Reports (see here for New York Times) are circulating in the media today about a letter written by Pope Benedict to his friend and one-time co-author, the former president of the Italian Senate Marcello Pera.
The “headline” of the reports is that Benedict is denying the possibility of “true dialogue” between faiths, in favour of “intercultural” dialogue. Some will see here echoes of the temporary arrangement whereby the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue were working under the one president early in Benedict’s pontificate.
Here are the facts as clearly as I can make them out.
Pera and Ratzinger co-authored a book shortly before the latter became pope called “Without Roots: Europe, Relativism, Christianity, Islam” (2005). Their contact has continued since Ratzinger’s election as pope (cf. this story about a papal audience in October 2007).
Now Pera has written a new book, “Perché dobbiamo dirci cristiani” (“Why We Must Call Ourselves Christian”), and, as an introduction, there is a personal letter and recommendation from the Holy Father. As reviewer Maria Antonietta Calabrò puts it in a 23rd November review in Corriere Della Sera, such an “introduction” for a book is “un evento eccezionale, se non unico” (“an exceptional event, if not a unique one”).
The same edition of the Italian newspaper published the full text of the letter/introduction.
Below I give the full Italian original of this letter and the “google translation”. My Italian is very poor, but as far as I can gather, the sentence which begins “Ella spiega…” (ie. the crucial sentence regarding the possibility of authentic interreligious dialogue) refers to a thesis put forward by Pera in his book, not a thesis originating from the Holy Father himself. Benedict may agree with this judgement, but the judgement is not originally his, but Pera’s.
As Fr Federico Lombardi of the Holy See’s press office said (according to the NYT article):
the pope’s comments seemed intended to draw interest to Mr. Pera’s book, not to cast doubt on the Vatican’s many continuing interreligious dialogues. “He has a papacy known for religious dialogue; he went to a mosque, he’s been to synagogues,” Father Lombardi said. “This means that he thinks we can meet and talk to the others and have a positive relationship.”
It is also quite likely that George Weigel’s remarks (also as reported by the NYT) are correct. The Pope is not saying that interrelgious dialogue is “impossible”, but that dialogue between religious communities is more fruitful when it is focused on practical and social outcomes rather than theoretical and theological agreements.
He may well have had in mind the current situation with respect to dialogue with Islam. For instance, at the recent Catholic Muslim Forum, the Catholic side clearly were more interested in practical outcomes with regard to religious freedom than theoretical outcomes relating to reaching mutual understanding on theological matters.
In fact, as I read it, the Holy Father in the next sentence actually says that true intercultural dialogue cannot “put faith in brackets”, that is, blank it out as irrelevant. To be truthful, dialogue between cultures must include the aspect of the faith of those engaged in dialogue. This appears to be a swipe, not at interreligious dialogue, but at secularism that would exclude faith from the dialogue.
That conclusion is a little bit different from the conclusion the newspapers have reached.