Benedict XVI Regarded Interreligious Dialogue as a Necessity in the Life of the Church

Letters 02.12.23

Letters to the editor offer a variety of opinions.
Letters to the editor offer a variety of opinions. (photo:

Benedict Misunderstood

When I began working on my doctoral dissertation on Pope Benedict XVI and interreligious dialogue, some laughed and said that it will be a very short one. Indeed, interreligious dialogue played a relatively minor role among the theological concerns of Joseph Ratzinger, and he is mostly remembered negatively in this regard. The Vatican document Dominus Iesus in 2000, signed by Ratzinger, stated that followers of other religions were objectively in a “gravely deficient” state, and the Regensburg lecture of 2006 included a quote about Islam having brought to the world things “evil and inhuman.” 

But Ratzinger’s contributions to interreligious dialogue cannot be reduced to these instances. In fact, as in so many areas of theology, here too Ratzinger/Benedict made several important contributions. 

Before becoming pope, he wrote a very important book on the topic, titled Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, and as pope, he produced as many as 188 texts relating to interreligious dialogue in less than eight years. 

In proportion to the length of the pontificate, this makes him just as active in the field of interreligious dialogue as John Paul II, or even a little more active. 

What are some of the main misunderstandings of Ratzinger’s theology of religions and interreligious dialogue?

 First and foremost, Ratzinger has often been portrayed as a dogmatic exclusivist who regarded the Catholic Church as the only way of salvation. This is very far from the truth — he once surprised journalist Peter Seewald by saying there were as many ways to God as there were people.  

Ratzinger was actually a very generous and open inclusivist, which means that he believed that lots of non-Christians — in fact, the majority of people — will finally be saved, through a purgatorial encounter with the loving Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Other religions can help put people on the path toward God, and, according to Ratzinger, this happens “on a large scale.” 

The Church serves as a necessary spiritual force and intercessor that enables “the many” to be finally saved. 

What is needed in the individual is some kind of basic openness to God. This is beautifully expanded upon in the historic encyclical Spe Salvi.  

It has also been falsely claimed that, for Ratzinger, interreligious dialogue was really only about mission, simply a means of evangelization in disguise. 

This is also not true, for Benedict XVI explicitly granted that the purpose of interreligious dialogue is not to convert the other but to grow closer to the truth together in mutual respect of nonnegotiable fundamental choices. On the other hand, some have claimed that Benedict regarded interreligious dialogue as an impossibility and wanted to focus on intercultural dialogue instead. 

Despite a short turn toward this direction at the beginning of the pontificate, Benedict repeatedly stated that there are many forms of dialogue: the dialogue of daily life, the dialogue of social action, theological dialogue, and spiritual dialogue of religious experience. 

He also regarded interreligious dialogue as a necessity, not an optional extra in the life of the Church. 

Finally, Benedict XVI was accused of misrepresenting Islam, or, conversely, praised for a correct portrayal of Islam as a violent religion. 

Both of these views are incorrect: Ratzinger recognized the inner diversity of Islam and wanted to work with the more noble forms of this religion, those open to reason and dialogue, against the extreme and terrorist interpretations. 

Benedict’s main point was that faith and reason go together and that religion should never be used blindly to justify irrational acts of violence. Rather, religions should stand together as witnesses for peace and the dignity of human life. Despite the short-lived uproar, the Regensburg lecture actually led to a historic Muslim-Christian dialogue in the form of the document “A Common Word Between Us and You,” signed by 138 Muslim scholars, as well as the establishment of the Catholic-Muslim forum. 

In short, Benedict XVI certainly wanted to reject relativism, but at the same time he remained a humble pilgrim who knew that one can always learn from others, even be corrected by them.

 Emil Anton