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Dialogue and justice: Leonard Swidler's deep-dialogue as an essential component of justice.

Underlying Leonard Swidler's long career in interreligious dialogue and Church reform is the realization, shared with his friend Hans Kung and articulated in the early 1990's, that there can be no peace in the world without peace among the religions of the world. Decades before, Pope Paul VI observed, "If you want peace, work for justice." Thus, justice needs to be part of any discussion about Swidler's life's work of dialogue within the Catholic Church and among religions leading to peaceful and fruitful coexistence. Given the current discussion going on in the United States about justice, it is an important step simply to clarify understandings/misunderstandings surrounding the term. In this essay I would like to look at how justice is understood in conservative versus progressive circles and then to talk about how Swidler's project of engaging in dialogue and reforming the Catholic Church represents an essential dimension of the work of justice.

People who call for justice might find that what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography applies to justice as well: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." However, "justice" or, more precisely, "social justice" means different things to different people. It is viewed negatively in some circles and positively in others. On his March 12, 2010, program, conservative television and radio host Glenn Beck famously admonished people: "I beg you. Look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Along with many others in the politically conservative camp, he was equating social justice with government-mandated redistribution of wealth--what they consider Marxist socialism. (2) In this mindset, "Big Government" takes money from hard-working Americans and gives it to undeserving, nonproductive people who are more than happy to live off the government. For them, social justice means creating a welfare state divided into givers and takers. When running for president in 2012, Mitt Romney famously claimed that forty-seven percent of Americans are takers from the government and therefore not likely to vote for him, since he was committed to eliminating or at least reducing the welfare state.

Beck, Michael Novak, and most other conservative commentators believe that private associations and charities, especially those connected with churches, are the best way to help people who are in temporary need of assistance. For such persons, helping people through the government is a tax, even if it is called "social justice," for it undermines personal responsibility on the part of those who receive from the government and eliminates the need for people with the resources to do so to assist others. Helping people privately is charity, which is a time-honored way that neighbors help neighbors in America, and "equality" is a misguided pipe dream, made even more grotesque when governments try to impose it. People should take care of themselves and work to improve themselves as best they can in whatever economic state they find themselves.

In contrast, how do people who have a positive view of justice understand the term? The Catholic Church has been one of the strongest voices calling for justice in the modern era. A pivotal early statement of modern Catholic social-justice teaching is the 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, Rerum novarum ("Of New Things") or "On the Condition of Labor." The "new things" that Leo had in mind at the time were the changes brought about by industrialization. He was concerned about the condition of factory and mine workers while they were at work, the precarious nature of making a living through such work, and the effects of the factory system on the family life of workers: "In our present age of greater culture, with its new customs and ways of living, ... it is most clearly necessary that workers associations be adapted to meet the present need" (RN, no. 69). (3) One principle that Leo enunciated in the encyclical was that workers had a right to join together and form associations to advocate for their rights. Today we would call one form of such associations labor unions. Along with this right to join together for mutual benefit was the right of workers through these associations to negotiate and bargain with factory owners over wages and working conditions. In other words, Leo's advocating justice for workers was the complete opposite of fostering a situation in which there were givers and takers. He saw that the basic human dignity of workers was being undermined in the system as it then existed. He wanted to empower people working in mines and factories. Only when workers had a say in their working conditions would they have the power that God intended to flow from the dignity of work: "nature has commanded ... that the two classes mentioned [workers and owners] should agree harmoniously and should properly form equally balanced counterparts to each other" (RN, no. 28). Workers were not to be passive recipients of charity or the good will of employers but "let the rich and employers be mindful of their duties; let the workers, whose cause is at stake, press their claims with reason" (RN, no. 82).

