“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.”