Dialogue Not Monologue: Benedict XVI & Religious Pluralism

Article excerpt

How is Benedict XVI, long a defender of orthodoxy and famous critic of the "dictatorship of relativism," likely to approach interreligious dialogue? Does he see religious pluralism and tolerance as little more than an enticement to indifferentism or as something potentially more spiritually and intellectually fruitful?

While in India this summer, I spent a good bit of time reading two books by Benedict: Many Religions--One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World and Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (both Ignatius Press). Both collect relatively short pieces from the past fifteen years that shed considerable light on the new pope's views.

Many Religions (1998) concentrates on Christian-Jewish relations, while Truth and Tolerance (2005) deals with the Christian encounter with Hinduism and Buddhism. I also brought along for rereading Benedict's essay "Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today" (1996), and two documents issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) when he was prefect: Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation (1989) and Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (2000). Near the end of my visit to India, I was perhaps providentially visited by some concerned Hindus who accused me--Catholic priest, Jesuit, aficionado of interreligious dialogue, and provocatively named "Francis Xavier"--of being the "pope's man," come to fulfill his plan to subvert and convert the subcontinent. Pondering my reading, their questions, and my Jesuit credentials, I had to ask myself, what would it mean to be sent as a missionary to India by the pope responsible for these writings? What follows is not so much a summation of Benedict's writings as a practical reflection written with Hindu concerns in mind too.

We should be grateful for these essays, which are eminently clear, incisive, and full of good sense. Benedict challenges us to rethink issues large and small, and offers insights we should remember if dialogue is to work well. Moreover, he does all this in a quiet way that invites further discernment.

Benedict takes religious diversity seriously; indeed, he sees it as central to Christian identity in the twenty-first century. Simplistic solutions to the challenges posed by interreligious dialogue are discouraged: the relativizing of doctrines, the disparaging or praising of positions we do not understand, the unending deferral of truth claims. But any competition for converts or resolution of disagreements merely by appeals to authority is also rejected, I think. Resorting to such strategies would not make the gospel message clear or advance understanding. Benedict's approach is perhaps best captured in the essay "The New Manna" (Many Religions), originally a homily. There Benedict rereads the encounter of Elijah and the four hundred priests of Baal, precisely to deflect us from reading Elijah's victory as a justification for the melodramatic slaughter of the priests. Rather, Benedict reminds us, God dwells in the still, small voice heard by Elijah only after he flees the scene. Benedict asserts that it is "when [Elijah] lets go of his own greatness, when he no longer believes that he himself is able to reestablish God's kingdom, that God's new paths begin to open up." In a similarly nuanced way, the pope has little to say about proselytizing and conversion, although he clearly does believe that encountering the truth may lead someone to change religious affiliation.

Ever the professor, Benedict insists on making proper distinctions: concepts must be understood in context, the development of ideas duly noted, and words used precisely and without casual elasticity. Making such distinctions enables us to speak meaningfully--even normatively--about the world and its religions. With that conviction in mind, we should enter dialogue as committed believers eager to confess our faith. …