Confusion over pope’s letter saying interfaith talks impossible

November 24, 2008

“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.


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So why are you surprised with the hypocracy on these issues?
This is setting up for Anti-Christ to appear on the world stage. tion=vids.individual&videoid=47044436

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Excellent article.

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Agreed, not really a news story. Agreed also that most of the media are singular unprepared to report and comment upon statements such as this. As with science, there is very little competence in religion–getting the basic lingo and concepts straight.

That said, I’m not impressed by this parsing of word “dialogue.” The Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate explains interfaith dialogue with a fair explicitness. A whole section is devoted to Islam. We don’t need to define the word, we just need to continue as the council bishops have outlined, and with their purpose and intent.

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As a person raised in the Catholic Church I understand what the Pope is saying. I am no longer a practicing Catholic because, in large measure, I don’t know why I would be any more. A seven year old may be asked to make promises to a Church that are easy for a child to make. I didn’t even know the names of other religions at the time and after I had, in later years, heard about them at all, I’m sure it was always in terms of – “we are right and they are all wrong”. The older I get – almost 60 now – I have had a chance to explore what other religious traditions have to say and no longer want to be held to promises made when I was woefully ill informed. I got confirmed at the age of 14 or 15 and the promise made was I would even die for the faith. I still didn’t know that much about it. I wasn’t that well instructed and even the Priests and Nuns (rather nice people for the most part) were not all that knowledgeable themselves.

But I think the Pope is astute enough to, at least, see that the metaphors of the Christian faith – let alone of Catholicism – do not mix well in close proximity with the other traditions. They tend to make each other look ridiculous and quaint.

Until an understanding is more common among people that all the religious traditions are grappling with larger issues – they can never monopolize or claim as absolutes – this Pope still believes in absolutes – the dialogue others seem to want will not mean much.

But a simple question would always nag me – even if I were able to forget the little I truly know about the other traditions. How can I believe I am a member of the only true religion and all the others are deluded when I know that is the same attitude they could, and probably do have, toward me?

The only way I would be able to join any of the Christian Churches (dozens of sects there alone – and few of them seem to agree on substantial points of theological nitty gritty) – would be to accept the fact that during my lifetime, I have never succeeded in forgetting early childhood catechism lessons and other instruction – have lived in a society where the symbols and cultural practices of that religion are more common then others – and basically know it much better than the others. It will always feel like “home territory” while the others are more like an adventure in foreign parts.
If I had children I would probably bring them to a church to learn something of the prevailing traditions of the society we would be living in.

But it is a neat trick to be able to believe in one’s own religious tradition without “chauvinism”. I suppose if one can truly do that one has the true faith after all.

The prime commandments of the faith I said I believed and accepted with “my whole heart, my whole soul and my whole mind were” – Love God and love thy neighbor for the love of oneself. Self interest is never neglected.

To the writer who is afraid of the “antichrist” on the world Stage – read revelations better and realize that the last scene of that story returns all things to the starting point of that story. Stop haunting yourself with “boogey men”.

Of course not a word of this does anything for the collection plate.

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Edward de Bono defined a belief system as “a framework from within which it cannet be challenged”. The pope recognizes the dangers of trying to reconcile belief systems – and even of recognizing that the three monotheistic faiths, however closely linked, are still just belief systems.

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Sorry, but I do not think that the operative phrase is “in the strict sense of the term”, but hides in the plentiful scattering of the word “liberal”. Of course, the word “liberal” has many definitions, but the one I pay most attention to is “a person who favors an economic theory of laissez-faire and self-regulating markets.”

If we remember our neo-Christian history (did it not intimidate and terrorize arch-Christendom?), it arose on the backs of princes and barrons seeking wealth for themselves rather than the temple.

I have never made peace with either the Pope or neo-Christianity, neither the individual nor the collective, because advocates of liberalism have been quite successful in eliminating self-sacrifice and renaming it suicide. So, suiciding we go, with the Pope blowing the pipes in the lead, and all the little mice (in the strict sense of the term) following his lead. All no doubt have noticed that each financial and economic crisis has a deeper and more liberal dip than the one before.

Read what the pope says a little closer and imagine a less restrictive interpretation of his message.

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He is simply being clear and honest about what each faith believes, i.e that it holds the absolute truth. And therefore by definition there cannot be any kind of dialogue to arrive at a consensus. That doesn’t mean that you can’t talk, that you don’t have respect for others, but you genuinely believe that your faith embodies the truth. It was stated pretty clearly in the “Dominus Jesu” encyclical of Pope John Paul II.

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Irreconcilable differences among three “one true” Gods

On the same day voters elected Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States, Pope Benedict XVI convened the inaugural Catholic-Muslim forum. To no one’s surprise the pope’s forum, lost in the Election Day media frenzy, was largely ignored.

Benedict created a media frenzy of his own when in a 2006 speech at the University of Regensburg he referenced an obscure Byzantine emperor’s statement: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.” Continuing to quote the emperor, Benedict went on to say, “For Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even rationality.”

