Pope Francis on Dialectics and Dialogue

The following excerpt is taken from the book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, pages 79-80. The book was published by Pope Francis, in collaboration with his biographer, in December 2020.

One of the effects of conflict is to see as contradictions what are in fact contrapositions, as I like to call them. A contraposition involves two poles in tension, pulling away from each other: horizon/limit, local/global, whole/part, and so on. These are contrapositions because they are opposites that nonetheless interact in a fruitful, creative tension. As Guardini taught me, creation is full of these living polarities, or Gegensätze; they are what make us alive and dynamic. Contradictions (Widersprüche) on the other hand demand that we choose, between right and wrong. (Good and evil can never be a contraposition, because it is not the counterpart of good but its negation.)

To see contrapositions as contradictions is the result of mediocre thinking that takes us away from reality. The bad spirit—the spirit of conflict, which undermines dialogue and fraternity—turns contrapositions into contradictions, demanding we choose, and reducing reality to simple binaries. This is what ideologies and unscrupulous politicians do. So when we run up against a contradiction that does not allow us to advance to a real solution, we know we are faced with a reductive, partial mental scheme that we must try to move beyond.

But the bad spirit can also deny the tension between two poles in a contraposition, opting instead for a kind of static coexistence. This is the danger of relativism or false irenicism, an attitude of “peace at any price” in which the goal is to avoid conflict altogether. In this case, there can be no solution, because the tension has been denied, and abandoned. This is the refusal to accept reality. 

So we have two temptations: on the one hand, to wrap ourselves in the banner of one side or the other, exacerbating the conflict; on the other, to avoid engaging in conflict altogether, denying the tension involved and washing our hands of it. 

The task of the reconciler is instead to “endure” the conflict, facing it head-on, and by discerning see beyond the surface reasons for disagreement, opening those involved to the possibility of a new synthesis, one that does not destroy either pole, but preserves what is good and valid in both in a new perspective.

This breakthrough comes about as a gift in dialogue, when people trust each other and humbly seek the good together, and are willing to learn from each other in a mutual exchange of gifts. At such moments, the solution to an intractable problem comes in ways that are unexpected and unforeseen, the result of a new and greater creativity released, as it were, from the outside. This is what I mean by “overflow” because it breaks the banks that confined our thinking, and causes to pour forth, as if from an overflowing fountain, the answers that formerly the contraposition didn’t let us see. We recognize this process as a gift from God because it is the same action of the Spirit described in Scripture and evident in history. 

Featured Image: “Landscape with Peace and Justice Embracing” (Psalm 85:10) by Laurent de La Hyre