Interfaith Dialogue, A Point

The young miss was running late this morning, so on the drive to school I heard NPR’s spot on Pope Benedict’s letter to an Italian conservative author casting doubt, supposedly, on interfaith dialogue. The NYT has a cryptic summary, and David Gibson already has a post up at dotCommonweal.

I wasn’t sure what this story was about. The pope continues to meet and make nice in public in synagogues and with Muslims. Is this just JPII drift? Is a pope now expected to play interfaith politician, masking his real views until he starts chatting up the Right?

Mr Gibson asks, “What is, or should be, the point of interfaith dialogue?”

This may be less a task of answering off the cuff from our feelings and/or fears, and more turning to Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II “Declaration On The Relation Of The Church To Non-Christian Religions.” Naturally, Neil and I have been all over it on this site.

Nostra Aetate 1 suggests the mysteries of life which we hold in common with all religious seekers (and some non-religious people) are good starting points: Who are human beings? What is our purpose? What is moral good and bad?

I think some of the Catholic Right, perhaps including the pope, have lost their way with Church teaching with regard to dialogue with non-Christians. (I hope we all realize we’re not framing this discussion as Catholics versus the rest of the world, right?) Nostra Aetate 2 sums the expectation of the world’s bishops back in the sixties, and I read nothing here that’s not even more applicable today:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her (daughters and) sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these (people).

Dialogue alone isn’t enough; the council bishops advocate collaboration with non-Christians, and they give good reasons for doing so, including a discussion on the basic problems of belief in what the pessimists among us would characterize an unbelieving world. What would collaboration consist of? Muslims have problems in Hindu India, too, don’t they? Muslims fled post-WWII India in great numbers if I recall. Part of the gospel witness of the Church would extend to assisting in charity and perhaps justice in places where we can join with other non-Christians to alleviate suffering and attempt to right wrongs. Collaboration: not just a party, but a way of getting things done more easily with more people working together.

Nostra Aetate 3 devotes itself exclusively to Christian-Muslim relations. It’s worth re-reading; heck, the whole document is the shortest of the Vatican II oeuvre. It would take less than an hour to read and reflect with some little depth. One bit of Muslim-Christian dialogue might center on the nature of orthodoxy and orthopraxis and how these play out in religious Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Christians have not always practiced what they preach; and our image has been tarnished when deeds mismatch the “doxy.” Things like that aren’t unknown in Islam or Judaism, but those faiths place greater emphasis on “right action” above “right belief.” How did that happen? Is it an accident of geography or culture that Europe, perhaps, is a continent of orthodoxy (or those who strive toward it or are defined by it) and that the Middle East is the center of orthopractic monotheism? If it is culture, what might that mean for the future of Muslims in Europe and Christians in places like Africa and Asia?

Even if Pope Benedict and his conservative sympathizers are heated up about Muslim inroads in Europe, it might do Christians well to ponder how close to our own compass of faith we stand. If orthopraxis gets a better credibility because Christian belief and actions sometimes diverge, there’s a lesson to be learned, right?

Bishops act with secrecy to hide sex predators, obstruct a fair hearing of victims, and isn’t this connected somehow to the tradition of secrecy of the curia dealing with theologians? This would seem to fall under the basic human mystery: we know the good, yet we continue to choose the wrong. Nobody is exempt from it, and the pope himself has been damaged politically, if not morally by it.

I would be curious to know what passes for dialogue in these papal visits. Does the Holy Father read the Koran? Does he re-read Nostra Aetate? Do curial officials and other representatives? Do Catholics join with other Christian leaders to present Christianity with a certain unity? If Catholic-Muslim dialogue is all about sharing kuchen and falafel over soft drinks, then sure, the pope is right to question what’s going on.

I’m still not sure if the pope’s letter is a real story with legs, or just a bit of gossip pried out at the end of a lazy weekend. I’m not heartened that Pope Benedict has shown little acumen on the interfaith front. If he’s genuinely concerned about the erosion of Christianity in Europe, he would do better to get serious about conciliar reforms as a central plank for a more serious course of evangelization. In other words, strengthen the faith by building it up, not by tearing down the “not-faith,” the common practice on the Right these days.