While these references comprised only a small portion of a lengthy and scholarly speech on faith and reason, the media pounced. Benedict was derided for implying Islam is violent and irrational. Just one of many headlines of a similar ilk, the Toronto Star reported: “Pope makes mockery of engaging Muslims.”

The reaction on “the street” was swift and angry. Churches were firebombed in the West Bank and Gaza. Banners calling for his execution, “Pope go to Hell” and “Jesus is the slave of Allah” were on display in London. And in Somalia, a 65-year-old Italian nun was shot and killed as she left her job at a children’s hospital.

To his credit, Benedict quickly issued a formal apology – a rarity for any pope. “In no way did I intend to make the words of the medieval emperor my own,” he said. “I wished only to help explain that not religion and violence but religion and reason go together.” He then reiterated his “profound respect for world religions and for Muslims.”

Some observers, pointing to the violent reaction to his remarks as evidence of their veracity, argued that Benedict does believe Islam is violent and irrational. It’s doubtful Benedict, a renowned scholar, would intentionally paint Islam with such a broad brush. Still, his comments clearly touched a nerve.

In response to his Regensburg speech, 138 Muslim clerics, scholars and intellectuals sent an open letter to Benedict and the leaders of other Christian denominations titled “A Common Word Between Us and You.” It said, in effect, “We need to talk.”

Absent in Islam are the established hierarchies found in Christian religions. As a result, many in the West have complained that it’s difficult to know where the Muslim middle stands on a given issue. The fact that a diverse group of Islamic leaders came together for the first time to speak to Christianity with a unified voice was, at the very least, encouraging.

When the Vatican announced the formation of the Catholic-Muslim forum in March 2008 it was described as “landmark”, and the Muslim leaders’ audience with the pope “unprecedented”. It raised hopes that a new era in the long-troubled relationship between Christianity and Islam might finally be at hand.

In late October however, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the pope’s point man on inter-religious matters, seemed to shrug off the forum’s significance when he underscored to the Synod of Bishops that this was not the first time the Vatican had held an important dialogue with Muslims.

Perhaps Benedict is still smarting from the violent reaction to his Regensburg speech. If the Vatican wanted to keep the Catholic-Muslim forum out of the headlines, scheduling it to coincide with the most important election in U.S. history was a good way to do it.

Press reports [mostly from the wires] described the closed-door sessions of the forum as frank. But the joint declaration issued at its conclusion, while condemning terrorism and calling for religious freedom, was what most have come to expect from interfaith dialog – religious leaders talking among themselves in language the press, and most of the laity, found easy to ignore. The potentially historic Catholic-Muslim forum ended up being a non-event.

A week after the conclusion of the forum, the New York Times reported that Benedict had praised Italian author Marcello Pera who, in a recently released book, “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialog in the strict sense of the word is not possible…without putting one’s faith in parentheses.”

If Benedict questions the value of interfaith dialogue it’s probably due at least in part to the fact that when he attempted to address the important differences between Islam and Christianity at Regensburg all hell broke loose.

Benedict seems to have concluded that doctrinal differences must be set aside for dialogue to be possible. His fallback position was to re-brand the dialogue as being “intercultural dialogue which deepens the [understanding of] cultural consequences of basic religious ideas.”

With all due respect to the pope, whether dialogue is positioned as inter-religious or intercultural, putting one’s faith in parentheses all but guarantees that the ensuing dialogue will be unproductive.

As monotheistic faiths, Islam and Christianity share a belief in one God. However Islam’s definition of the one God, and Christianity’s definition of the one God, are not one and the same. Certain convictions regarding the true nature of the one God are unique to each faith.

For starters, Muslims reject the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity and therefore the divine nature of Jesus. Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet [and a great guy] but not heaven on earth.

Islam holds that God is absolutely transcendent. He is so great he exists above and beyond humanity’s capacity to know him. Muslims know God only through his actual words as recorded in the Qur’an, and through the words and deeds of Muhammad and his followers as recorded in the Hadith.

Christianity holds that man can come to know and even have a personal relationship with God. In his closing remarks at the forum, Pope Benedict declared: “God became visible, manifested fully and definitively in Jesus Christ. He thus came down to meet man, and while remaining God, took on our nature.” For Christians, the one God, a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is interactive.

Christian scholars have argued that because God is absolutely transcendent, and the Qur’an his actual words, there’s little room for reason in the practice of Islam. Australian Cardinal George Pell has said: “In the Muslim understanding, the Qur’an comes directly from God, unmediated. Muhammad simply wrote down God’s eternal and immutable words as they were dictated to him by the Archangel Gabriel. It cannot be changed, and to make the Qur’an the subject of critical analysis and reflection is either to assert human authority over divine revelation (a blasphemy), or to question its divine character.”