Leo rejected socialism, especially state-mandated socialism. However, from this nascent period in Catholic teaching regarding social justice we can glean an understanding of the term that is different from the narrow understanding described in conservative circles in recent years. Social justice refers to both a goal and the means to the goal. The goal, a just society, is one in which all people possess what they need and what they are due reflective of their dignity as human persons. That is, the goal is to create a society in which people can survive and thrive and, to whatever degree possible, have a say in bringing about such a society. (There will always be some people who must depend almost entirely on others, either temporarily or long-term, as anyone recovering from a serious operation or caring for a severely handicapped child or a parent with dementia knows.) Leo and other popes after him pointed out that workers deserve a living wage sufficient to care for their families, healthy working conditions, and stability in their job--not because of charity on the part of factory owners but as a matter of justice. Social justice need not refer to only one approach to bringing about more just conditions, such as taxation and government-run programs. It does, however, suggest certain principles of analysis and action that reflect the goal of justice. Leo's starting point was that workers were hurting in the industrial system as it existed in the late 1800's. He saw that an underlying cause of the problem was that workers lacked power and were completely dependent upon owners for their livelihood. Long-term solutions to the problem would occur only when this deep-seated cause was addressed. He pointed out that there was a dignity to work in the pre-industrial guild system, whereas industrial workers were in danger of being viewed as mere commodities who lacked dignity and any control over their life situation. Except in extreme cases, charity is a stop-gap measure to social problems such as insufficient incomes that provide only temporary relief. (Thanksgiving food drives feed hungry people--for a day.) Justice seeks to identify underlying causes with a view to bringing about permanent change. Underlying causes are typically part of the fabric of a society. In other words, they are systemic, institutional problems. Because of systemic values and arrangements, certain people can lack the power and privileges of others--for instance, factory and retail workers, women, members of certain racial groups, people born in certain neighborhoods or into a lower economic status.

Social justice does not settle for the simplistic wisdom of the adage: Give people fish, feed them for a day; teach people to fish, feed them for a lifetime. Social justice pushes the saying further by asking additional systemic questions, such as: Who owns the lake where the fish are? Is there a clear path to the lake for some people and roadblocks for others? Can some people afford fishing equipment and others not? Do all people benefit from the same educational opportunities that might prepare them for participating in all aspects of the fishing business? Are certain people more likely to get hired to do the fishing over other people or get paid more for doing the same work? Do people who actually fish receive compensation commensurate with their work, or do the owners of the fishing business amass wealth at the expense of the workers? Is there a culture of success or failure within different societal groups?

An example of a systemic change that reflects this social justice model was the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. At the time, people with certain physical disabilities lacked power and privilege available to others, especially in the area of independent mobility. The disabilities act required that public and commercial buildings make changes that would provide greater accessibility for people with disabilities, such as designating convenient handicapped parking spaces, making ramps into buildings and bathroom facilities accessible to people in wheelchairs. Because of these and other related changes, many people with disabilities became empowered to take care of themselves in ways not available to them beforehand. Just as Leo called for greater empowerment of workers, so the ADA mandated changes leading to greater empowerment of people with disabilities. Such change flows from an understanding of social justice that blends means and ends together. It also represents the kind of government-mandated regulations that political conservatives decry as "social justice" gone awry. In a 2010 radio interview, U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R, KY) commented that: "I think if you have a two-story story office and you hire someone who's handicapped, it might be reasonable to let him have an office on the first floor rather than the government saying you have to have a $100,000 elevator." (4) In other words, he proposed that private citizens with the power to do so should decide whether and how to help people who are hurting, while people who lack power should be grateful if those in control make accommodations for them without government's requiring it.

How does the view of social justice reflected in modern Catholic social teaching relate to Swidler's message of dialogue? Two major initiatives in his work call for analysis based on principles of social justice. One is in the area of dialogue with other religions and ideologies. The other is his work to transform the Catholic Church itself systemically. Swidler actually sees these two strains as interrelated. One principle he includes in his analysis of the "Copernican" turns of Vatican II is: "Catholic Reform and Interreligious Dialogue--Mutually Causally Linked." (5) His latest book, Dialogue for Interreligious Understanding, is subtitled Strategies for the Transformation of Culture-Shaping Institutions. (6) That is, he sees dialogue as an essential strategy for bringing about positive institutional change, or justice. Rather than the term "justice" when discussing Church reform, Swidler is more likely to use terms such as "rights," "freedom," or even "democracy." Through these terms he is making the case for empowerment within the Church across all lines of its hierarchical structure.

