Monday, January 5, 2009

Civil Discourse. In Church?

By Charles Pilon

Earlier this year, Waiting for Mozart, the novel that I had been writing for 15 years, was finally published. During this past summer, excerpts from the story were printed here in The Progressive Catholic Voice.

Waiting for Mozart is the story (fiction) of a titanic power struggle and the madness and dysfunction it causes in a Catholic parish attempting to implement the changes called for by the Second Vatican Council. For almost 20 years, life at St. Mary’s has been disrupted by efforts to implement diverse visions for change in the Church that can’t happen until the stakeholders learn that their visions for change are flawed because they – the stakeholders – are.

I myself was a stakeholder committed to change in the Church, both as a priest ordained in 1962 and as a layman after 1971 when I left the priesthood, rescript from Rome allowing it in hand. In writing the story told in Waiting for Mozart, I eventually came to understand that my own vision for a post Vatican II Church had often been flawed, no matter on what side of the altar I stood. It had been so easy to label others, making it almost impossible to find common ground. I sometimes brought anger to the table and often no sense of humor whatsoever about the struggles involved with change in the Catholic Church. In a moment I could lose perspective on the bigger picture for reform – perhaps the one seen by God.

The question raised for many readers turning the last page in Waiting for Mozart is: interesting story, to be sure, but now what? How, in the name of God, when we disagree about matters considered important in the Catholic Church, do we talk civilly with each other?

This topic, civil discourse in the Church, was discussed thoroughly in an article “Overcoming Discord in the Church” by Timothy Radcliffe in the National Catholic Reporter (5.5.06). More recently, as keenly and at greater length, Krista Tippett addressed the issue in her book, Speaking of Faith.

My interest in this matter, after spending such a long time writing and endlessly editing Waiting for Mozart, is that I am experiencing a long-hoped-for outcome: it’s more than a good story. Readers are telling me that this fiction does raise two crucial questions: can followers of Jesus of Nazareth talk civilly with each other about their faith and the practices that follow from that faith? And will they do so, no matter how profoundly their points of view may differ or how difficult it may be?

My fondest hope after all these years is that the story in Waiting for Mozart will afford Catholics – and others, too – an invitation to consider these two simple questions deeply and at length. If we don’t address them, future generations may have occasion to ask about us: Why didn’t’ they awaken and do so while they had the chance?

What’s in a Name?

Radcliffe chooses not to use the terms liberal and conservative. He opts for Kingdom Catholics and Communion Catholics. The former found themselves liberated in many ways by the Second Vatican Council. It gave them a profound sense of the Church as the pilgrim people of God, on the way to the Kingdom. For Communion Catholics, Vatican II disrupted centuries of standard belief and practice. They felt forced to believe and to live within a Church that seemed to have changed its mind dramatically.

Radcliffe describes how both Kingdom Catholics and Communion Catholics have experienced a loss of home in their Church. He calls this loss root shock, defined as an experience – whether tsunami or war or an interstate highway built through a cherished neighborhood, destroying it – that demolishes people and the way of life they have grown accustomed to. In this case, for both types of Catholics identified by Radcliffe, root shock has followed disruptive changes brought into play by the Church they trusted.

Interpreting the root shock suffered by Communion Catholics beginning in the 1960’s, the editor at the National Catholic Reporter, by way of introduction to Radcliffe’s article, noted that “in hindsight . . . it can be said that those who embraced the impulses flowing from the council ironically used a pre-conciliar ecclesiology and understanding of authority to impose a post conciliar openness and collegiality. It didn’t work very well” (my emphasis added).

And currently, Kingdom Catholics are feeling from Communion Catholics a notable press for retrenchment from the vision and the changes brought on by Vatican II. Bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II in the 1980’s and later, and who largely embraced the Communion Catholics’ perspective, are now heading dioceses around the world and are seated in chairs of power at the Vatican.

