspicion of “second-class citizenship" in the commonwealth of God.

Meanwhile, the whole purpose of the Council itself was designed to dissipate the sense of a complacent, arrogant Church. Its fundamental and explicit aim was reform, to prepare Catholics to be more worthy and effective participants in the ecumenical encounter. Although the Pope’s death interrupted the Council’s work before much had been accomplished, the guidance he gave it — which a strong liberal majority of the episcopate clearly welcomed — pointed to his sense that the Church needed to reconsider its own attitudes if there was to be much hope of finding future common ground with the other communions.

One such instance could be found in the intention to reduce judiciously the predominant role of the Roman Curia, the very symbol to the outside world of centralization and authoritarianism in the Catholic Church. Greater authority to the bishops and greater initiative to the laity both had their place in the broad consensus informing conciliar opinion, and both had an especial appeal to other Christian communions — to the Orthodox with their emphasis on episcopal authority, to the Protestants with their concept of “the priesthood of all believers.”

But the most important issue touched on at the Council concerned the source of Christianity’s guidance, inspiration, and authority. As the ecumenical movement has developed, it has become clear that of all roads to unity the most promising is the rediscovery of common traditions and roots. A moderator of the Church of Scotland has likened divided Christians to men standing on opposite sides of a river too broad and turbulent to be crossed. If they would but follow its course back along the banks to the original spring, they would reach a common source, and there, no doubt, the gap would prove bridgeable. In such a context of reconciliation much depends upon the primacy of early sources, above all, of the Bible. When, therefore, the Council received its prepared paper, or schema, on this issue, the nonCatholic observers seem to have made clear their misgivings about its emphasis upon the Church as a source of authority and inspiration, independent or quasi-independent of the Scriptures. Too rigid a definition at this point would have appeared to non-Catholic Christians to block the path back to the original springs. Thus it might have checked the work of reconciliation and rediscovery at its most hopeful point. Pope John withdrew the document.

IT CAN, of course, be argued that history has already accomplished much of the work of reconciliation between Christians. A few churchmen on either side still show “damn’d, disinheriting countenances,” but after four centuries of coexistence, Christians are not being imprisoned or burned or drawn and quartered by other Christians. The violent debate which splits the world in half today lies between Communism and antiCommunism, and although it may still be concerned with the nature and destiny of man, it is conceived in secular terms and fought over the issues of his terrestrial fate. For Pope John, however, the distinction made little difference. He used his habitual instruments of peacemaking: insistence on the distinction between error and the one who errs, emphasis on the need for selfexamination and renewal, total commitment to the fact of human solidarity, of common membership in a single family, of human brotherhood rooted in the fatherhood of God.

Naturally, there was no compounding of error. When one reads the measured, tranquil opening paragraphs of Pacem in Terris, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Mr. Khrushchev, in praising the encyclical, did not go so far as to read it. The fundamental, inalienable rights of the human person, including the free exercise of conscience; the citizen’s right to all the physical preconditions of a genuinely human existence — rest, work, shelter, food, and private property; the essentially subordinate character of the state in serving and forwarding such rights and interests: all these statements of principle add up to a total rejection of Marxist theory.

But before the cold war warriors could claim the papacy as a close ally in the anti-Communist, anti-socialist, anti-collectivist crusade, they noticed a number of nuances in statement and in policy which made John XXIII an uneasy associate. Far from upholding the “sacred principles of free enterprise,” Western-style, the Pope concluded that the government had a perfectly legitimate part to play as conductor of the plural economy’s diverse orchestra. His defense of private property itself led him to some searching questions about its effectiveness as an institution in the West. Can one in the name of private property tolerate agricultural systems in which nearly 80 percent of the people own no property at all? Is it not a weakness in Western industrialism that heavy concentrations of share-ownership exclude the majority of workers from a full part in the benefits of a system their labors underpin? In Pacem in Terris, the Pope points to the answer he sees as a possible line of compromise between the socialist and the private approach — a large extension of the cooperative principle, not only to farming but to industrial enterprise as well. And the same sense of justice and solidarity applied at the international level inspires his great plea in the encyclical Mater et Magistra that the wealthy nations who have in part achieved their wealth with the cooperation, however ignored, of coolie and fellah should now, by generous aid, ensure the poor societies a larger share in the human patrimony.

