Does the Pope believe "Interfaith Dialogue Not Possible"?

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.

Anyway, here is the letter, in Italian and Google English for you to read yourself (page down to the bottom of link)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to Does the Pope believe "Interfaith Dialogue Not Possible"?

  1. Peregrinus says:

    OK: couple of technical points.

    1. Ella, at the beginning of the second paragraph, does not refer to the book, but to Senator Pera, and is idiomatically translated as “you”. This is confusing, because a literal translation of ella is indeed “she”. But this is the Italian convention for the formal mode of address. It treats the person being addressed as “your honour”, “your excellence”, etc, even if these actual phrases are never used. All these abstract nouns are feminine in Italian, and so the appropriate pronoun is ella. So the second paragraph starts by saying that you, i.e. Pera, are making a particular statement about interfaith dialogue. This is pretty much the sense that you extracted from it, except I think that ascribing the statement to Pera, rather than to the book, puts a little more distance between Benedict and the view being expressed.

    2. Nel senso stretto could mean either “in the strict sense” or “in the narrow sense”, the “strict sense” meaning something general objective, the sense dictated by the dictionary, while the “narrow sense” could be a sense developed and expounded by Pera. Bearing in mind that the immediately preceding sentence refers to “your analysis of the concepts of interreligious [interreligioso, the same word which is translated as “interfaith” at the beginning of the second paragraph] and intercultural dialogue”, I’m inclined to read Benedict as saying that Pera is (a) defining concepts of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, and (b) arguing that interreligious dialogue in the defined sense is impossible.

    The pope is not endorsing this view, though he is certainly not rejecting it, and obviously regard’s Pera’s analysis as useful and worthwhile. But the key question, which can really only be answered by reading the book, is whether Pera is saying that interreligious dialogue, in his definition, is impossible on any terms, or whether it is impossible without simultaneously engaging in a complementary intercultural dialogue. We can’t talk meaningfully about our differing theologies, in short, without also talking about the fruits of those theologies; how we live, how we see the world, how we function as communities, how we relate, how we act. (He also makes the reverse point, I think; we can’t have intercultural dialogue without interfaith dialogue.)

    Pope Benedict’s immediately following reference to a “mutual correction and mutual enrichment” suggests to me that the latter may be the case; “mutual” here may refer not to Christians and those with whom they are in dialogue, but to the two strands of dialogue that Pera identifies.

    I’m also inclined to think that this may be the intended meaning by a consideration of Nostra Aetate, which exhorts us to “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions”. This is a different, but related, point. At the risk of oversimplifying, this calls us not only to share our ideas with non-Christians, but to share our lives with them, in the sense of working together with them, and this is not a thousand miles from the point that I think Pera may be making.

    I fully concede that I’m building a rather elaborate edifice on the rather shaky foundation of a dodgy automated translation of a preface to a book that I’ve never read. But I don’t think I’m any further out on a limb than those who would use this to suggest that Pope Benedict has gone cold on interreligous dialogue.

  2. Past Elder says:

    So gee, we’ve got this authentic interpreter on matters relating to the Christian faith, except when he speaks he must be — interpreted?

    Interpretation for the Interpreter!

    (Nietzschean dance, extra credit for the reference.)

  3. Brian Coyne says:

    Pere (and also to David),

    I sense you are being extremely generous to His Holiness, Pere. Read in the context of his various clarifications in Dominus Iesus and other documents over the last decade or so, I think we might be entitled to read this as a further toughening up on the line that “outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation” or, at the very least, “the prospects of salvation are significantly curtailed”.

    Curiously enough, in part I actually agree with what Benedict seems to be driving at on this one although perhaps coming at it from a slightly different direction to the one from which he comes at the argument. I do believe, for example, that each religion that is serious about its mission ought have a core set of beliefs that are “non negotiable”. If “inter-religious dialogue” is treated as some exercise in consensus building and each contributing institution is perceived to have “a part of the truth”, or “a part of the picture”, and the aim of the “inter-religious dialogue” is to negotiate away the bits each institution disagrees about and to arrive at some consensus on the positions that are held in common out of the belief that that “consensus” is likely to be “closer to the absolute” than that held by any particular member then I am as concerned as Benedict is that such a process will lead us all up the garden path in the “quest for truth” stakes.