Islamic scholars argue that they do in fact interpret the Qur’an through a historic lens that takes into account the language, culture and society of the time. Aref Ali Nayed, the chief spokesperson on behalf of the A Common Word [ACW] open letter explained: “Muslim scholars were always aware of the fact that the activities of interpretation, understanding, and exegesis (of God’s eternal discourse) are forms of human strenuous striving that must be dutifully renewed in every believing generation. Solemn belief in the eternity and divine authorship of the Qur’an never prevented Muslim scholars from dealing with it historically and linguistically.”

Even strict literalists, for whom sacred scripture cannot be “re-interpreted” in any context, have schools of thought that offer differing takes on their original meaning. This is true whether one reads the Gospel, Torah or Qur’an. All religions have fundamentalist factions, but no religion is devoid of reason.

Religious fundamentalism – defined here as the belief that sacred scripture contains the literal word of God as it was originally recorded — is not in and of itself problematic. When read fully, sacred scripture of all three Abrahamic faiths extol peaceful behavior. In the case of the Qur’an, jihad is essentially a spiritual struggle for the eternal soul and justifiable as a physical war only in self-defense.

Fundamentalism becomes a serious problem however when scripture deemed literal is read selectively. A small but significant population of Muslim fundamentalists select passages from the Qur’an that support what they believe to be true, ignore the passages that don’t, and use the concept of God as absolutely transcendent to fend off any who might question their selective interpretation of God’s perfect word.

Especially troubling is that many of these radicals are among Islam’s learned – its clergymen, scholars, professionals and the like. The extent to which their motivations are political, religious, or some combination of the two, is unclear. What is clear is that they’ve convinced their followers [and apparently themselves] that the God of Islam is the one true God, and that violent jihad against all non-believers is God’s unquestionable will.

The issues raised by Pope Benedict at Regensburg were important ones; foremost among them was the true nature of the one God. Now is not the time to shy away from discussing differences. It should be possible to remain steadfast in defense of doctrine and still reach out to leaders of other faiths.

If only one can exist, faithful Muslims, Christians and Jews, by definition, worship the same God. However, certain convictions about the nature of the one God are unique to each faith. These doctrinal differences are irreconcilable.

The question then is whether religious leaders can believe that their faith is the one true faith and their God the one true God, and at the same time accept that there can be more than one path to heaven. That the answer should be “yes” is a no-brainer for most. The idea that a just God would damn good people to hell simply for choosing [or being born into] the wrong faith is anachronistic.

Benedict has been lauded for his ability to take either/or propositions and turn them into and/both ones. But this and/both is a tough one. How a given religion defines the true nature of the one God determines its correct path to heaven. In theory, when these paths are parallel, peaceful co-existence is possible, but in the real world, where these paths invariably intersect, conflict ensues.

If Benedict and his Muslim counterparts were to “agree to disagree” on the nature of their shared God, and set the one true God argument aside once and for all, they would be on separate but parallel paths that would resist intersection and enable active cooperation in the “war” against religious extremism.

Agreeing that the one God is just, and that no just God would deny salvation to a person who lives a good life simply because s/he chose the wrong faith provides a philosophical construct that would allow for peaceful co-existence.

Within this construct [multiple paths to one heaven], the ability to practice religion freely is a given. Despite agreement that “there can be no compulsion in religion”, the leaders of Islam’s fundamentalist schools of thought have been unwilling to clearly state that the persecution of those who practice a minority faith is sinful or that apostasy is not a criminal act.

While the irreconcilable differences between Muslim and Christian views of the creator can’t be ignored, they can be overcome. In practice, peaceful Muslims and peaceful Christians [and Jews], whether progressive or fundamentalist in orientation, behave in ways that are strikingly similar. However the true nature of the one God is defined, it should be possible for all to agree that he would never sanction violence committed in his name.

Can fundamentalists recognize that there is indeed an aspect of Islamic doctrine that leaves it open to manipulation by extremists, partner with progressive Muslims who strenuously strive to update their interpretation of the Qur’an, and call out the extremists whose regressive and sophistic interpretation of the Qur’an desecrates their faith?

It’s doubtful that Islam’s political leaders can get there any time soon. Islamic fundamentalists tend to reside in theocratic states where sharia law is the norm. But the religious leaders involved in the ACW initiative, by agreeing that the right to practice one’s religion freely is universal, can take an important first step.

When conservative Christians [and Jews] dismiss Islam as inherently violent and irrational, they are playing into the extremists’ hands. Interfaith cooperation is the terrorists’ worst nightmare. They have so far succeeded at driving a wedge between progressive Islam and fundamentalist Islam, and between Islam and its sister monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Judaism. They will undoubtedly continue to do everything in their power to derail interfaith cooperation.

The collective inability of religious leaders to openly discuss irreconcilable differences continues to impede progress in the fight against extremism. Respectfully spelling out these differences in practical terms and “agreeing to disagree” on the true nature of the one God seems like a good place to start. If the recent Catholic-Muslim forum is any indication, neither Benedict nor his ACW counterparts possess the will to do so.

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