In comments that could have broad implications in a period of religious
conflict, Pope Benedict XVI appeared to cast doubt on the possibilities
of interfaith dialogue but called for more discussion of the practical
consequences of religious differences.
The pope made his comments in a letter to Marcello Pera, an Italian
politician and scholar whose forthcoming book, “Why We Must Call
Ourselves Christian,” argues that Europe should stay true to its
Christian roots. A central theme of Benedict’s papacy has been to focus
attention on the Christian roots of an increasingly secular Europe.
In quotations from the letter that appeared Sunday in Corriere della
Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, the pope said the book
“explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the
strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, the
pope added, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s
faith in parentheses.”
But Benedict added that “intercultural dialogue which deepens the
cultural consequences of basic religious ideas” was important. He
called for confronting “in a public forum the cultural consequences of
basic religious decisions.”
The Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said the
pope’s comments seemed intended to draw attention to 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,” Lombardi said. “This means that he thinks we
can meet and talk to the others and have a positive relationship.”
To some scholars, the pope’s remarks seemed aimed at pushing more
theoretical interreligious conversations into the practical realm.
George Weigel, a Catholic scholar and biographer of Pope John Paul
II, said: “He’s trying to get the Catholic-Islamic dialogue out of the
clouds of theory and down to brass tacks. How can we know the truth
about how we ought to live together justly, despite basic
This month, the Vatican held a conference with Islamic religious
leaders and scholars. The participants agreed to condemn terrorism and
protect religious freedom, but they did not address issues of
conversion or the rights of Christians in majority-Muslim countries
The church is also engaged in a dialogue with Muslims that was
organized by the king of Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslims may not
worship in public.
Religious leaders seek clarity
and Muslim leaders on Monday cautiously praised the pope’s remarks that
dialogue among faiths should be pursued even though it is impossible on
strictly religious issues, The Associated Press reported.
Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, welcomed the pope’s remarks
“for their clarity.” He said the comments were “opportune and
interesting” in that they set the limits of religious dialogue.
“Faiths cannot hold dialogue beyond a certain point because there
are insurmountable limits,” Di Segni said. “This is a limit to all
religious dialogue: It’s not like a political negotiation where I give
you this and that and we make peace. It’s not like we give up dogmas.”
But Di Segni urged that the Vatican clarify certain elements of the
pope’s remarks, such as where to draw the line between religious
dialogue and cultural dialogue.
“He has set the limits, which were necessary. We must then see where it goes from there,” Di Segni said.
A spokesman for an Islamic group in Italy, UCOII, also called for
further clarification. He told Corriere della Sera that “dialogue among
believers exists.” “We don’t hold a dialogue on our faiths,” he added,
“but we do on how we can co-exist, each in our diversity.”