Pope Francis speaks to bishops during the midday prayer service...

Pope Francis speaks to bishops during the midday prayer service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Mark Wilson

If Pope Francis' advice for the nation's Catholic bishops can be boiled down to one word, it's "dialogue."

His call yesterday for dialogue showed once again that this is the direction he wants the church to go -- engagement rather than condemnation, experts said.

"This is a very clear, if subtle, call to end the culture-warrior move by some American bishops," said Terrence Tilley, a professor of theology at Fordham University. He added: "Negativity must end. That's what he's saying, in my opinion."

Dialogue has been a signature word for Pope Francis. "Dialogue is our method," he told the bishops assembled at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, going on to say, "The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with laypersons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly."

Francis said the bishops should enter this dialogue with humility, avoiding "harsh and divisive language." Without that, he said, "We fail to understand the thinking of others," or to realize that the person the church wants to reach "counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain."

That doesn't mean the pope asked bishops to back off from controversial issues. He spoke of "the innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow," and added, "It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent."

But, Tilley said, Francis does not want the church to be "the voice of condemnation."

Fifty years ago, bishops issued a document at the Second Vatican Council that urged the church to open itself to the modern world through dialogue -- an optimistic, constructive engagement. But as dissent engulfed church authorities in the decades after the council, "dialogue" took on a new tone for some.

In 1996, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago proposed a Common Ground Initiative to bring together liberal and conservative factions through dialogue. Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law issued a stinging statement in response.

"The fundamental flaw in this document is its appeal for 'dialogue' as a path to 'common ground,' " Law said. "The church already has 'common ground.' It is found in sacred Scripture and tradition, and it is mediated to us through the authoritative and binding teaching of the magisterium."

Four other American cardinals also disputed the plan from Bernardin, who died later the same year.

Nearly two decades later, Francis has taken this onetime stumbling block of "dialogue" and made it a cornerstone of his papacy. He didn't pull rank Wednesday, but instead told the bishops, "I have no wish to tell you what to do, because we all know what it is the Lord asks of us."

It was an appeal to conscience.

Tilley said that many priests and laypeople, including lay theologians, would like to see Bernardin's "common ground" approach rejuvenated. Some bishops would want to as well, he added, "but it's not clear how many of them would want to do so."

Tom Beaudoin, a theology professor at Fordham University, said the Catholic Church needs to take new steps to reach the large numbers of people who have disconnected themselves from the church.

"I read 'dialogue' there as a practice of hospitality, and that hospitality should be the frame for ministry," he said.

Beaudoin, an expert on inactive Catholics, said it's possible for church leaders to speak out on issues and still be open to dialogue: "There is a way to talk about advocacy for positions in a way that signals vulnerability and willingness to be frank and to hear frankness from the other side."

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