These differences and changes and swings in leadership have at times created unbearable tension and pressures, often to the breaking (and breaking away) point for Catholics in each group. We are invited to be one, diverse as we are, in the one Bread that we break, yet so often we find ourselves overwhelmed by the pressures that accompany our differences.

Challenges to Civility

Is it this, then – root shock – that puts us so on edge, prompting incivility when we talk about church? If not, what is it that triggers the emotion, makes our eyes burn, causes us to fumble in our speech, unable to neither think clearly nor articulate what it is that we believe and want to say civilly? What is it that unnerves us so and triggers our insensibilities, our instabilities? I will speak for myself, revealing clearly, to be sure, (and civilly, I pray) that I am a Kingdom Catholic. Some Kingdom Catholics, and certainly Communion Catholics, will have other issues or see mine differently in whole or in part. In any event . . .

How do I say to my soul, “Be still now” when Benedict XVI in his encyclical Dominus Jesus proclaims salvation for all through merits earned by the death and resurrection of Jesus, no matter the person’s humble stance before the one God and faith and practice in their own religious tradition? In effect, I hear him saying, “Your salvation, friend, comes through the Jesus of Christianity, no matter whether you know it or not and whether you believe it or not. So listen up. Our Jesus saved you, Muslim. Jew and Buddhist, you don’t get it, I know, but one day you will know and you’ll understand who saved you.”

Further. I begin to slip and slide into some level of uncivil, internal hostility when a bishop says that homosexual partnering is a mortal sin that could send an individual to eternal punishment in hell. And so it would be curtains for me spiritually if I’m gay and choose to have a loving, intimate relationship and a life-long commitment with another gay person. I find that wholly unlike what Jesus would say, given what we know about him from the Gospels, though there is no specific record of his ever having addressed this matter.

And then, what is going on, I wonder, and what is Rome doing when it re-establishes the Tridentine Mass of the 16th century as an acceptable form of Liturgy, equal to the rite promulgated by Vatican II? And why the recent revival of public exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, sometimes explained as keeping Jesus company, supported by theology that would suggest he is in need of comfort or is possibly lonely. Not now, not today, please, when many people continue to think of adoration first of all, even at weekend liturgy, when they think of Eucharist – apparently still unaware, more than 40 years after Vatican II and some 70 years since the Liturgical Movement was introduced to this country, that the crucial point about Eucharist is that we come to break the bread, share it and then live by that sign for the rest of the week.

And finally, what do I say and how do I say it when people quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church to prove a given point – this the Catechism published in 1994, authored in part by Benedict XVI as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who then approved it with his imprimatur. This is the Catechism that was out of date in some of its paragraphs on the day it was released because it had not come to terms with the modern world and what we have learned from scholars and experts in various disciplines who have questioned and proven untenable some deeply held Catholic teaching.

These are matters that surface for me – easily and often. Other people have different issues and there are varying opinions on most of them. The divide is widening. What often does us in is an inexorable need to be right, to win at all costs. Frightful thinking can set in. What’s the fun and what’s the purpose in dialogue then? If you can’t come away with several points well made (wins) and other points at least a tie, then there’s neither the sense nor satisfaction that you’ve spent your time well. How does one live with this grim frame of mind and within this spreading divide – civilly?

An Affair of the Heart

Radcliffe maintains that the first thing that both Kingdom and Communion Catholics can do is to develop an appreciation – a feel – for the loss of home that the other congregation feels. It is a pain of exile, of being discounted that prompts members of one group to be afraid of the other and to make assumptions, labeling them and ignoring them to the point of not even seeing them. The heart will heal with recognition and validation of one worldview by the other. We are fellow seekers.

Preaching on the feast of the Epiphany some time ago, the pastor at my parish, Philip Rask, noted that God’s salvation is for all nations, not just one. He continued, “We need to set aside any suspicions that we have and we need to bring ourselves to believe that all the members . . . of our church are acting in good faith. We need to set aside our conviction that we have full possession of the truth and we need to bring ourselves to remember that other people are seeing parts of the truth that we cannot.”