Europe’s Christian apathy is rooted in the tragedy of the continent from about the mid-19th century on, culminating in devastating wars up to about 1990. The Church may be relatively clean of serious wrongdoing, but the fact remains that it offered very little to Europeans looking for heroic witness and leadership. Playing it safe with the fascists was a middle road. Joseph Ratzinger’s own choices mirrored the Church: stand with martyrs like Kolbe or Jägerstätter or march with Nazis? He took a middle road. Safe, but not the substance of liturgical red, or even white.

Conceded, it would have taken immense, if not saintly, heroism for a teen to stand against the Nazi drift in Europe. But Anne Frank did it.

Even if Pope Benedict is unread or unconvinced on interfaith dialogue, the council witness alone should be enough to suggest he need not be the point man on this for the Church. Other prelates, if not lay people, are educated, formed, experienced, and willing to serve: this work, this ministry should be delegated to them with full papal endorsement and support.

Before my sister and brother Catholics attempt a public word on this, perhaps a consultation of what the Church actually teaches would be in order. Even if Europe were being overrun, our faith would insist upon it. In fact, that’s the problem of the Great War, WWII, and the Cold War: that Christians, Catholics included, were too eager to set aside core teachings of our faith in face of what admittedly, was a very stern moral test. Do you think Christianity would be in “trouble” if it had taken a fearless stand against fascism, or against the insanity of the Great War? Millions of European Christians, and how few martyrs gave witness.

Rome built its primacy and orthodoxy not necessarily on the culture of the mind, but on the saintly witness of its martyrs. Rome missed a twentieth century opportunity, and should we be surprised we’re tracking low on some important indicators? In the face of it, interfaith dialogue might well do us more good than we realize. Too bad the pope doesn’t seem to agree.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Church News, Ministry, Nostra Aetate. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Interfaith Dialogue, A Point

  1. As a convert from Judaism who writes (and publishes!) about issues having to do with faith and identity, I have a special interest in what appears to be recent slippage in efforts toward interfaith dialogue. Very distressing. Great positive and forward strides were made during the papacy of JPII.

    I document and discuss much of this in footnotes that accompany the text of my Catholic Passover seder, COME TO THE TABLE, which has been warmly received by parishes.

    In the years since I’ve written that and my previous book about Catholic home-based customs and traditions, I’ve noticed more interest in interfaith issues among laity — especially in their Jewish heritage. I believe this is due, in part, to the increase in interfaith marriages/families.

    Folks who attend my talks are hungry to know more about their Jewish roots and I’ve noticed a shift in awareness. Three years ago when, no joke, someone asked me if “Jews also believe in the Ten Commandments.” And this was at a conference of catechists!

    I’m currently finishing a manuscript about Judaism’s impact on Christian liturgical and sacramental practices. In my rarely humble opinion, understanding this can only enhance, not diminish, faith in Christ Jesus. Maybe we shouldn’t call it “interfaith dialogue” but “honoring our heritage”?

  2. Tom Heneghan says:

    It’s no surprise you weren’t sure what this story was about because the NYT version was not clear. For the view of Reuters religion reporters in Rome and Paris, see our religon blog FaithWorld at

  3. May 7, 2014
    Nostra Aetate does not contradict extra ecclesiam nulla salus : doctrinal opening for the SSPX

  4. May 14, 2014

    • Todd says:

      It’s generally considered that comment boxes are for the writer’s comments, and not for the transposed comments of others. That is one good reason why WordPress does not allow multiple links, as you have attempted recently. Cardinal Pell is certainly welcome to comment here. But I ask you, Mr Andrades, do you have a comment in your own words?

      I must also point out that there is a difference between someone declining to meet with you and someone who cannot answer two questions. You may feel you have power and a right to exercise control over another person, even a cardinal, and insist on a show up or step down meeting. But the truth is that nobody is obligated to engage you on any level.

      And if that were wrong, I suppose I could insist you email me a 500-word essay stating your case with a bit of elaboration. And if you didn’t, I could expose you as a poseur.

      And besides: this post is about dialogue, not salvation.

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