    Where I also agree with Benedict is that I think there is a tendency in the world — and specifically in this realm of inter-religious- or inter-faith- dialogue to a kind of relativism and a belief that “Truth” is that which is ultimately determined by a consensus in a community, or by some sampling of majority opinion in that community. Where I disagree with him is that I think he overplays that hand. The tendency isn’t as serious, or threatening, as he seems to believe it is.

    I don’t have the time to explore this further at great length here but it is an issue I’ve been raising on Catholica recently and that is a conflict that appears to me to exist in the world as to where (i) “Truth” is perceived to ultimately reside and (ii) what is the mechanism, or channel, through which that “Truth” is communicated to the human family and to “the Body of Christ”.

    I do continue to have faith that “Truth” ultimately resides in “the Divine”, or God, alone. I also believe God is continually transmitting new insights into the nature of this “Truth” through a diversity of channels — in fact the entire human family. I also accept as a fundamental proposition of my own belief framework the insight of Catholicism that the “fullness of Revelation” was given to us in Jesus Christ. He is “the model” as it were of all that is to be known — and the Way of thinking and acting like God. Even though Christ might represent “the fullness of Revelation” that does not necessarily mean that we yet “fully understand Jesus”, even after 2,000 years. We are still “babes in the wood” in comparison to Jesus and we are still learning “the fullness” from him.

    The problem comes down, it seems to me, as to what is the mechanism through which the fullness of Christ is made known and what is the mechanism/channel through which God communicates the Divine insight as to what “Truth” is? Some would seem to hold that God does this exclusively through the Pope (and the magisterium). We have this sort of picture of the Pope going to his prayers each morning in the Papal chapel and the Holy Spirit whispers in his ear and fills him with insight as to what needs to be communicated to the world. He might consult with other senior members of the magisterium but essentially the importance and sense of Primacy we attach to the Pope is that he is the Prime, even Exclusive, channel of communication that God uses to transmit “Truth” into the world and into Creation.

    Many are becoming increasingly sceptical of that model of the communication process. I would submit also, including many Catholics. Over recent decades there has been a dawning realisation that our bishops and even our popes are “flawed individuals” who struggle with these “big issues of truth” just like all the rest of us. The abuse scandals in particular have led to this realisation on the part of many that “the emperor has no clothes” — these guys whom we previously placed on this “pedestal of perfection” above all other human beings are pretty flawed individuals and just as fallible as all the rest of us. There is still a sense of infallibility but that “infallibility” — along the lines of the arguments advanced by John Henry Cardinal Newman in the monstrous intellectual debate that raged up to Vatican I — is held in the prevenance of “the Body of Christ” … in other words “the entire Church” or the entire “believing community” rather than exclusively by a small sect or section of that community or by the ecclesial leadership alone. In this alternative picture the Primacy of the Pope derives not so much from a sense that they have an exclusive redphone hotline to the Almighty but that they occupy a position of Primacy in coordinating the human effort to discern, articulate and, ultimately, to remember (and archive for future generations) the Divine Wisdom that is being continually transmitted through all human beings.

    This process of “discerning, articulating and remembering” doesn’t just happen by magic. There IS a lot of static and noise also generated in the world that the Divine messages competes with. We collectively need a process by which, and through which, we can “cut through the noise and static” that enables us to hear the Divine Truth. Down through the centuries, and as much as our conservative brothers and sisters constantly try to deny this, the institutional Church has reversed some of its understandings on matters that might be considered “Core Truths” 180 degrees. That process has not stopped and probably will not stop until the “end of time” which we Christians believe might coincide with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

    My view is that inter-religious dialogue is crucially important in the modern world. God does not talk simply through Catholics, or Latin Catholics. I don’t believe, for example, that Martin Luther was a complete heretic and baddy. He was “an agent of the Divine”, just as we all are in a small way, through which the “Divine Insight or Wisdom” is transmitted into Creation. My sense is that God speaks through all Christians, all the churches, and indeed even through the atheists, heretics and sinners at times even if they might not like being used as the channel for some humungously new insight into some aspect of “Truth”.

