Is Pope Benedict getting impatient to make some progress in dialogue with Muslims? He told French bishops in Lourdes today that the Church wants to pursue interreligious dialogue, but it must be real dialogue about serious theological issues and not just polite talk that leads nowhere.
“Good will is not enough,” he told them at a meeting during his pilgrimage to the famous shrine. “One must follow closely the various initiatives that are undertaken, so as to discern which ones favour reciprocal knowledge and respect, as well as the promotion of dialogue, and so as to avoid those which lead to impasses.”
These comments may help put an end to a long-standing doubt about how committed Benedict is to dialogue with Muslims. The doubt started soon after his election when he sidelined the Vatican’s top Islam expert, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, and folded his Council for Interreligious Dialogue into the larger Council for Culture. His Regensburg lecture in 2006 seriously set back relations with Muslims by suggesting Islam was violent and irrational. As part of the patching-up work, he restored the interreligious council as an independent Vatican department. But he handed it over not to an Islam or dialogue expert but to a former diplomat, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who publicly said that theological discussion was impossible with Muslims (much to some Muslims’ surprise) and that the world was “obsessed” with Islam.
Since that time, Tauran has met with leaders of the Common Word initiative on Christian-Muslim dialogue and attended Saudi King Abdullah’s Madrid interfaith mega-meeting. There seems to be “something in the air” on the interfaith front. The Vatican is now preparing to meet 24 representatives of the Common Word group in November for theological discussions about their proposal that the double love commandment — love God and neighbour — is common to both major faiths. So it was probably time to clear up the question of whether the Vatican thought such a discussion was even possible. The way Benedict mentioned theological dialogue as a step beyond the listening (i.e. polite conversation) phase suggests he’s thinking of the Muslims here. Catholics have already had extensive theological discussions with other Christians and Jews.
While open to dialogue, Benedict made very clear he felt the ultimate purpose of such talk is to lead people to Jesus Christ. There are certainly Muslims who think the same way about leading people to Islam. What effect this issue will have on the dialogue remains to be seen.