Can Interreligious Dialogue Be Truly Religious?

COMMENTARY: The papal response to this question, as first answered by Benedict and then by Francis as shown during his visit to Iraq, indicates both continuity in substance and a difference in style.

Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, March 6, 2021
Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, March 6, 2021 (photo: Vatican Media)

At the heart of the Holy Father’s trip to Iraq was a meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq.

The meeting brought to the fore a question that Pope Benedict XVI first raised in 2006. Can interreligious dialogue be truly religious? 

The question, as first answered by Benedict, and then by Francis, shows both continuity in substance and a difference in style. The theologically precise Benedict raised an objection later confirmed by Pope Francis’s pastoral strategy of encounter.

Since the 1960s as a young theologian at the Second Vatican Council, Joseph Ratzinger had been fascinated by the encounter of faith and reason, philosophy and science, religion and culture. These questions all had great application to the practice of ecumenism with separated Christians, and interreligious dialogue with non-Christians, especially Muslims.

Over time, Ratzinger became convinced that interreligious dialogue was not possible as a specifically religious matter. Religion begins with God, and if there is a significant disagreement about who God is, then there is no unifying basis for true dialogue, which requires shared points of departure. 

The imperative for dialogue, the sharing of wisdom and cooperation remained, but Ratzinger considered this to be more a matter of cultural dialogue. Every culture has within it ideas about God and so these would necessarily be discussed, but as a cultural, not specifically theological, matter.

It was a precise distinction. Peoples of different religions could — and should — speak with each other. That would not be “interreligious dialogue” as much as dialogue between people of different religions.

Therefore, less than a year after his election Benedict XVI transferred the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, to Cairo as apostolic nuncio in Egypt. There he would encounter an Islamic civilization in the spheres of culture, politics and diplomacy, as well as religion.

More provocatively, Benedict XVI did not appoint a new president to replace Archbishop Fitzgerald, but rather appointed Cardinal Paul Poupard, already president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, as president of interreligious dialogue, as well. While the interreligious council was not suppressed, it was united to the council for culture in the person of the president. The future of the curial org chart would reflect Benedict’s conviction that interreligious dialogue was part of cultural encounter.

The move had few backers. To the contrary, there were howls of outrage both within and without the Church. Despite Benedict’s insistence that dialogue would continue within a different conceptual framework, his decision was widely interpreted as a lack of interest in, or even disdain for, non-Christian religions. 

(In organizational terms, the Vatican considers relations with Judaism as within the family, so to speak. Catholic-Jewish relations are thus handled by the Council for Christian Unity. Hence Jewish relations were not affected by Benedict’s decisions.)

Benedict took his controversial decision in March 2006. Whatever hope he had of convincing people of his view was incinerated in the global conflagration following his September 2006 Regensburg Address. In that address, Benedict argued that religious violence followed from a wrong idea about God, and asked whether Islam would learn from Christianity’s long struggle with that question. 

While the address led to a remarkable breakthrough in Catholic-Muslim relations, with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visiting Benedict at the Vatican the next year, the immediate aftermath sent Benedict and the Vatican into damage control mode. 

In that environment, the fine distinctions Benedict was trying to make were no longer helpful; quite to the contrary. Hence the decision about interreligious dialogue was reversed. In June 2007, the council was given a new president, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the former Vatican “foreign minister.” Benedict’s failed experiment was buried after 15 months. 

In 2019, Pope Francis would make Archbishop Fitzgerald, by now over 80 and retired, a cardinal, healing the bad feelings about his being dispatched to Cairo.

Pope Francis pursued from the beginning an energetic encounter with Islam, even bringing with him a Muslim leader to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. That effort reached its apex two years ago when Pope Francis signed with Muslim leaders a declaration on “human fraternity” in Abu Dhabi.

The declaration initially caused some alarm for theological imprecision, as it claimed that God “willed” other religions, presumably including Islam. That was clarified later as an acknowledgement that pluralism was written into history and proceeds, like all of history, under God’s wide providence. 

The main thrust of the Holy Father’s Islamic outreach is to bracket theological concerns in favor of cooperation and encounter. The statements out of Iraq referenced a common paternity in Abraham, but the emphasis was on common fraternity as members of the same human family, rather than the theological content of the Abrahamic heritage.

The upshot is that Pope Francis has, de facto, moved away from interreligious dialogue about theology toward interreligious fraternity rooted in cultural encounter. There is thus a continuity from Benedict to Francis, though the latter’s approach shows that style matters as much — and sometimes even more — as substance.