    John Paul II, a man whom I am coming to progressively have less and less respect for, did have a number of profoundly valuable insights. One of them, I believe, was placing this whole question of the meaning of Papal Primacy “on the table” in the context of this ecumenical and inter-religious discussion that is going on in the world. What I have outlined above is in a sense my own response after long meditation on that question he asked all of us to think about. I think this alternative understanding of what we mean by “the Primacy of the Pope” may well eventually lead to a healing of the divisions that exist within Christianity — starting with a healing of the divisions with our own communion between the Eastern and Autochthonous churches and the Latin Church headquartered in Rome, eventually that might be extended to the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches and from there eventually to all of the Christian churches.

    I’d be very interested in your thoughts on all of this and also David’s both from the point of view of his close association with the Lutheran perspective and his present work in inter-religious dialogue.


    Brian Coyne

  4. Schütz says:

    Well, thanks for that, gents. Pere, thanks for the clarifications of the Italian original. I am glad I was not far off the mark, but your points are very welcome.

    In the end, Brian, I think it is you who are lacking in generosity to Papa Ratazinger. I might have been surprised by your agreement with him, except that I think anyone who takes the time out to read his works will find in them an overall philosophy that offers some stability to the discussion of matters theological and ecclesial, even if the reader does not see eye to eye with his conclusions on all points.

    Regarding Jesus Christ as the fullness of Truth, it is one thing to say that Christ IS the fullness of Truth, and then another to say that he is a “MODEL” of the fullness of Truth.

    The latter idea allows that there are others who are “models” of the fullness of Truth.

    The confession of the Church is that Christ IS the fullness of Truth in a way which is at once UNIQUE and ONTOLOGICAL, as well as relational and examplary. (the same could perhaps be said by extension of the argument of the Church herself).

    Nevertheless, readers of this blog are always a little confused about how someone who holds the aforesaid doctrines in regard to Christ and the Catholic Church could be involved in Interreligious and Ecumenical dialogue, and the reasons are much as you describe them, Brian.

    To refer briefly back to my posting on conscience, all human beings are directed by their conscience to seek what is good, and that implies a “Highest Good”, which, for us, is God. However the difficulty lies precisely in the choice of trustworthy authorities that witness to this Supreme Good, or Ultimate Truth.

    Interfaith and ecumenical dialogue is important, on one level, precisely as it seeks to understand the way in which others experience the Voice of God, that is, how they identify the authoritative signs of God in their lives and how they listen and respond to that Voice.

  5. Brian Coyne says:


    I did NOT write that Jesus was “a” model of the fullness of revelation. I wrote:

    “He is ‘the model’ as it were of all that is to be known — and the Way of thinking and acting like God. Even though Christ might represent ‘the fullness of Revelation’ that does not necessarily mean that we yet “fully understand Jesus”, even after 2,000 years.” [Emphasis added]

    The rest of your argument falls away unless you are prepared to acknowledge the error in interpreting what I actually wrote not what you thought I wrote. I have no argument with your argument which follows the error and nothing I wrote questions that if you stick to what I actually wrote and do not seek to change what I wrote.

    I also fully agree with your sentence: “However the difficulty lies precisely in the choice of trustworthy authorities that witness to this Supreme Good, or Ultimate Truth.” That’s at the heart of the discussion I was seeking to spark. The nub of the issue, as JPII identified, is the issue of what Primacy means.

    Besides attempting to misquote what I wrote you have essentially gone on and stated stuff that we already know (or accept) without addressing the core issue.

  6. Louise says:

    I care about ecumenism in a somewhat remote way (it’s honestly not something I feel passionately about) because of John 17, but really, I think it’s pretty limited.

  7. Schütz says:

    Sorry, Brian, my mistake. I did misquote you. You did say “The Model” and not “a model”.

    But, I still have my reservations. Jesus didn’t “model” God. He “imaged” God.

    Is a model different from an image? I think it is… but I won’t push the point.

  8. Interfaith Wedding Rabbis and Ministers 4U says:

    This is really interesting post. sentire cum ecclesia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *