ROME: 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 creedal differences?”
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 to worship.
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
Jewish 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.”