My reading recently of Thich Hnat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ suggests to me that Buddhist practice can be helpful here. Looking deeply into another person is the beginning and the requirement for change in my own heart. Truly understanding what is there in the other and, again, looking deeply into the factors that may have caused what is there, will lead to peace in my own heart and eventually to respect for the other.

And of the Mind

The mind can help the heart. Krista Tippet quotes the Indian journalist and Buddhist, Pankaj Mishra, in Speaking of Faith. “The mind – where desire, hatred and delusion run rampant – is also the place, the only place, where human beings can have full control of their own lives.” There is a mindset – a head, if you will – that I can put on in addition to the heart that I must bring to civil discourse.

Some people are able to access that mindset through a practiced ability to bring, at first light each morning, a sense of humor to the events of the day at hand. A sense of humor is essentially a capacity and adeptness at gracefully comparing what should be or could be with the actual life situations in which we find ourselves. The contrast can be amusing and at times even downright funny.

This is not to make light of the tragic side of the human condition and the terrible things we often do to each other. However, if we can find a way and develop the habit of getting some distance mentally from ourselves and the events of the day, we could find ourselves with lighter hearts and better able to appreciate the humor inherent in the human condition.

Perhaps Kingdom and Communion Catholics alike could appreciate the humor apparent in the contrast between the discipleship Jesus stood for and the empire the Church became in the High Middle Ages, notable traces of which remain with us today.

Another head-set might be to develop and vividly maintain perspective on the place that our planet Earth holds within the universe. Personally, with no science background whatsoever, I have relished the pleasure of reading, re-reading and sitting still for satisfying periods of time with the story of the natural world and what are considered pivotal events in the evolution – the unfolding – of the universe. My trust in God each day begins with the earth in orbit around one star a million times its size – like a child’s blue and white marble in orbit around a four-foot inflated playground ball.

This star, our sun, and its orbiting planets lie two thirds of the way out one arm of our galaxy, one of one trillion galaxies in the universe. The universe, however, is not a vast, static, celestial container filled with objects like galaxies. It is a subject – a varied, multiform, developing subject. A mountain created by the universe, for example, is an acting, a doing subject – creating weather, affecting every form of life around it and changing the human who hikes its beauty.

Each of us is kin with the stars, since exploding stars created every chemical element, every creature on earth. That makes us kin, too, with the bearded iris and the tiger lily; with a whale rolling in the ocean; with trees, arms extended, open to the sun – a diverse, elegant community, to be sure.

To live this, to be inspired by it daily, requires a transformation of consciousness. The first step is simple awareness that the eye that searches the sun and the soul that delights in its warmth is the very eye, the very person, created by it. And so, as I pause to reflect on the sun, that star is truly reflecting on itself. Through the human creature the universe gives itself consciousness. Imagine! And so, to be in step with the universe, I must, absolutely, find ways to be civil within my religious tradition, within this community we call the Body of Christ.

And Finally

Language can help. It’s better to ask a question than to make a righteous, dogmatic statement. A simple inquiring attitude goes a long way. “Might it be better to say . . . ?” for example, or “What have you read about that recently?” And “Let me think about that for a minute” or “I’d have to give that some thought” seem to be good responses.

Too quickly we label people, a subject addressed some time ago by John Bauer, a priest of the Saint Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese in The Catholic Spirit, its weekly newspaper. Bauer writes that labels make it almost impossible to find common ground. A label suggests all there is to know about another person. Labels separate people who might otherwise be able to talk together civilly. And finally, and most importantly, labeling people is not what Jesus did – refusing, for example, to label as a sinner the woman who washed his feet.

Summing Up

A heart. A mindset. Civil ways of speaking. We bring these to church discourse – any discourse, in fact. There is no saying to the head, however, “Here snap this on.” Nor to the heart, “Plug this in.” The right mindset and the heart that is habitually civil develop slowly, patiently, with practice – as does everything unfolding within the universe.

