Talking with the 'enemy'?

I have followed with some interest the furor in the US surrounding the invitation to President Obama to speak next month at Notre Dame University, one of the leading Catholic educational institutions in the United States.

The invitation seems to have divided Catholics with on the one hand some, including more than a few bishops, arguing that the invitation is inappropriate in view of Obama’s positions on abortion and embryonic stem cell research which are clearly at odds with the position taken by the church on issues of fundamental importance.

On the other hand it is pointed out by others that first of all any invitation to speak at an official function obviously does not imply that all of the speaker’s views and positions are endorsed. Secondly it is also argued that it is a function of an institute of learning to be open to discussion and exploration of a range of views and to engage in dialogue in the search for truth and knowledge, even with those who hold different beliefs and opinions.

Several things trouble me about the former position.

First of all it seems to create a practical problem in deciding what issues and what positions disqualify a person from being issued with an invitation such as the one to speak at Notre Dame.

What if the suggested speaker was a political leader who had embarked on an unjust war resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths? What if it was a political leader who had been lukewarm in support of measures to alleviate extreme poverty and hunger in the world thereby failing to prevent the deaths of millions? What if it was a public figure in an irregular marriage situation or who was openly gay or who supported capital punishment? All of the above are examples of positions that would contradict Catholic teaching. Why is it only the issue of abortion that seems to provoke such outrage? (I am not arguing against the church’s stance on abortion, just pointing to what seems to me to be a lack of consistency)

It also seems to me that choosing to go down the path of confrontation and of refusing to engage in dialogue with those who disagree with us, is counterproductive. There is the likelihood of positions becoming more entrenched and attitudes more hardened whereas a respectful dialogue would seem to offer a greater opportunity of persuasion.

Belief in the value of dialogue seems to be a key principle underpinning the operation of the UN. Whilst all too often the millions of words spoken seem to yield little by way of benefits to those suffering violence and oppression, one cannot help but think that at least it is better for nations with opposing viewpoints to be talking to one another rather than fighting each another.

President Obama has already signaled his willingness to enter into dialogue with those whom many might have identified as ‘enemies’ of the US eg Cuba. It seems to me that this at least offers a better hope for the building of a more just and peaceful world.

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