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

The Way of Dialogue

Dr. Eugene J. Fisher
March 1997

As an active participant in Catholic-Jewish dialogue for some twenty-five years now, I have been asked to describe how it works. This paper is excerpted from a longer reflection originally prepared for the initial meeting of the Irish Council of Christians and Jews in Dublin. The reader will note that the aim of Christian-Jewish dialogue differs from that of ecumenical (or interchurch) dialogue, which has as its goal the reuniting of churches that were once in full communion. Christian-Jewish dialogue presumes fundamental faith differences, such as belief in the Incarnation of Christ, and seeks spiritual reconciliation and understanding after centuries of tragic polemics and misunderstanding. A certain measure of shared witness and joint social action is possible, but not the full communion that is the proper goal of ecumenism. Participants in the Catholic Common Ground Initiative may judge which is closer to the goals and possibilities of their own dialogues, but it is important to work through that issue early in the process.

The term dialogue, as opposed, say, to more neutral terms such as “discussion” or “colloquium,” serves to indicate at least the presence of clear “rules of relating.” For “discussion” can easily turn into “debate” and “colloquium,” into an impersonal form of information-sharing, better handled at the neutral level of academic fora than by representatives or members of religious communities.

In proper interreligious relating, the point is not to convince the other side (note the Latin root for “to conquer” embedded in the term “convince”), but to search together for common understandings. Nor is dialogue a bargaining session in which one’s deeply held beliefs are “given away” or put at risk for the sake of compromise, or even for the sake of peace. In true dialogue, nothing of the self is given away, only increased by increased openness to and understanding of the other precisely in his or her “otherness.” There is no urge in true dialogue toward one side consuming the other (conversion) nor the creation of some synthesis of the two into some third reality alien to the traditions of each (which would, actually, be only another form of conversionism). Proselytism or conversionism are thus explicitly eschewed by both relating sides at the outset. The sole goal, if there is one, is that Jews have the opportunity to become better Jews, and Christians more authentically founded in their Christianity. It is not envisioned that the parallel lines will ever merge, only that they will travel with a more pro-found awareness of the path and the needs of the other.

The rules of dialogue of which I speak, then, derive from the actual experience of authentic local dialogues as well as those on the official level as practiced, for example, in the ongoing relationship of the Vatican with Jewish organizations.

Many of the results of such active dialogue have already found their way into official church teaching, again both Roman Catholic and Protestant, and reflect a startling change of heart (what we would call metanoia) in Christian attitudes toward Judaism. One of the outcomes, practical experience has already taught us, of systematic relations between Jews and Christians, is an immediate improvement toward the positive in our views of one another. Understanding begins to replace polemic as respect replaces the ancient animosities. Learning about the other, we discover once the process is engaged, is a thoroughly enjoyable enterprise.

Out of such practical experience as well comes an understanding of the rules of the game: its inherent limits and nearly limitless possibilities. The 1974 Vatican Guidelines addressed to all Catholics engaged in dialogue, for example, state quite clearly what is perhaps the most basic rule of all: Christians must therefore strive to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of Judaism; they must strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience. . . . Dialogue demands respect for the other as he is; above all respect for his faith and his religious convictions.

The dialogue relationship differs from the relationship of “discussion” or “colloquium,” therefore, in that it is a relating of subjects rather than objects. The others are seen as ends in themselves, not means to some “higher” objective we might hold at the outset. Each is unique and respected, not despite but because of that uniqueness. Dialogue is also the opposite of diplomacy, which seeks to forge a treaty by compromise. Its language should be the language of love: the opening of self, the mutual exploration, the deepening of self-understanding that comes through increased awareness of the other as subject rather than object.

Rabbi Leon Klenicki states this quite well:


Dialogue is both a process of inner cleansing and a search for truth. The inner cleansing is an attempt to see the other as a creature and part of God’s special design for mankind. A respectful relationship, that at this point we call dialogue until a more precise word can describe this unique, special meeting, is never a confrontation but a common fervor, mindful of the different vocations. Real dialogue calls persons into being, into their own being but mindful in acknowledging the other as a person with a way and a commitment. Religious dialogue is a recognition of the other as person, and God as the common ground of being.

Rabbi Klenicki’s reference to God as the “common ground” on which Jews and Christians stand despite the most profound theological differences that separate us has an application, I would say, for Catholic Common Ground Initiative participants as well. Even while we delineate what we share and what we cannot share, what we can and what we cannot do together to ameliorate common challenges facing all Catholics, we must always keep this ‘’bottom line” in mind. It is not who or what we are when we enter the process that counts, it is Who is calling us and what we are called by Christ to be that we must, together, seek to discern.


Dr. Eugene J. Fisher is Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and a Consultor to the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.