Nor was it simply institutional problems that caused the Pope to show some reticence in the confrontation between the Communist and the nonCommunist world. He lived, after all, in the city of La Dolce Vita. He cannot have been wholly unaware of the filming and publicizing of Cleopatra in his vicinity. His mild comment that men could lose their way not only through the perils of atheism but through an undue emphasis “on the comforts of material existence” was warning nonetheless that for him the materialism of the Marxist system, denounced in so many fervent Western orations, was no more and no less to be condemned than materialism from any other source. Born in poverty, experiencing early in his priesthood the impact of industrialization on the urban poor, living in France through the experiment of the worker-priests, profoundly influenced by the vivid social concern of French Catholic thought, Pope John did not accept the picture of virtuous West and monstrous conspiracy in the East enshrined in the clichés and half-truths of contemporary cold war propaganda. Errors were not condoned, but what he judged and sought to influence was the actual, historical, existential facts of contemporary society. These do not all fit into the categories of black and white, of hostility and rejection beloved of the extremists. The Pope had no intention of trying to make them do so, and thereby to block the possibility, however remote, of confrontation, of discussion, of an eventual meeting of minds.

His insistence on the existential facts of modern life was all the more intense because, as Pacem in Terris makes clear, he was profoundly aware of the degree to which the modern world of science and technology involves all human societies in daunting problems of adaptation, and forces them all to live in so close an interdependence that solving or not solving these problems is literally a matter of life and death for the whole planet. Fallout rains down on the just and unjust. The resort to force by any can destroy all. In these conditions, to provide a political and social framework within which humanity can live at peace is not a Utopian dream. It is a realist’s necessity. However different internal systems of government may be at their subordinate levels, man requires institutions at the world level. This is his need not as American or Russian, not as Communist or Democrat, but as man himself. Such an authority would not usurp the legitimate powers of state governments. But in the age of the atomic bomb, none of the state governments can safeguard the fundamental security of the citizen; they must give way to international institutions of peacemaking and peacepreserving which can do so. In pursuit of such an end, distinctions between systems have to be laid aside. Men must, in the name of man himself, conduct the dialogue of survival.

The Pope attempted to maintain it in every possible context: in the encyclicals with their explicit proposals for disarmament, conciliation, and world authority; in all his allocutions with their repeated emphasis on the world as a family and men as brothers; in his prayers — as he lay dying, “Ut unum sint” (“That they may be one”) was almost his last whispered wish; in the warmth and simplicity of his welcome to all comers. One thinks particularly of the words he addressed to Khrushchev’s son-in-law: “They tell me you are an atheist. But you will not refuse an old man’s blessing for your children.” And when he died, it seemed for a moment as though by the sheer force of a paternal love he had given a large part of the human race an experience, however brief, of a profound solidarity. Herblock’s cartoon, showing a darkened world, and above it the simple caption “A death in the family,” captured this sense of shared bereavement. And must we not admit that never, on such a scale, has anything like it been felt before?

The universal question today is whether the dialogue can be developed now that its greatest exponent is dead. There seems to be a general consensus that, in the field of Christian reunion, there can be no arresting the energies released by Pope John. At the Council, it was the liberal, ecumenically minded bishops who dominated the debate, and they derived strength not only from the Pope’s encouragement but from each other. At the papal election in June, the cardinal who most specifically declared his intention of following in Pope John’s path — Cardinal Montini — was elected on the second day, and soon after declared his intention of reconvening the Council.

But in the secular field, it can be argued that hopes of continuity are much less secure. It is not simply a question of ideological rigidity on the Communist side. Political conservatives accused the late Pope of having given Communism a new impetus in Italy, and of risking the legitimate rights of Eastern Europeans in his attempt to secure a little more elbowroom for Catholics living under Communist governments. The irreconcilables even accused him of meddling in affairs he did not understand and of bringing into the realpolitik of nations elements of illusion and sentiment which strengthen the Communists and weaken everybody else.

Such voices are also heard in the two countries on which ultimate responsibility for survival rests. Republicans attacking “softness,” Stalinists preaching the inevitability of imperialist war in fact deny the possibility of a dialogue. Yet this intractable mood does not prevail at the highest level. The dispute which Mr. Khrushchev is conducting with his Chinese “allies” turns precisely on this point of the possibility of coexistence. And within a week of the Pope’s death President Kennedy, in perhaps the noblest of all his speeches, appealed for a renewal of negotiations with Russia in precisely the terms that had constantly recurred in papal thinking: understanding of the other’s point of view, critical examination of one’s own attitudes, above all, profound acceptance of human solidarity. “We all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” This is the very language of the dialogue that Pope John sought so patiently to foster. It is also, perhaps, the most hopeful portent that his spirit and his mission will survive his death.