Two weeks ago, the University of Notre Dame’s Tocqueville Program hosted an intercollegiate faculty colloquium on “The Future of Christianity in America.” Featuring Michael Hanby of the John Paul II Institute and with invited responses from Wilfred McClay of the University of Oklahoma and Chad Pecknold of Catholic University, the colloquium explored its topic with an eye toward a particular additional theme: how might Catholic universities, such as Notre Dame, contribute to or even lead a broader Catholic "project" in America? As a staff member of the program, I was lucky enough to sit in on the discussion. One answer that I took away was: Dispose of "dialogue" as a prominent "end" for university life.
“Dialogue” has become a watchword for the American academy, one that ostensibly placeholds the conviction that a plurality of viewpoints conduces toward more fruitful intellectual inquiry. And in many instances it may well do just that. But at the Catholic university, grounded in institutional commitments to a host of truth claims and therefore in moral obligations following from those claims, “dialogue” has to be understood as a method but not as an end.
John Paul II wrote in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that the Catholic university’s “privileged task” is “to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” The Catholic university cannot affirm that more voices necessarily clarify the truth of things; they can produce cacophony rather than symphony. “Dialogue,” like its partner idol “diversity,” is valuable only insofar as it conduces toward the union of those “two orders of reality.”
Here’s why. Often, hearing more voices and perspectives representing different experiences expands community members’ understanding by exposing them to a rich array of worldviews. But dialogue on some matters is antithetical to the Catholic university’s commitments and its teaching mission. “Dialogue” about whether African-American members of the community ought to be derided or about whether some community members should be systematically discriminated against, and certain other departures from Catholic beliefs, harm the community and the university’s educational work rather than helping it.
The academy’s “diversity” trope is meaningless for the same reason. A diversity of perspectives about x may be healthy even as a diversity of perspectives about y—say, about whether academic cheating is honorable or dishonorable—is harmful.
Of course, the community must engage in dialogue about precisely which issues fall on one side or another of that line, and grey areas abound. But in practice the “dialogue” trope is invoked to defend defenseless decisions, while actual dialogue about those issues that should be discussed—say, faith and reason—is hardly to be found.
Calls for “more dialogue” should be replaced by calls for better communication. The two are not the same. Environments saturated with demands for “dialogue” often stifle the positing of strong truth claims. Proponents of unchanging metaphysical and moral norms—including those to which the Catholic university is committed—are handcuffed as insufficiently dialogical, their worldviews insufficiently tempered by diverse perspectives. Too often, environments steeped in “dialogue” become simply relativistic: learning spaces where speakers consciously preface their propositions with “Well, for me personally at least …” or, “In my opinion, which is just based on my own experiences …” or “I grew up like this and so I think ...” and so forth.
John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio that “A legitimate plurality of positions has yielded to an undifferentiated pluralism, based upon the assumption that all positions are equally valid, which is one of today's most widespread symptoms of the lack of confidence in truth.” This “undifferentiated pluralism” truly is a symptom of the Catholic university’s loss of confidence in “the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” That conviction is thought to be antithetical to the spirit of dialogue and diversity. Indeed, it might often be in practice. But the Catholic academy's calls for dialogue and diversity represent, subtly or not so subtly, a shifting perspective on the theoretical coherence of John Paul’s statement from Ex Corde.
Notre Dame has badly shirked or outright violated its institutional duties on several occasions precisely while appealing to its idols of dialogue and diversity in defense of its actions. Other Catholic universities are similarly confused and thus similarly fail their Catholic missions and worship these false idols.
At the Tocqueville colloquium—which nearly forty faculty attended—Pecknold observed that certain dialogical “parameters” must be set before such fruitful exchange can occur. The participants didn’t congratulate themselves on “dialoging” about controversial and powerful issues, though their conversation included pointed and direct claims about truth and falsehood; they simply communicated, and thereby conduced toward real community, what Patrick Deneen called the faculty collegium sadly absent from so many universities.
The importance of genuine exchange between differing perspectives remains. Dialogue properly understood advances and deepens the university’s Catholic identity; “dialogue” as it is understood and employed at Catholic universities confused about their institutional identity only further corrodes that identity.
The Catholic university is indeed “privileged” to know with certainty “the fount of truth,” in the person of Jesus Christ and in the doctrine and dogma of the Catholic Church. The effort to unite that fount with the university’s characteristic quest to discover and integrate knowledge is hampered, not helped, by an unsound understanding of “dialogue” and its merit.