At times, it seems to me that the only sure way to remain civil – all the time, on every occasion – is to be of the mind that, really, none of it makes a whole lot of difference today, this day. Nothing will change tomorrow or next month, probably, because of what I say today. But say it clearly, I tell myself, and forcefully, if necessary – what you mean and why – but don’t try to coerce, don’t be dogmatic, don’t close any doors. Just bring the right intensity at the right time and remember: conversation, not monologue; many questions, no single answer.

The way we approach our differences and divisions is as important as and says as much about our faith as the positions we take (Speaking of Faith, 186). The one God is faithful and, it seems to me, has no preference among religions. For Christians, our differences may well be resolved by some form of natural selection – what eventually works best for the survival of the essential message of Jesus.


A little over a year ago, standing before the tumbling, artfully constructed waterfall at a small lake near my home, it struck me that the two levels for observation of the falls offered a fine metaphor for civil discourse and its opposite in the church.

At the upper level, the water tumbles down into a small pool forcefully, noisily – so that you can hear nothing else – others passing or talking, bicyclists, children. It is powerful, potentially destructive, raging, won’t stop, wouldn’t listen if it could.

At the lower level I observed the same water as it flowed from the pool above – not so noisy, slower, less driven, less powerful, yet churning, twisting, beautiful, a lot more manageable and certainly able to move things and change them. It seemed creative, not destructive, would be a much more manageable flow for most people and surely, over time, more likely to get something done with less destruction..

Charles Pilon lives with his wife Ana in Roseville, Minnesota, where they raised their three children. Chuck was ordained a Catholic priest in 1962 and left the priesthood in 1970. He did not leave the Church, however, and has remained an active member from the people’s side of the altar.

To learn more about "Waiting for Mozart" or to purchase this book, visit


  1. Hey, Chuck. Your book Waiting For Mozart was very enjoyable. I identify with all the characters who were impatient for church reform so it is hard for me to have empathy with people who are satisfied with the status quo. "Civil discourse" implies to me that "communio" Catholics and "kingdom" Catholics have some common ground to begin the conversation, and I am beginning to think there is no common ground. Maybe we could discuss that here? Paula Ruddy

  2. Thank you, Paula. It seems to me that the first step to common ground is agreeing on a definition of civil discourse or dialogue. I like what I saw in the conversation between Cardinal Franz Koenig and Jacques Dupuis, SJ, published in the National Catholic Reporter 3.21.08.

    D. . . . Now when the pope talks of evangelizing in India it must first be made clear that he primarily means interreligious dialogue. But in the [congregation’s] declaration Dominus Jesus, at the end, when they speak of interreligious dialogue they still pooh-pooh it. . . . If you remember, the last part of Dominus Jesus says something to the effect that while interreligious dialogue is part of the church’s evangelizing mission, the church must be primarily committed to proclaiming the truth – and there we are again with the chief emphasis on proclamation.

    K. But what sense would dialogue have then? Genuine dialogue must be honest. There must be no ulterior motives. Of course each partner has an aim. It’s not meant to be a pointless chat, after all. The aim is to convince one’s partner of the soundness of one’s arguments. But the opposite also applies. One must equally be prepared to allow oneself to be convinced of the soundness of one’s partner’s arguments – one must want to gain an insight into them. Dialogue is not an attempt to persuade or convert – the aim is to get to know your partner and why he or she believes what they do.

    I might add, as noted in the article, root shock is currently affecting Kingdom Catholics the way it affected Communion Catholics in the 1960s and ‘70s (terms defined in the article). It seems that we Kingdom Catholics are going to experience a whole lot more diversity (in everything – from theology to practice) than we had ever anticipated or thought possible after being swept off our feet and exhilarated by the experience and outcomes of Vatican II.

    It seems to me, as well, that if a person’s mind and heart are open before, during and after a 2-hour dialogue as defined by Koenig and Dupuis, the Spirit will do most of the talking during the next 48 hours. And beyond.

