Paul VI’s encyclical gave council a word it came to love

July 15, 2013

Dialogue. It is one of the key words of the Second Vatican Council, but it was not part of the council’s vocabulary at all until the release of Pope Paul VI’s first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam on Aug. 6, 1964.

Even the early drafts of the council’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) did not speak of dialogue. However, when Pope Paul pumped the word into his encyclical a total of 84 times, it could no longer be ignored.

For some, the word “dialogue” connotes something wimpy, that if the Church is intent on dialogue that it is not confident in what it teaches. Why have dialogue, one might ask, if you already know the truth? The real issue is getting those who lie outside the realm to believe those truths. Right?

For Pope Paul, dialogue is the means for offering truth and grace to the world. One comes to faith, not so much through being convinced of the truth of various propositions, but through encountering those truths embodied in the words and deeds of believing Catholics.

In Ecclesiam Suam (His Church), the pope defines dialogue as “this internal drive of charity which seeks expression in the external gift of charity” (ES 64). Charity is a virtue in the soul that expresses itself by giving to others.

For Pope Paul, the origin of dialogue is the mind of God. The relations among the three divine persons are a dialogue. Dialogue in the created realm reflects the perfect dialogue that exists in the Trinity.

God’s revelation of himself to humanity is a dialogue. God reveals something of himself, and humanity encounters that truth as revealed by God.

So, dialogue is not a compromise or a sellout to an unbelieving world. The Gospel warns of “the need to keep ourselves distinct from the world,” the pope wrote (ES 59). But the Church is not to isolate itself from secular society in order to achieve some imaginary purity. Instead of condemning the world, the Church must dialogue with it.

Pope Paul VI saw the relations among the persons of the trinity as a dialogue.

Pope Paul VI saw the relations among the persons of the trinity as a dialogue.

The world cannot be saved from the outside, said Pope Paul. Rather, the Church must be in a relationship of solidarity with the people of the world and their concerns. The Church must have a heart that listens.

“Our sole purpose is to take what is good in man’s life on earth and raise it to a supernatural and Christian level” (ES 98).


Dialogue is characterized by meekness, clear and intelligible communication, confidence in the other person’s good will, and recognition of the sensitivities and circumstances of the hearer.

Its immediate goal is not conversion to the true faith. Rather, it respects both the freedom and dignity of the other, and truth’s inherent power to convince. Dialogue is confident that by a full sharing of ideas and convictions, people can come to know the truth.

Indeed, Pope Paul said Ecclesiam Suam itself was “a conversational letter.” It did not aim to impose itself or even share new insights. Nor did it deal with “the serious and pressing problems” that affect humanity. It simply wanted to spark a dialogue that would help renew the Church.

The encyclical, according to some, did not receive the attention it deserved. Today it is not often cited. Nevertheless, it had a significant impact on Vatican II.

The Decree on Ecumenism incorporated its insights and its spirit. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), the council’s most distinctive document, underwent a torturous and winding path before it reached its final form. It seems unimaginable that it would have taken the form it did without the heavy emphasis on dialogue that came from Ecclesiam Suam.


When Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council in 1959, it was an inspiration without much content. For the council to take the shape it did over the next nearly seven years, many more inspirations were needed.

One was Pope John’s call for the council to speak positively and to avoid condemnations. Another was his recognition of the need for aggiornamento (updating). Still another was Pope John’s desire for Vatican II to press towards Church unity. Then, there was Cardinal Jozef-Leo Suenens’ speech saying the council should deal with issues that are both intra and extra to the Church.

At every step along the way, when morale was at a low ebb and the council had reached a roadblock, something provided the insight needed to move forward.

After the second session of 1963, after which it seemed the council was in deep trouble, having only approved two documents and having only two more approaching finality, another spark was needed. Pope Paul’s encyclical Ecclesiam Suam gave the council fathers the key notion of dialogue, one which sharpened their ability to cope with the problems which still faced them.