Leo decried the dehumanizing conditions of workers in the newly industrialized world of nineteenth-century Europe and America. He called for empowerment of workers (justice) so that dialogue between owners and workers could be done in a spirit of mutuality and from "equally balanced" positions of power. Similarly, the ADA empowered people with disabilities to participate in working toward the common good alongside individuals who previously determined who would work and under what conditions. Swidler spearheaded a number of initiatives aimed at creating systemic changes within the Catholic Church so that all Catholics would be treated justly--that is, as people with the ability to counterbalance centers of power within the institution. For this reason in 1979 he began ARCC, the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, after Kling was declared no longer a Catholic theologian in good standing by the Vatican. (7) As part of that initiative he also proposed a "Catholic Constitutional Convention," aimed at creating a new structure for the Church that would insure the rights of all of its members. To people who glibly said, "The Church is not a democracy," he pointed out that Jesus never proposed a system of governance and that the monarchical system currently in place reflects not Jesus or the early church but, rather, the model of empire over against which the gospel proposed a very different model--the realm of God in which the poor are raised up and the powerful brought down (Lk. 1:52).

Swidler realizes that, without systemic change in the Church, an atmosphere of injustice remains in place. A kindly monarchy is a monarchy nonetheless, just as nineteenth-century factory owners who were kind to their workers did not empower them or remove underlying injustices. A system in which power resides in only one group is a system of oppression and domination, more or less hurtful at different times and in different circumstances. The Church that has advocated so strongly for justice outside of its walls has struggled to apply the same principles to its own internal existence. Swidler's push some years ago for a constitutional convention of Catholics at all levels was clearly a call for justice, albeit one that was such a departure from the existing system as to be ineffective and unwieldy at the time. However, since then we have seen a number of moves in the direction of a more democratic Church. A number of independent groups, such as Voice of the Faithful, have emerged calling for greater freedom and shared power in the Church both in the United States and elsewhere. Since his election, Pope Francis has taken some steps that are moves in the direction of expanding power in the Church. He appointed a group of cardinals from around the world who are independent of Vatican insiders to advise him. Prior to the recent Synod on the Family, when asked his opinion on controversial matters under discussion, Francis refused to give his opinion for fear that it would stifle a free and open exchange of viewpoints. Such cracks in the wall of the Church's structure are a far cry from Swidler's vision, but through such cracks the light of greater justice can begin to shine.

Swidler's larger life's work, dialogue, is not an endeavor separate from the work of justice. Rather, it is both a means and an end to justice. He begins his latest book by stating: "Dialogue is not just talking together, but is a whole new way of seeing oneself and the world, and then living accordingly." (8) Along with providing guidelines for dialogue, Swidler's "Dialogue Decalogue" is a description of what Leo wanted to see in exchanges between owners and workers of his day: free and honest discussion in an atmosphere of trust between equals who are open to learning from each other and committed to making changes based on the process. Even as engaging in works of justice leads to a more just world, so also the process of dialogue leads to a more dialogical world. To emphasize that dialogue is not simply talking but is transformative, Swidler coined the term "Deep-Dialogue." Deep-dialogue leads to change in individuals involved and from there in "groups or communities as well." (9) Thus, a Church and a world community committed to justice must be places where such deep-dialogue takes place. If there can be no peace in the world without justice, then it follows that there can be no justice in the world without dialogue.

(1) See

(2) For a more complete discussion of how "social justice" has come to mean "statism," see Michael Novak, "Social Justice: Not What You Think It Is," December 29, 2009; available at

(3) Rerum novarum: Encyclical Letter on the Condition of the Working Classes, by Pope Leo XIII, May 15, 1891, in a New Advent translation copyrighted in 2007 by Kevin Knight; available at http://

(4) Evan McMorris Santoro, May 20, 2010; available at

(5) "The Five Copernican Turns of Vatican Council II"; available at

(6) Leonard Swidler, Dialogue for Interreligious Understanding: Strategies for the Transformation of Culture-Shaping Institutions (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

(7) For a discussion of events leading to the founding of ARCC, see River Adams, There Must Be You: Leonard Swidler's Journey to Faith and Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2014), pp. 172-174.

(8) Swidler, Dialogue for Interreligious Understanding, p. 1.

(9) Ibid., p. 4.
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Author:Stoutzenberger, Joseph
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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