- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - http://catholiccommonground.org -

Planning a Dialogue Within a Parish Setting

Our experience is that doing a dialogue within a parish can be more challenging than planning dialogues with other groups.  There are several reasons for this.  In many parishes the “hot issues” which divide parishioners often have personal dimensions.  For example, issues about religious education, liturgical practice, or the roles of the laity, are not distant and theoretical, but deeply felt and concrete.  They often touch parents’ concerns about their children and pastor’s commitments to certain policies. If the parish is truly polarized, what is needed may be conflict resolution, help with administrative procedures, or healing and reconciliation, rather than dialogue.

Another important factor is that, in a parish, the polarization occurs within a network of ongoing relationships in a community.  Parishioners may not want to risk addressing a conflict directly because they want to have a peaceful future together.  Others are simply reluctant to introduce conflict into parish life, which they see as a “safe space” and source of comfort.  Some will withdraw rather than confront issues.  This is particularly true if they don’t believe they will be “heard” or if they perceive great risks in speaking out. 

One of the struggles the church faces is what someone called “horizontal excommunication,” i.e., the position that anyone holding a particular view is automatically outside the bounds of the church and therefore not able to be a faithful participatant in a dialogue.  If one is unable to suspend that judgment, even within the confines of dialogue, dialogue will not be possible.  We have to accept that there are people of good will in all groups who simply cannot accept the legitimacy of dialogue. 

Nonetheless, a well-planned dialogue with clear ground rules and an astute facilitator can minimize these risks and, in fact, enhance the life of the community. Parish dialogues can be successful if the following points are taken into consideration: