What's Doable with Dialogue

The Pope greets Islamic representatives in Sept. 2006.
The Pope greets Islamic representatives in Sept. 2006. (photo: CNS/Reuters)

This headline yesterday in The New York Times is partly right, and partly wrong: “Pope Questions Interfaith Dialogue.”

What’s right is that Pope Benedict XVI has explained again that there are limits to what can be attained through interreligious dialogue, this time in a letter he wrote to an Italian scholar and politician.

What’s wrong is that the headline implies the Pope is questioning the possibility of any meaningful discussions between representatives of the world’s great religions. That’s demonstrably untrue, as Register subscribers learned in our article about this month’s Vatican conference between Catholic representatives and leading Islamic scholars.

In fairness to the Times, the body of its article makes this distinction clear.

“The pope’s comments came in a letter he wrote to Marcello Pera, an Italian center-right politician and scholar whose forthcoming book, ‘Why We Must Call Ourselves Christian,’ argues that Europe should stay true to its Christian roots. A central theme of Benedict’s papacy has been to focus attention on the Christian roots of an increasingly secular Europe,” the article said.

“In quotations from the letter that appeared on Sunday in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, the pope said the book ‘explained with great clarity’ that ‘an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible. In theological terms, added the pope, ‘a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.’”

“But Benedict added that ‘intercultural dialogue which deepens the cultural consequences of basic religious ideas’ was important. He called for confronting ‘in a public forum the cultural consequences of basic religious decisions.’”

A hallmark of Benedict’s papacy — and indeed of his entire life as a priest and a theologian — has been his fearless insistence that authentic dialogue can only occur when the parties in discussion are willing to state what they believe and disbelieve. The most famous example of that was his speech at Regensburg, Bavaria, in September 2006.

The Pope’s frankness in that speech about problems with Islam’s understanding of the integration of faith and reason, and the inclination towards violence in the name of religion this flawed understanding can provoke, was widely denounced by secular commentators for allegedly injuring relations with Muslims. But as Register correspondent Father Raymond J. de Souza noted in this column in the National Post, two years later it’s clear Benedict’s remarks served to advance constructive dialogue with Muslims.

George Weigel suggested to the Times that the Pope’s remarks in the letter to Pera were directed primarily towards dialogue with Muslims.

Said Weigel, “He’s trying to get the Catholic-Islamic dialogue out of the clouds of theory and down to brass tacks: how can we know the truth about how we ought to live together justly, despite basic creedal differences?”

The head of an association of Italian Muslims, Ahmad Gianpiero Vincenzo, heartily endorses Benedict’s philosophy.

“The pontiff’s words in his forward to Marcello Pera’s latest book must be correctly interpreted without any manipulation by those who are seeking a clash of civilizations,” Vincenzo told Adnkronos International.

“We totally agree with Benedict that it is not possible to advance dialogue between religions that plays down the specific doctrines and rituals of individual faiths,” Vincenzo said ““Otherwise, we slide into the relativism of those who believe all religions are the same and that individual religious doctrines and ritual practices are no longer needed.”

—Tom McFeely