Today, Rocco Palmo referred us to a BBC story about Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the former head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, recently appointed papal nuncio to Egypt and delegate to the Arab League. As you will remember, the Vatican also recently announced that the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue would be placed under the interim leadership of Cardinal Paul Poupard, already president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. There has been a good deal of speculation about Archbishop Fitzgerald’s appointment and the subsequent “merging” of the Councils. John Allen reported on concerns that this might signify a redefinition, even a diminishment, of the Vatican’s commitment to interreligious dialogue. The BBC story reports on one possible meaning for Christian-Muslim relations, “Some observers believe the new Pope wants to take a tougher line on the issue of ‘reciprocity.'”
I have no special insight into the Vatican. But I would like to share another interpretation, coming from the organization Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (in the following, “PCID” here stands for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, “MID” stands for the name of the group):
By connecting the Church’s commitment to interreligious dialogue with its commitment to cross-cultural understanding, Pope Benedict XVI may well be calling us to think about religion—and to engage in interreligious dialogue—with greater and more explicit attention to its cultural context. By emphasizing this connection, the pope appears to be cautioning us not to focus our dialogue efforts on religious thought, experience, and praxis in the abstract. Rather, his intent seems to be to encourage the dialogue to look closely at the roles the world’s religions actually play and ought to play in shaping and being shaped by the stunning variety of cultural contexts in which they are, by nature, embedded.
In 1991, the PCID document Dialogue and Proclamation identified four discrete yet interrelated types of dialogue: “life,” “action,” “theological exchange,” and “religious [or spiritual] experience.” Of these four types, the third has been the most common, and the fourth the main focus of MID. But what of the first two? In many ways, the dialogue of life, “where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations” (DP, 42) may be seen not so much as one of the four types of dialogue, but rather as the larger framework in which the other dimensions of dialogue must consciously unfold. If this is true, then we are forced to ask ourselves how there can be an authentic “dialogue of life” if the “dialogue of action”—despite its utter centrality to the Church’s teachings in Nostra Aetate—remains little more than a vague ideal?
One way, therefore, of interpreting the curial reorganization with respect to the PCID is that it may very well signal Pope Benedict’s effort to place long overdue emphasis on a broader, more culturally contextualized dialogue of shared values in response to the explicit call of Nostra Aetate for the members of the various traditions to work with the Church in her sacramental mission to heal the divisions within the human family.
In fact, one could argue that this approach to interreligious dialogue may well be one expression of a wider papal agenda for which Benedict XVI appears to be laying the cornerstone in Deus Caritas Est. If embraced with sincerity and integrity, the approach to interreligious dialogue reflected in the curial restructuring could challenge all involved to bring to the fore of the dialogue such crucial questions as: What are the ways in which religion X helps foster a culture of caritas (or whatever the principal analogue might be in various traditions, for example “justice” for Muslims; “compassion” for Buddhists; etc.) in context Y? ; and What are the ways in which, in context Y, religion X is being used by the forces of materialism or political extremism?
An approach to interreligious dialogue that emphasizes the embeddedness of religion in culture may offer an opportunity for all of us to become excited about the many ways in which interreligious dialogue can challenge intercultural exchange to: (a) become more self-conscious of the fact that cultures can and should shape each other for the better; and (b) pay heed to the fact that the world’s religions and the Church can and must must play a key pedagogical and mystagogical role in this process.