Confusion over pope’s letter saying interfaith talks impossible
“Pope questions interfaith dialogue,” read a headline on a New York Times report this morning. “In comments on Sunday that could have broad implications in a period of intense religious conflict,”, it wrote, Pope Benedict said that dialogue between religions was impossible. Before noon, a New York rabbi was urgently appealing to Benedict XVI not to “abandon dialogue between faith communities.”
Readers following the recent upswing in interfaith contacts will recall the last time Benedict’s relations with other faiths were in the news was when he warmly received Islamic scholars on Nov. 6 in Rome and spoke of Christians and Muslims as “members of one family: the family that God has loved and gathered together from the creation of the world to the end of human history.” How could he now suggest that talks across faith lines are useless?
(Photo: Pope Benedict greets Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric at the Vatican, 6 Nov 2008/Osservatore Romano)
If these readers wonder what’s going on, they’re not alone. We’ve been getting queries from contacts asking how to read a letter written by Benedict that was published in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera on Sunday and got almost no coverage other than in the New York Times. What’s going on is that the Gray Lady has confused the philosophical precision of a German theologian and the real-world pragmatism of the Roman Catholic Church. That theologian, better known as Pope Benedict, restated his definition of interreligious dialogue in the letter to Italian politician and philosopher Marcello Pena. As the NYT reported, he said 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.”
The operative phrase here is “in the strict sense of the word.” If you define the word “dialogue” with the precision Benedict uses here, it means“an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, esp. a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement” (my emphasis). But religions believe they possess the ultimate truth, so no compromise is possible there. This is the context for his statement that dialogue is not possible “without putting one’s faith in parentheses” – i.e. ignoring these fundamental differences.
But the world doesn’t always work according to philosopher’s definitions and the word “dialogue” has a looser everyday meaning of a “conversation between two or more persons.” When journalists write about interreligious dialogue, we tend to use this looser definition that most readers would understand. That’s the way Benedict himself used it when, addressing a delegation of the Muslim Common Word group during their meeting with Vatican officials, he said “I pray that the “Catholic-Muslim Forum”, now confidently taking its first steps, can become ever more a space for dialogue, and assist us in treading together the path to an ever fuller knowledge of Truth.”
(Photo: Pope Benedict and Rabbi Arthur Schneier in New York, 18 April 2008/Max Rossi)
That doesn’t sound like someone who wants to cut off talks with other religions. Actually, when Benedict says interreligious dialogue “in the strict sense of the word” is impossible, he’s not ruling out dialogue with Muslims, Jews and others as defined by the more popular use of the word. He’s being the German professor he’s always been, meticulously careful to draw intellectual distinctions even if they seem like hair-splitting to the typical newspaper reader. Don’t forget he’s writing to another philosopher, one with whom he’s already published a book about religion in today’s Europe called Senza Radici (Without Roots). He’s not starry-eyed about interreligious dialogue, especially with Muslims, because he thinks it can lead to a blurring of the very distinctions he’s trying to make. Deep down, he also thinks Christians ultimately can’t discuss theology with Muslims because their views of God are too different. But even his point man on Islam, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, told me the recent Catholic-Muslim Forum ended up “doing theology unintentionally” and came to some important practical agreements.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardo explained as much to the NYT, saying 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.”
Even if a strictly-defined interreligious dialogue was not possible, Benedict said in his letter, it was important to have an “intercultural dialogue which deepens the cultural consequences of basic religious ideas.” This brings him back to a distinction between religion and culture that he tried to make visible two years ago when he folded the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue into its culture ministry. It didn’t work out very well — other religions felt it downgraded their faith to an anthropological phenomenon — and he had to separate them again. That he’s trying to make the distinction again probably says more about his intellectual rigour than his diplomatic skill.
So Rabbi Marc Schneier, who saw the NYT wrote that Benedict’s comments “could have broad implications in a period of intense religious conflict,” should probably not be too concerned. Schneier is very active in interfaith relations and just led the innovative “Weekend of Twinning of Mosques and Synagogues” in North America. His father, Rabbi Arthur Schneieir, received Benedict in his synagogue last April. In a statement he issued, Marc Schneier put his finger on the confusion by saying “let’s not get lost in a word game.”
The Reuters back story here is that our Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella and I both saw the letter in Corriere della Sera on Sunday morning and thought Benedict wasn’t saying anything new. By late afternoon, though, Phil called to say other correspondents were asking him what we thought of the letter. We agreed Benedict was just repeating a philosophical distinction without making a practical difference and left it at that. I thought it was so marginal that I didn’t mention it in a story on Monday on interfaith dialogue based on a recent interview with a Muslim scholar. Later in the day, after we got Schneier’s statement from New York and another large American Jewish organisation called Phil asking what to make of the NYT report, we decided to spell out how we read this letter. It still didn’t merit a news story — non-news doesn’t make news — but the blog’s a good way to explain how we handled it.
Does this make you more sceptical about what you read? If it doesn’t, it should. Dialogue among major religions — especially with Islam — is tackling the profound differences between the faiths and these debates can’t always be reduced to sound bites.
UPDATE: John Allen now has an English translation of the letter.