Learning from Atheist-Theist Dialogue: Seven Virtues for the Present and Future Church

By: Peter Admirand

September 23, 2020

Changing the Church: The Legacy of Gerard Mannion

In my forthcoming book, Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue, co-written with humanist philosopher Andrew Fiala, we structured a dialogue around seven agreed virtues. Our aim was to focus on what we can learn from one another and solidify commonalities, even as we grappled with elephant-in-the-room differences. What happens if I apply these virtues to the timeless, but always urgent call for church reform? Specifically, how does my dialogue with an atheist reveal hope and direction for my vision of the future Catholic Church?

Seven Virtues

1. Harmony

Harmony at its best is a celebration and acceptance of difference and overlap, seeking balance and proportion. It does not strive for dominance and an overcoming or absorption of otherness but encourages flourishing through creative tension. Traditionally embodied by many indigenous faiths, harmony with nature is becoming the overarching platform to find our place and identity with all sentient beings. When we speak of the universal church, there is a temptation to name and enforce uniformity, and so the challenge here is not to remove all barriers but to see many of these lines or walls as porous and flexible. A church of harmony also, of course, points to the Catholic Church’s rich history and present growth in the Global East and South.

2. Courage

Perhaps my claim here veers into recklessness, but can the Catholic Church have the courage to break (almost) everything down to nurture something more organic, life-giving, and Christ-like? It is long past time for another Church Council (preferably Nairobi I, not Vatican III). Could, then, everything but love and healing of one’s neighbors and the Christ-like example of service and forgiveness to all, be open for discussion? Such would mean a candid evaluation of Church structure and canon law—not just regarding an all-male celibate priesthood and hierarchy, but demanding challenging questions on the essence of what it means to be a disciple of Christ amidst God’s creation of a religiously plural world. A more radical idea: What if the next council involved Catholic (and non-Christian) participants from across the world and all walks of life, with the majority chosen by lot, provided that factors like race, gender, class, sexual orientation, disability, age, education, and ethnicity were factored in to ensure robust diversity?

3. Humility

What does a truly humble church entail? In my theological work with testimonies of mass atrocity and genocide, failures of all religions, states, and ideologies can sometimes seem the only common denominator. Yet, there are also moments of grace and connection—though such moments and acts are neither contained nor restricted by any so-called chosen people, nation, or faith. Can the Catholic Church not only recognize these universal truths, of the failure of all religions and ideologies, but still celebrate the ground and hope for renewal and God’s presence? 

4. Curiosity

A church of curiosity would not shudder and enclose itself in walls and feel threatened by difference. It would seek to explore and push boundaries, testing and refining old ways, forging untrodden or overlooked paths. Guided by imagination, such a church of curiosity would ask—and attempt to answer—unanswerable questions; so-called impious or closed questions. In dialogue with humility, it would also recognize moments of silence or healthy boundaries. With courage, it would not be stuck in comfort and routine. How rich would Catholic participation in interfaith dialogue or science become?

5. Honesty

An honest church would have to face searing truths. Such an honesty cannot explain away all the many moral failures of church practices, institutions, and ideologies, nor rampant Christian complicity in various forms of home, state, and interreligious violence (or silence). Honesty demands seeing how church institutions have upraised and lauded a certain kind of human being—usually Christian, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, white-skinned, and wealthy—to the detriment of the majority. An honest church would speak of a failed, broken church

6. Compassion

The key to assess a church of compassion is not in the language of church documents, but in the judgments of non-Christians; of women; the poor and imprisoned; and people of color, especially indigenous groups. We need to hear from victims of church sinfulness and from those exiled from the church, like divorced Catholics or those who had abortions. We need to hear from the youth. We all know institutional church belonging and participation are declining, particularly among teenagers and young adults—and so what do they have to say about the Catholic Church? As compassion demands active, engaged listening, will the church hear and act upon what these groups have to say? 

7. Honor

Lest anyone wonder, the above is my attempt to honor my love of Christ and vision for a more inclusive, humble, and bold church—not afraid to admit its ignorance, uncertainty, and doubt, but deeply committed to learn and engage with those of all faiths and none. As Andrew Fiala taught me in our dialogue, an important element of honor is showing respect towards what others value and trying to understand why they value what they do. As he writes: “ethical disputes stem from divergent accounts of what is of value, what ought to be honored, and how we ought to apply our ethical ideas in specific cases. There is a dispute between theists and atheists about the role of ‘the holy’ in all of this.”

The Holy Within and Without

In the end—it is the “holy” within and without for which we all strive. A church, and especially its people, embodying these seven virtues, will still be a flawed, broken church and people, still in need of renewal and reform. Questions will multiply more than answers. The journey will not be smooth, but if a true breaking down and rebuilding did not occur after failures in the New World, or amidst and after the Shoah, or the systemic child abuse scandal in the Church, what devastation will it take? If not now, when?

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