  3. Hmmm. Interesting about interreligious dialogue. For centuries adherents of different religions avoided each other or fought, then they began to hold dialogues, but I wonder if anyone does that anymore. Do contemporary people engage in argument about religious beliefs? I understand presenting arguments about matters of fact and matters of interpretation of fact, and also arguments about values or moral judgments, but why present arguments about religious beliefs? Take transubstantiation, for example. Either you believe it or you don't. What arguments could convince me if I didn't believe in it? I can imagine listening to what a conversation partner believes and telling him/her what I believe, but I can't imagine trying to convince another about the superior truth of one set of beliefs about God over another set of beliefs about God. Who knows the truth about God?

    In your book, Joe Burns, the pastor, believes that his ordination bestows on him some gifts and duties that lay people don't have. That belief along with his patriarhal cultural formation and his emotional immaturity prevent him from meeting the parishioners as equals. Would arguing with him, no matter how civilly, bring him to understanding? Sheila tried, Megan tried, Jim tried, Clarice tried, but he was unable to listen and hear. They can understand his contexts because they were once in the same world of pre Vatican II Catholicism but have grown out of it. He can't understand theirs because as a cleric he hasn't had their experiences. Have you ever known a traditionally believing Catholic who appreciates the goodness of a post Vatican II mindset? That is what it would take to discuss matters of faith civilly. I wonder if that scenario can exist? If you actually experience that a new way of thinking is good, can you choose to return to the old way? I loved my old faith when I had it, but I couldn't go back there.

  4. Thank you again, Paula. I like this conversation. I hope others will join it. I wonder about your use of the word argument. I hear in your use of that word an encounter marked by hostility in varying degrees. When Franz Koenig uses that same word in the paragraph where I quoted him, I take argument to mean point of view. I don’t believe there is value for us in “argument” understood as a difference of opinion or point of view if it is marked by hostility.

    I can’t answer your question near the end of your comment (Have you ever known a traditionally believing Catholic who appreciates the goodness of a post Vatican II mindset?) as you pose it. I can learn to appreciate the goodness of a person, however, whether of pre-Vatican II or post-Vatican II mindset. And I believe that it is only with an appreciation of the other person that we can discourse civilly about any spiritual or religious matter, whether it be transubstantiation or any belief about the one God.

  5. No, Chuck. I am using the word "argument" in the same sense as Koenig used it: a series of propositions, logically valid and supported with evidence, that justify a person in holding a conclusion as true. Can religious belief be so argued?

    You ducked the second point as well. Does appreciation of the other person include appreciation of the substance of his intellectual and moral framework? Take, for example, a person who has been formed in a patriarchal mental framework. Can he appreciate a person whose formation has been in a feminist mental framework without understanding that framework? The two worlds may be unbridgeable. That is why I am questioning your idea that civil discourse can happen if only people are good intentioned. I have known many well intentioned and even loving men who have been so programmed by a patriarchical culture that they have no idea what is being said to them from a feminist perspective. It is no wonder the person they cannot understand loses patience in a conversation and engages in uncivil discourse. I think that may be the situation in the kingdom/communio tension. Ann Patrick's book Liberating Conscience is very good on this point.

  6. It has been called to my attention by a kind friend that my first paragraph above sounds uncivil. Amazing how feeling jumps out in words. Sorry, Chuck. I admit to a vex when you did not take it for granted that I was using the word "argument" in the same sense you were. In civil discourse what does a vexed person do? Get over the feeling reaction before speaking? Some cultures just let the feeling out and it seems to work. What do you think?

  7. OK, OK. You make a good point, Paula. I took the one time you used the word (argument) in the singular and for some reason it suggested to me a hostile exchange, at least to some degree – as when we say, for example, “I had an argument with her about . . .” or “We argued for 2 hours about . . .” Thereafter you use the word in the plural and it sounds and feels different to me. I agree with you that you are using it in the same sense that Koenig uses it.

    In terms of two world views that may be unbridgeable and appreciation for arguments brought to discourse that I might consider untenable, I point to the article, the last paragraph in the section An Affair of the Heart.